Monday, May 30, 2011

Interview: Karel Růžička jr.

It could be an exaggeration to call two men a dynasty, but they're not far off. Two Karel Růžičkas, one father and one son, one pianist and one saxophonist, two masters of their craft. Růžička sr. is often seen in Prague but it is harder to catch Růžička jr. on this side of the Atlantic. However he will be coming over this summer for a series of shows that are sure to be unmissable, and to get you in the mood here is an interview with the man himself.

PJ: How did your father influence you in becoming a professional musician?

KRjr: In one word - profoundly. I owe my father a huge debt of gratitude for mentoring me and letting me hang around while he was practising and composing. Most of the things I have picked up by simply observing and at times by asking some annoying questions. He also took me to all the jazz festivals and big band rehearsals as a boy. I heard Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon before I could read, let alone spell their names. He had Kind of Blue, and Ballads by Trane, and many other records I was able to check out early on. I remember my dad torturing me with "Tune Up" by Miles - I was about 11 years old and played a trumpet at the time. I had to read the melody down and start to figure out the II-VI-I progressions of the tune before I was able to go to to get on my bike to play football in the park with the boys. I was still not sure if I am interested in music that much. After the usual phases of wanting to be a pilot, doctor and even train engineer I have succumbed to the siren call of the muse. And finally all the work has paid off when I fell in love with the saxophone and I never looked back. Thanks dad!

PJ: Who were the Czech jazz musicians who influenced you?

KRjr: Again I must say my father for most part. And all the cats I worked and hung with over the years - Standa Mácha, Jiří Slavíček , Robert Balzar, Najponk, Franta Kop, Štěpán Markovič - really all of them... I am very sorry if I left somebody out.

PJ: Why did you decide to move to the USA?

KRjr: Mainly my boundless curiosity and desire to learn and expand my horizons. At the time I felt I had already "made it" in Prague and whenever I saw any US musicians they encouraged me come overseas. Wynton Marsalis once told me "the only problem you have as a player is that you're not in NYC."

PJ: What is the NYC scene like compared to the Prague scene?

KRjr: There is not really a fair comparison, mainly because NYC is so diverse culturally and all the musicians gravitate towards it and Prague (and most of Europe except London and Paris) is very monocultural. Jazz is like a cultural gumbo and so is NYC. One very positive thing about the Prague scene is that the media attention and the general enthusiasm of the audience is much larger than in the US, where jazz is more on the fringes. It's definitely much easier for a talented artist to get attention of the media in Prague. It all comes down to supply and demand - here in NYC there are thousands of musicians competing for airplay on WBGO, the only mainly jazz radio station in NYC metro area. But in terms of new media, such as the internet and the satellite radio the sky is the limit, the playing field is levelled, and the game has just started a few years ago.

PJ: Do you have any plans to return to CZ?

KRjr: I am returning every year! I love Prague, but I also need to be in NYC with all the movers and shakers at the vanguard of the music. So I am not planning to be based in Prague permanently in the immediate future. But I find it important to keep coming often, maintain a presence and to give back. In mid July I will be teaching a Czech Jazz Workshop in Prague and play a number of dates with my dad and with my fellow Czech expat pianist Pavel Wlosok.

PJ: What are your current plans and ambitions?

KRjr: I am writing a bunch of music I plan to record and release later this year. Also with organist Ondřej Pivec and drummer Russell Carter we started a new group called [CPR] Electrio with influences ranging from jazz, funk to gospel. My long term ambition is to keep nurturing the jazz audience. We need to educate the future generations about this great and unique art form. There tends to be an unnecessary rivalry among various sub genres of jazz. It's important to keep studying the past while incorporating the best of the present. I believe we need to bring jazz into the 21st century and bridge the gap, where there is any, between the generations. Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock come to mind as the true masters of jazz who realised this almost 50 years ago. The music industry has changed dramatically over the past decade. My goal is to make the best of it now and pay it forward, so our kids can enjoy this great music as much as we do.

PJ: What are your best memories of playing in Prague?

KRjr: Oh gosh! There are so many of them... I am sure some of them I don't even remember! Here are just a few; Playing with The Four with Standa Macha, Petr Dvorský and Jirka Slavíček was so much fun. The gig with Roy Hargrove in 1996, when I was invited to sub for Ron Blake. All the gigs with my dad of course. Playing funk gigs with J.A.R. and Monkey Business and rocking out with Michal Pavlíček , Mirek Chyška and Lucie Bílá. Sitting in with my mentor Bob Mintzer and his quartet last year. All I can say is I am so happy and grateful to have all these memories and I am ready to make many more starting this summer.

Many thanks to Karel for taking the time to answer our questions. Do go and visit his websites - and - and if you want to catch him in concert here's his current Euro gig diary (all are Karel sr. except the one with Pavel Wlosok):

15.7. - U maleho Glena (Fečo, Šulc)
22.7. - U maleho Glena with Pavel Wlosok
25.7.- Jazz Dock (Fečo, Dano Šoltys)
28.7. - La Boca (my dva duo) gastrojazz
30.7. - Tábor (Kořínek, Smažík)
3.8. - Augsburg (Stock, Bittner)
5.8. - Jazz Dock (Fečo, Šulc)

For our US-based readers you can also catch Karel at any of the following gigs:

June 8 - Sugar Bar in New York, NY [CPR] Electrio
June 24 - The Fillmore, Charlotte NC with Michael Franks
July 8-10 - Yoshi's, Oakland, CA with Michael Franks
August 12 - Aliante Casino, Las Vegas NV with Michael Franks
August 13 - Long Beach Jazz Festival, Long Beach CA with Michael Franks

And finally, some music. Here's a clip of Karel playing one of his own compositions with his dad on piano. Enjoy!

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