NEWS FEATURE: Czech composer brings jazz Mass to United States

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

PRAGUE, Czech Republic _ Growing up in communist Czechoslovakia, Karel Ruzicka would listen with rapt enthusiasm to American black gospel music, particularly the vaulting, robust singing of Mahalia Jackson.”It was the only possibility to listen to American music in the 1950s,”he recalled. The government made this exception to its quarantine of Western culture because of its professed solidarity with oppressed American blacks.

But the music gave Ruzicka different ideas than the regime intended, and it planted religious and musical seeds that are still bearing fruit in the veteran jazz pianist’s work.

On Wednesday (Oct. 28), Ruzicka will display a synthesis of those influences at Washington’s National Cathedral, where he will join a choir and 14-piece orchestra for a performance of his”Celebration Jazz Mass.”The work, to be sung by the Columbia Pro Cantare of Columbia, Md., weaves ancient Latin texts into modern pop and bebop rhythms.

Ruzicka, a fixture on the Czech jazz scene for decades, composed the Mass in 1991 at the suggestion of a friend who heard his instrumental piece,”Celebration Blues.””The idea was to write a big piece around these blues,”he said.”The deepest reason was my love for gospel music.” In addition to the traditional texts of the Mass _ such as the”Gloria,””Credo”and”Sanctus,”_ Ruzicka has included his”Celebration Blues,”an instrumental piece called”Contemplation,”and _ with Mahalia on his mind _ a gospel-like version of”Our Father”in English.”I knew it would have a soprano soloist,”he said.

The orchestration for the Mass includes jazz and pop riffs in a variety of tempos, while the choral styles range from contemporary to traditional. The hardest part of the composition, Ruzicka said, was reconciling the fluid jazz format with the strict rules of Latin pronunciation.”English is really ideal for this kind of music,”he noted.”English is more flexible.” The jazz Mass premiered as part of a Sunday morning service at a Prague church. While Ruzicka was nervous about parishioners’ reaction to the modern rhythms and boisterous horn solos,”They were happy. I had old ladies coming up to me afterward”to compliment the piece.

Ruzicka said he used to be a”rather informal Catholic”but has become more devout in recent years, following his wife’s example. He now attends Mass regularly and drew on his spiritual experiences in composing the Mass.

But cathedrals are not his usual venue. Ruzicka (pronounced ROO-zhitch-ka) spends more time in the basement jazz clubs of Prague, where he plays electronic keyboard and improvises with small ensembles on the hundreds of tunes he has written.

With a still youthful face framed by a gray shock of hair and short beard, Ruzicka avoids the histrionic squinting and swaying of his fellow musicians on stage. His calm and studious expression _ accented by professorial eyeglasses worn low on his nose _ contrasts with the blurring speed of his fingers scooting up and down the keys.

In addition to performing and recording jazz, Ruzicka, 58, teaches piano and composes chamber music.

During the communist regime, jazz musicians lived on the periphery of society, and Ruzicka was restricted in his opportunities to record and to perform abroad. He spent three weeks in jail for taking part in a protest in 1969.”The police beat us,”he said. Mindful of his livelihood,”I just protected my hands.” The Washington performance will take place on Czech Independence Day and will also include pieces by Czech composers Antonin Dvorak _ who also took his cues from traditional American music _ and Vlastislav Matousek. Ruzicka’s son _ jazz saxophonist Karel Ruzicka Jr., now based in New York City _ will join the orchestra.

With religious texts nowadays being set to rap, hip-hop and heavy metal, a jazz Mass may be more quaint than daring. But Ruzicka uses jazz not to shock, but because it’s his medium.”I think God understands every language,”he said.”If you speak Czech or English, he understands. So I think he can understand every kind of music.” The Washington performance will be only Ruzicka’s second visit to the land whose music so inspired him. He went to Maryland in May to perform the jazz Mass with Columbia Pro Cantare.”This year, my dreams become reality,”he said.


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