na zdraví: Prague, part 2. jazz in a basement

busker jazz band in old town prague square
busker jazz band in old town prague square

after having a taste of prague jazz, my appetite for it became insatiable.  i began wandering the streets looking for buskers and performers and would stop and listen for as long as i could before it was too obvious that i was just trying to enjoy a free show.  eventually i decided i should find a proper place and pay to go for an actual concert.

after some googling, i ultimately ended up deciding on a place located in the southern end of old-town.  i had wanted to avoid something that was too fancy and proper, as i don’t really have the appropriate attire. i also have a mind that good jazz, real jazz, should be an informal and dirty affair.  jazz was born out of poverty and emotion, not martinis and evening jackets.  additionally, my search had led me to understand that proper czech jazz had similar roots, being born and raised up in dirty, musty basements and halls before making its way into more popular circles.  so i wanted to try and have an experience of the former variety, and not the latter.

after surveying my options, i decided on “the blues sklep” (click for info) mainly because it was in a legitimate  old basement in old-town.  after looking at some of its reviews on trip advisor and google and seeing how some tourists had been unhappy with the place because of the cramped environment or having seats with obstructed views, or just general complaints about there being too much smoke in the place, i decided this was exactly what i wanted.  something perfectly imperfect.

located on a small side-street near a few semi-popular czech pubs and restaurants, the place wasn’t overly difficult to find but i did walk by it afew times due to its decidedly modest and somewhat uninviting appearance.   i entered into a dimly lit hallway where two other restaurants were also located, and i found a third doorway that was only marked by a small standing chalkboard announcing the performer and the door charge cost.  i entered the unmanned door and followed the walkway immediately right and down a steep flight of stairs.  i made it about halfway down the stairs before becoming suddenly paranoid that i was actually entering into a kitchen for one of the restaurants or, worse, someone’s house.  before i could turn around i saw a few feet shuffle past the end of the stairway and i reassured myself that this was definitely a nightclub. i finished my descent and entered into a very tiny and crowded room.  on the left was a small bar with a barkeep behind wearing an old fashioned hat and tie. he gave me an emotionless nod and i approached.  i spoke slowly, not knowing how much english was understood here, and asked to pay the cover charge and for a glass of whiskey with ice.  he obliged and handed me a glass of jameson and a glass of ice with tongs.  i had never been served in such a fashion so i smiled, thanked the man, and moved away from the bar and into the adjoining room to locate a seat before the concert.

i immediately understood what negative reviewers on trip advisor had been complaining about.  the room was a musty old brick basement with low ceilings and the room could probably accommodate no more than 40 people, and that was pushing it.  by my estimation, around 50% of the seats had an obstructed view due to the thick arched brick pillars that had been keeping the structure up for hundreds of years.  space was extremely cramped, there was no standing room allowed, and instead of having rows of seats for you to choose from, there were tables with chairs and then chairs that lined the walls.  the room was in an L shape, and the short hook to the left actually had no view at all (save for a tiny space between a half arch of pillar and wall which one – maybe two –  people could peek through), so all you could hope for if you were sitting over there was that the music would be really good, because you weren’t going to see anything at all.  the place was completely full of smoke, as everyone had a cigarette lit and there was no ventilation at all, so the cloud just sort of grew larger and larger as the night wore on.

i loved it.

i looked for a seat, i was definitely the only person flying solo tonight and i wasn’t exactly early, so most of the room was full already. all the seats with a clear view were completely filled, so i had to move into the short section of the “L” hook with no views.  there was a small table for 3 that was unoccupied which i sat down at somewhat reluctantly, but i noticed that if i positioned myself up against the wall and then leaned forward over the table and looked around the corner, i could see half of the stage. i dropped a couple cubes of ice into my whiskey and took a slow drag from the glass.  relax, i told myself.

i casually glanced around the room and tried to eavesdrop on conversations. there wasn’t a single interaction going on in english, only czech.  i wasn’t really bothered by this, but it did leave me feeling a little exposed, especially as the room became completely full and the only two remaining available seats were the ones at my table without a view.  three different people approached and asked me in czech if they could sit there, but after hearing my reply that the seats were available and accompanying apology for not speaking czech, they would give a puzzled look for a second before realizing i was a tourist and then they would retreat to the other room, content to watch from the bar and enjoy the view through the doorway.  i couldn’t blame them, the view was probably better back there and there weren’t likely to be any outsiders there either.

the band made their way through the middle of the narrow smoke filled room and crowded onto the stage.  a five piece sporting a piano, trumpet, tuba, an accordion, and a lead singer pulling double duty with a clarinet and a baritone saxophone, they struck up with a lively waltz tune.  it was decent but not great jazz, as you could tell that the lead guy playing 2 instruments and singing was the one carrying the group, and easily had the most talent.  the really unexpected moment, however was that after the first song with no vocals, i had settled into the expectation that this was just going to be an instrumental group with no singing.  that changed when the second song started in and johnny, the lead singer, belted out the opening lines in a huge, operatic, bass-heavy voice that filled the entire room and shocked the audience.  it made sense.  these countries in central europe love their opera and symphony, so a broken, worn down louis armstrong voice wasn’t something that would work out here in prague.   no, the male lead vocal was something that needed to soar commandingly, evoking strength and volume that could dominate over all the other instruments that people were used to hearing in live music.

but i hadn’t expected it, especially judging by the appearance of the guy.  johnny seemed to be a caricature of the archetypal 1930s jazz musician in europe.  sporting worn slacks with suspenders and a white collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he wore an old fashioned bowler cap and was very skinny. probably around 30 years old.  he sat at a chair in the middle of the small stage with the others crowded around him.  the entire concert he had a cigarette lit which was hanging from his lips while he sang into the microphone, or if he was committed to his sax or clarinet, he would hilariously tuck the filtered end of the cigarette into his ear, leaving the lit end to dangly out freely and making it look like he was smoking through his ear while he was playing.  he must have smoked an entire pack during that concert.  it was impressive, especially considering how dominant and strong his voice sounded.  i couldn’t help but wonder what he would sound like in 15 years.

  the only other person i could see from my narrow vantage point was the trumpet player.  he was definitely the baby of the band, as he was the most nicely dressed of the group and was a little chubby with a near bald shaved head. a couple times between songs they appeared to tease him a little (in czech) about his energetic youth and his baby face (again, i have no idea what they were saying, i can only guess based off their actions and the reactions of the crowd’s laughter).  at one point they stopped between songs to all do a shot together, i think to celebrate his recent birthday or something.  actually they stopped for shots a couple times.  and they had beers alongside them the whole show as well.
i would love to be able to describe the other members of the band, but I couldn’t see them, and they weren’t really as fun to watch anyway.  all the talking was done by these two into the single mic onstage, and by listening to the solos from everyone in the band, they were the only two who were really worth watching.  but the trumpet player was probably the funniest.  whenever he would get really excited about a part in the song but wasn’t blowing into his trumpet, he would start bouncing excitedly and snapping his fingers off-beat, both hands swaying up and down in opposite motion, as if he was running.  it never got old, and i laughed every time he did it, which was basically every song.  you could tell he was just one of those kids that loved life and loved music, and he wasn’t afraid to show it even if he looked goofy in the process.

after about an hour and a half, the band broke for an intermission.  they all made their way outside.  i’d say they were going for some fresh air, but i saw them smoking up there as well, so i guess they just wanted some different scenery behind the glow of that cigarette.  the crowd rose and lined up behind the small bar, ready for another drink and to stretch their limbs from their temporary imprisonment in the prison-like venue.  i evaluated if i wanted another drink and if i thought my lungs could make it another 90 minutes without coming down with emphysema, and decided that i was content with my experience already, so i decided to leave.  i quietly made my exit, up the stairs and down the alley into the night.  the brisk evening air tried its best to liberate the smoky stench from my clothes, but the odor clung tightly as i walked down the streets of prague.

as i walked, a feeling of pride in myself welled up.  even though i consider myself a bit of a lone wolf in life, i have always had a slight fear of doing things or going places by myself.  i’ve never had a problem being by myself in private settings, in fact i often need “me time” in order to recharge my batteries, but being out in the world and being seen alone has always been an insecurity of mine.  i’ve never known exactly why i feel this, but i think it is a mixture of a deep hatred of feeling out of place – and it is easy to feel out of place when alone – and that widely accepted notion that experiences are so much better when you have someone special to share them with. in the words of the controversially canonized chris mccandless, “happiness only real when shared.”  and so it had been in my life up until this trip.  in my 31 years on this amazing planet, i had repeatedly postponed or canceled trips or vacations to exotic places if whatever girlfriend i had at the time was unable to go, or if i was single and unable to convince any other friends to go with me.  i had been putting my entire life on hold, watching it slowly pass me by while i waited for the perfect woman to come into my life and finally grant me the ability to go do what i wanted to do.

afternoons on the avenue in prague
afternoons on the avenue in prague (has nothing to do with jazz)

i think we humans do this a lot, particularly americans.  maybe not with our romantic relationships, or our travel, like i do.  but i think we too often think that we are not great enough in our current capacity to go chase what we want, and so we defer happiness for a later day.  we think “if i can just improve in this one area, then i’ll be right where i need to be in order to get what i want” and so we wait, inactive, and we tell ourselves to be patient, hold out, be confident that what we seek will find us when both we and the universe or god or our boss has determined that now is the time.  sometimes we wait years.  sometimes we wait a lifetime.  and then one day we wake up and wonder what the hell happened to ourselves.  we’ve changed.  we’ve grown complacent. after getting passed over for that promotion multiple times or after repeatedly wimping out on asking out that person you like, after giving yourself excuses like “i’m still working on this area of my life,” we eventually create a safe haven for ourselves which shields us from being able to improve or grow.  and now, a perceived weakness has become a debilitating illness that we have no idea how to recover from.

i’ve never been a very good student, nor have i ever had very good focus when devoting myself to improving my knowledge through traditional study and learning.  i am one of those dumb fools who will ram my head into every part of the door til I find the knob that opens it, rather than study the door first to find out how it works.  or i’ll just give up and jump out the window.

but if there is one thing that i have learned thus far in my often turbulent life, it is this:  we never learn anything new in this life by doing what we already know how to do.  if we want to improve our lot in life, we must put ourselves into a position of uncomfortable growth, where we are challenged, pushed, and in over our heads, and that is when our light shines brightest.  our eyes are open, our brains absorbing, and our muscles strengthening, and even if the end result is something less than remarkable commercial success, your own personal success will have been realized and you will have something that you can walk away with.  to put it in simpler terms:  it’s better to go down swinging than to leave the bat on your shoulder.  It’s better to ask that girl out and fail miserably than to sit idly and watch as some other douchebag takes your girl out right in front of you.  it’s better to insist on interviewing and get turned down even if you’re underqualified.  because now you know.  not knowing is a paralyzer.  paralysis is death.  don’t live your life on the sidelines.  go. do. now.

then again, all i did was go to a smoky jazz bar in prague by myself and leave early. i guess it depends on how you look at it.

————-

i seem to have painted myself into a corner with today’s musical selection after writing a thousand words about jazz.  so to keep with the theme, i’ve picked out a soulful jazzy little number that came out this summer and landed itself on a small npr feature about the “top 10 songs we can’t stop listening to,” or something to that effect.  this song definitely isn’t the big czech jazz that i heard in prague and it’s not going to headline any jazz compilations, but if you happen to be one of those souls stuck in unpleasant weather out in the states somewhere right now, pop this one into the tape deck, light some candles and open a bottle of red, and snuggle up next to your significant other. this one will having you feeling romantic before you can finish your second sip.  enjoy…

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s