For an hour on December 8, in Lucerna, Ondřej Havelka and his Melody Makers will whisk you back to the glory days of the big band era with “Pearls of Swing,” a concert of music from the 1930s. No wait! Before you hit the “back” button, have a look at this:
The video clip, about a modern office mouse swept back in time to a Chicago speakeasy, is what Ondřej Havelka and his band are all about.
They take you back to a time before the horrors of Hitler, of splitting atoms and marketplace bombs; a time when a police raid on your favorite speakeasy was the greatest of your worries; a time of elegance, when the world moved to a syncopated beat, when musicians wore tuxedos, when dance floors teemed with men and women communicating in the international language of swing.
At Havelka’s concerts, authenticity reigns, from period hairstyles, slicked back with gel, to period gestures picked up from films and original footage. Naturally, most of the instruments are also from the period.
“All of our saxophones and drums are from the 30s and their sound is exceptional and diametrically different from modern instruments. That’s why people are immediately reminded of the old films when they hear us,” Havelka told Expats.cz.
But the shows don’t stop at the sound. The entire performance is done in classic big band style.
“Those re-cast versions of the old swing and quazi jazz bands live off the names, for example of the Glenn Miller orchestra, but they have nothing in common with the original sound or distinctive interpretation,” Havelka said.
He gets his inspiration from his huge collection of old records, films and sometimes from the sources themselves. A masterful tap dancer, Havelka learned many authentic moves to the Charleston, Black Bottom and Shimmy from an 80-year-old doorman he met in a Karlovy Vary hotel, who had been a dance teacher in the 1920s.
His concerts are a mélange of songs by American and Czech composers such as his beloved Bing Crosby, or Jaroslav Ježek, the nearly blind , partially deaf son of a Žižkov shoemaker also known as the Czech Gershwin. His songs, such as Life is just a Coincidence (Život je jen náhoda) are still whistled on the street today – 80 years after they were written. Often, he poked fun at the powers that were. His David and Goliath, from 1937, for example, tells of how the Hebrew David easily overcame the bullying Philistine Goliath is a direct reference to Hitler’s anti-Jewish rampage.
It was a dangerous game. Ježek’s career, along with Czech dreams of a free state, ended in 1938, with the signing of the Munich Accords. He fled to New York, where he died in obscurity in 1942, at the age of 36.
In his thick, bottle rim glasses, longish slicked back hair and wide-cut suits, Havelka could be Ježek’s brother. His entire persona is a tribute to the composer, carrying on his legacy of gentle humor and light hearted elegance, so desperately lacking today.
“I think 40 years of communism took a great toll on the good taste of our nation and the time after the revolution was marked by the nouveau riche who brought their own form of bad taste,” he said. “The music itself calls for elegance, and of course an old, originally cut suit, leads your movements in a certain manner.”
His fascination with music from the inter war era started in 1976 when he joined the Prague Syncopated Orchestra run by another uncompromising authenticity advocate, Pavel Klikar. Together they made six albums before Havelka left to start his own band in 1995.
Since then, he and his Melody Makers have been selling out concert and dance halls and they show no signs of tiring.
“I’d say I like it more than ever, and that’s what comes across in our concerts,” he said.
Of course his purism doesn’t prevent him from appreciating other genres, like electroswing.
“It’s not a bad thing at all, especially if it’s done with good taste and humor,” he said. “I think it’s good that swing is spreading, even by different routes – as long as it’s spreading. Maybe electroswing fans will wonder where it comes from and turn on some authentic swing and find out it’s even more fun than that remix.”
Are you a fan of this Czech retro swing band?