Lubomír Dorůžka (1924-2013)

23. 6. 2014 | Rubriky: Articles,Lives

Lubomír Dorůžka (1924-2013)

[by Ken Hunt, London] One of Europe’s foremost jazz critics, of a status comparable to Nat Henhoff in the States, died on 16 December 2013 in Prague. Lubomír Dorůžka rose to become the preeminent Czech-language jazz historian in Czechoslovakia and, after the separation in 1993, the Czech Republic. He was a Czech musicologist, music historian and critic (not just jazz), author, literary translator (including, naturally, the Jazz Age writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, amongst others) and much more. Lubo Dorůžka had the ill-starred fortune to be a jazz aficionado under two totalitarian regimes, during periods when to call jazz dangerous was an understatement.

He was born on 18 March 1924 in what was then Czechoslovakia’s capital, Prague. Growing up, he bore witness to Czechoslovakia – after 1933 the last remaining parliamentary democracy in central and eastern Europe – pressured into ceding territory. That began so fatefully with Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in late 1938.

Anyone caught listening to swing jazz during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia or France could expect imprisonment and possible internment or death in concentration camps. Loving jazz and the freedoms it represented was dangerous. Mike Zwerin (1930-2010), in his 1985 book La Tristesse de Saint Louis: Swing Under the Nazis (‘The Sadness of Saint Louis’), calls this music “a metaphor for freedom”. The Nazis labelled it more robustly “degenerate music”.

The Monica Ladurner film Schlurf – Im Swing gegen den Gleichschritt (‘Schlurf – With or in the Swing against the Goosestep’) (Austria, 2007) documents the American swing jazz-loving, underground youth movements in their German, Austrian, French and Czechoslovakian guises in various languages. The derogatory German-language idiom Schlurf, though now it sounds faintly quaintly antique to German ears, came from schlurfen – ‘to shuffle’. The word communicated a world of wastrels, sluts (more correctly Schlurfkatzen) and ne’er-do-wells loitering in the shadows or an alleyway. It’s rather like a precursor of punk. Its subtext said jazz, inferiority and degeneracy. In Germany another movement was the Swing-Jugend (‘Swing youth’). They were fond of substituting ‘Sieg Heil!’ with ‘Swing Heil!’ in the right circumstances. In occupied Czechoslovakia their equivalent movement was the Potápky, literally, great crested grebes. They ducked and dived like those water fowl. And, of course, grebes – great or little – have the habit of resurfacing somewhere other than anticipated.

At a screening of Schlurf. at the Kino Světozor in Prague, where it was running as part of the MOFFOM (short for Music on Film Film on Music) festival in 2009, something unexpected happened. Partway through, Lubo was there on screen talking about the movement and those times. It took a while to click that he was speaking in German – in cultivated, Czech-inflected German – because we had never talked in German. Foolishly, it had never occurred to me that he spoke the language. In fact certainly during occupation part of his schooling had been through the occupier’s language. At the time I was based in Lubo and his wife Aša’s Prague apartment while they were away travelling. I was surrounded by framed photographs (like him with Louis Armstrong), his book collection, memorabilia and the like. It seemed unreal. Between 1944 and 1945 he began writing about swing for a samizdat publication. In the screening I wept in the darkness for Lubo and my father, Leslie Hunt, who was a swing jazz musician, twelve years Lubo’s senior, who throughout the War had been a full-time bandsman with the Royal Air Force, playing the very music that the Nazis hounded.

During the Communist era Lubo became the Czechoslovakia correspondent for major US magazine titles. Jazz was American and the authorities kept an eye on it and anyone peddling it. It meant that he was receiving all manner of US releases for review, including ESP LPs like the Fugs. Czechoslovakia’s earlier official party line, like other Iron Curtain countries, had been that jazz, like blues, was the voice of social struggle, the voice of the oppressed Negro in the United States and so on. In this ghetto jazz was safe and containable. As its popularity grew and its counter-cultural possibilities made themselves apparent, the Czechoslovakian authorities grew wary.

Lubo’s Panoráma Jazzu (‘Panorama of Jazz’) (1990), published during the time of political climate change, covers the standard jazz history and its Czechoslovakian complexion. It includes, say, Jaroslav Ježek and Karel Velebný, but extends to musicians such as Anthony Braxton and David Murray as well as the jazz released on Eastern bloc labels such as Amiga, Melodiya, Muza and Supraphon. His 2002 book Český jazz mezi tanky a klíči (‘Czech jazz between tanks and keys’) (2002) – though klíči has parallel translation possibilities such as ‘musical keys’ and ‘passports’ – is another of his books on the nation’s jazz history. “Between tanks and keys”, his son clarified, refers to the exact time interval between the Soviet tanks in 1968, and the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when crowds at Wenceslas Square rattled their keys as a symbol of resistance.

He and his wife (who died four days after him) came to love Cornwall on the Atlantic tip of England in the period when travel was possible. Into their 70s they would travel overland by coach from Prague to Victoria Coach Station and then on to Cornwall. The freedom to travel was something they prized highly, having spent chunks of their lives when such possibilities were restricted or impossible.

On the day I flew back to London after MOFFOM 2009, I was attending to last-minute matters in the city. The weather turned. Walking to the Metro station at the top of Wenceslas Square, the skies opened up. I had no coat or umbrella. The rain bucketed down and forced me to rush for the shelter of a pub on Krakovská, at the top end of the square but still too far from the entrance to the station to do the dash in the deluge. Waiting out the rain, I started writing a song lyric for the Czech violinist-vocalist Iva Bittová. The film Schlurf and more specifically Lubo’s reminiscing shot with the backdrop of the Kino Laterna got the creative juices going. (Kino Laterna was a wordplay on Kino Lucerna on nearby Vodičkova which had been a backdrop in Schlurf and laterna magika or ‘magic lantern’ theatre.) Two beers later the first draft was done. The rain let up and it was possible, as my father used to say, to dance between the raindrops and head to Muzeum station. Beforehand though, I took stock of where I had been. In the downpour I had spied an inn sign and had simply ducked in.

The pub’s name was U Housliček! I knew enough broken Czech to know that, even if it had any other idiomatic meaning, literally housliček meant ‘little violin’. That seemed auspicious enough for a ‘don’t believe in miracles: rely on them’ moment. Scant hours later I touched down at London Heathrow with a fair-to-finished lyric ready for keying, for sleeping on and then sending off. Titled Kino Laterna, it became part of the repertoire of Checkpoint KBK, Bittová’s US-based trio with clarinettist David Krakauer and accordionist Merima Ključo.

In late May 2013 Lubo, his music critic and broadcaster son, Petr (this website’s Czech co-host) and I attended a concert at Libeňská synagoga in the Libeň district of Prague 8. It was a concert featuring Iva Bittová, his guitarist grandson David Dorůžka, the pianist Aneta Majerová (David’s partner) and the cellist Peter Nouzovský. Lubomír was treated like a dignitary, being addressed by all but family and close friends as Pán Dorůžka where, by tone and reverence, Pán functions more on the Lord side of Mister. I felt myself privileged that for more than 20 years he and I had been Lubo and Ken.

Lubomír Dorůžka may have been an unknown and unsung hero beyond Czech borders but he was one of the greatest champions of jazz of our era. No, back up: he was his country’s and his countries’ Nat Hentoff with an added danger factor.

A shorter version of this tribute was published on Jazzwise‘s website.

The image of three generations of Dorůžkas from Libeňská synagoga on 31 May 2013 is © Ken Hunt/Swing 51 archives

More images, including Lubo and Satchmo, are at

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