When American writer Kurt Vonnegut visited Czechoslovakia in May 1985, he performed an unusual act of horticultural diplomacy. Journeying to suburban Prague, he planned to plant a tree: a gesture of support for freewheeling arts association the Jazz Section, whose headquarters were based in a private house nearby.
Ivan Prokop, one of the Czech Republic’s leading rock and jazz photographers, remembers the visit as one of connection and solidarity. Founded in October 1971, the Jazz Section had been increasingly viewed as subversive by a hardline regime suspicious of independent culture. It was banned in 1984 — just months before Vonnegut’s visit — and its leading members would eventually go on trial three years later. The campaign against the section was one of the last great cultural witch-hunts of the Cold War, a period that had seen jazz and its followers emerge as the main agents of cultural activism, cultural exchange, and cultural subversion.
“I had read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s books and it was great to meet him personally in Prague,” says Prokop. “His support and the support of others like him was very important for us, they connected us with a West that was otherwise blocked.”
Formed as a branch of the Czechoslovak Musicians’ Union, the Jazz Section (or Jazzová Sekce in Czech) was created to promote jazz through concerts and newsletters. Under charismatic and ambitious cultural activist Karel Srp, the Section gradually developed wider cultural ambitions, organising the Prague Jazz Days festival, and publishing a wide range of music criticism, cultural theory and contemporary literature. Unlike openly dissident groups, the Jazz Section was a large membership organisation that sought to open peoples’ minds through the dissemination of culture — creating an open artistic space that existed quite separately from the political sphere.
The Section came into being just over two years after the Warsaw Pact had crushed the Prague Spring. New Czechoslovak leader Gustav Husák had begun to implement the policy of normalizáce or “normalisation”, in which critical voices were gradually removed from all levels of society. Cultural organisations like the Musicians’ Union were no exception. Groups such as the Writers’ Union had been at the forefront of the ideological ferment which had led to the Prague Spring, and Husák was profoundly suspicious of cultural institutions which might once more act as the incubators of opposition. Yet the Jazz Section initially seemed harmless enough, and those who joined it did not think of membership as a gesture of political rebellion.
“I joined the Jazz Section in 1976 right after military service,” Ivan Prokop explains. “I wanted to have more contact with culture and the people around it, and to take an active part in cultural events.” Membership was an excuse to develop his growing passion for photography. “I started to shoot musicians when I was at Jazz Section. It was easier to meet them, and at last I had a good camera.”
Very often, the reasons for joining were as much hormonal as cultural. International trade student and future diplomat Marcela Krčmářová had met a young trumpeter called Mihal at university. “He showed me his Jazz Section membership card, and I just wanted to be close to Mihal so I joined for that reason. I immediately volunteered for the job of filling out membership cards. There were about 3000 members at the beginning, probably 6000 by the end. We could have had many more, but just didn’t have the capacity to print and post to more people.”
The Section’s major project was the Prague Jazz Days or Pražské jazzové dny, a festival first held in March 1974, and subsequently once or twice a year. “The festival was founded in order to provide a platform for our local Czech groups,” Krčmářová explains, “including a lot of people who found it difficult to play live because they hadn’t passed official auditions.” (These auditions saw Czechoslovak bands play before a committee before being registered as professional musicians — giving the authorities the opportunity to weed out acts that were considered unsuitable or subversive). “The festival covered all styles and took on board many young groups who were unproven,” says Krčmářová.
Jazz Section activists would often dedicate their entire holiday time to these festivals. “We didn’t sleep,” says Krčmářová. “We spent the days organising the concerts, and the nights writing the newsletter for the next day. On one occasion, I ended up baking bread so the participants could be fed.”
The scope of the Jazz Days later widened to include jazz rock and experimental music. But by the time the fifth edition was held in April 1977, it was also attracting the attention of the authorities. Concerts were raided by the police on the pretext of looking for “hippies”. It was the era of Charter 77: a dissident, Czechoslovak human rights movement that had taken root following the state’s imprisonment of underground musicians in 1976. The group solidified official fears of a dissident underground nurtured by alternative music and lifestyles.
“I never considered what we were doing as underground, we were just promoting the music we liked,” says Krčmářová. “Karel Srp told us that it was not a good idea to be in contact with Charter 77 because it would give the authorities an excuse to stop us from doing what we wanted to do.”
In 1978, the authorities tried to dilute the influence of the Jazz Section by regionalising it, placing its members under local branches of the Musicians’ Union. Karel Srp took the bold step of calling a general meeting of the Section’s members to oppose the move. He even informed the western press of their deliberations. The move had the desired effect: Czechoslovak officials backed off, at least for the time being.
But the government was increasingly concerned that the Jazz Section was, despite its official status as a branch of the Musicians’ Union, becoming to independent: an unsupervised organisation that was not subject to any controlling influences from party or state.
In 1979, they redoubled their efforts to breakthrough up the Section into regional branches, but once again fell short. Later, the Prague cultural inspectorate withdrew permission for the 10th Jazz Days just as concert-goers were beginning to assemble outside the hall. Attempts to mount an 11th festival in March 1982 were stifled by the Ministry of Culture.
“I never considered what we were doing as underground, we were just promoting the music we liked”
By this time, the Section’s publishing activities had grown considerably in ambition. The Section’s newsletter had become a 100-page magazine; they also published special-edition booklets on contemporary art or cult literature. But by distributing work to members by post, rather than in shops, the Section was circumventing the usual socialist censorship. And when the Section’s decided in 1982 to publish the novel I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal, a writer considered persona non grata by Czechoslovakia’s communist leaders, they finally decided that the Section had finally gone too far.
In 1984, the Musicians’ Union was officially disbanded, a move taken deliberately in order to place the Jazz Section outside the law. The Section carried on its publishing activities regardless — although this now required a good deal of subterfuge, with friends offering printing services, volunteers storing books in their basements, and couriers delivering copies by hand to members who complained that theirs had mysteriously gone missing in the post. “The unofficial nature of the publications made things difficult for printing houses,” Krčmářová explains, “and they frequently had to drop out. But everything was based on friendship and there was always someone who was willing to help.”
Eventually, on 2 September 1986, Karel Srp and other leading Jazz Section members, including Vladimir Kouřil, Joska Skalnik, Čestomir Huňát, Tomáš Křivánek and Miloš Drda, (as well as Vlastimir Drda, owner of the house where the team had their HQ) were taken into custody.
The Section were charged as an illegal publishing business that had deprived the state of tax, portraying them as economic saboteurs rather than cultural activists. But the arrests were accompanied by a clamp-down on music in general: concerts were called off, and the process of licensing musicians was tightened up.
Anyone who stored copies of the Section’s publications could be accused of taking part in their illegal publishing operations. Books and magazines had to be constantly moved around, or hidden in “safe” locations. “My husband and his twin brother (Vlastimil and Eduard Krčmář) were taken in for questioning one week afterwards and released after 30 hours” says Krčmářová. “I had to clear the house of incriminating materials.”
Five Section leaders were put on trial in March 1987 for “unauthorised commercial activities”. Karel Srp was sentenced to 16 months prison; Vladimir Kouřil got 10. The other three (Huňát, Křivánek and Skalnik) were given suspended sentences. The verdicts seemed absurd at a time when Czechoslovakia’s major international ally, the USSR, was embarking on policies that seemed to promise glasnost, or openness, and a loosening of social and cultural controls. Srp was released in January 1988, although the Czechoslovak regime continued to show scant signs of any Glasnost-inspired liberalisation. Indeed, the imprisonment of Charter 77 founder Vaclav Havel (then serving his fourth jail term) in January 1989 seemed to demonstrate the regime’s continuing hardline attitude. This situation prevailed right up until the autumn of 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall and student demonstrations in Prague precipitated the regime’s sudden disintegration.
Following the revolutions of 1989, the Jazz Section could have re-emerged — as a cultural organisation or a concert booking agency — but the spirit to carry on was no longer there.
Instead, there was a final shock in store. When the organisation’s long-time leader Karel Srp stood as a candidate for the Czech senate in 1999, it was revealed that he had been an informer for the state security services, or StB. He worked under the code-name Hudebník — “The Musician”.
“I was at home reading the newspapers, and there was an article by Srp saying that the Jazz Section had to cooperate with the StB, otherwise we couldn’t have carried on doing what we were doing,” Marcela Krčmářová remembers. “I felt incredibly let down.”
“Karel Srp was a respected leader for many years,” says Ivan Prokop. “We trusted him infinitely. After his return from prison, we began to have some doubts. At the beginning of the 90’s we broke with him completely. But his credit for Jazz Section up until 1985 is indisputable. He taught me a lot and I valued him a lot, making my later disappointment all the greater. That’s life. “
Eager to preserve the Jazz Section’s heritage, veteran members have since set up a web archive. Meanwhile, the group’s ethos lives on in Unijazz, a membership club and festival organiser whose monthly magazine covers the broad range of cultural issues that once appeared in the Section’s own bulletins. “Unijazz is in many ways the Jazz Section’s inheritor,” Marcela Krčmářová concludes. “It organises concerts, film projections and publishing. It still meets once a month — and a lot of the old crew still go.”