On January 11, 1994 the US President Bill Clinton was recorded live at the Reduta Jazz Club in Prague, playing sax with Czech jazz players. The recording of this concert was later released by Czech Radio Broadcasting on the CD titled “Two Presidents’ Jam Session – Praha 94’ – with sponsorship by the Radegast brewery. The two presidents had developed a friendship (during their respective presidencies) and this is shown on the recording in Havel’s opening speech.
The distinguished audience in the club included (and all sitting at one table lined with beers) Madeline Albright, the Secretary of State of the United States, who was originally from Czechoslovakia. There was also Jiri Dienstbier, the Czech Foreign Minister, and there were the translators sitting beside both presidents. The rock musician Michael Kocab was there, and notably pushed to the far side was Vaclav Klaus, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, who is possibly (till this day) the most avid of jazz fans among anyone else at that table. The Prime Minister’s wife Livia, and Vaclav’s wife Olga were also at the table, besides the two presidents.
Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) was a special case, as a most unusual politician, to say the least. Previously an underground dissident and absurdist playwright, Havel was the first president of the newly democratic Czechoslovakia, after the November 1989 Velvet Revolution, which brought about the downfall of the Communist government. Shortly after becoming president, he personally invited rock musicians to perform in the country, most notably Frank Zappa (January 1990), Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground (April 1990), and the Rolling Stones (August 1990).
But it was jazz at the Reduta club on January 11, 1994: after a coed Czech southern gospel group sang a few spirituals, that seemed to sound more like Elvis, the Czech players were ready to go. On the stage, there was Stepan Markovic on tenor saxophone; Stanislav Macha on piano; Robert Balzar on acoustic bass; Pavel Zboril on drums; and Juraj Bartos, from Slovakia, on trumpet.
The band played a cheerful ceremonial introduction led by horns, a majestic presidential queue for the two presidents to take the stage. The ceremonial tune was a fanfare from the classical composer Bedrich Smetana’s opera, which then glided smoothly into a short refrain by Coltrane, so the rest of the band could join in.
Then Havel took the microphone.
“Mister President, my dear guests, I have something for your collection. It is Czech made product,” said Vaclav Havel. Some laughing in the room is heard with this last remark. Then there was an outburst of applause as Havel unveiled the gift. It was an Amati Kraslice tenor saxophone as a personal gift.
The President of the United States, Bill Clinton, strapped on the saxophone immediately, and after a quick huddle with tenor saxophonist Markovic, the group’s leader, Clinton as the guest of honor starts off with a slow and breezy melody of “Summertime” from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” Clinton has got the Coltrane swing in this one, and while he gives no indication of being a professional, he is
better than one expects. A few beers must have helped him; after Clinton, Konopasek steps in on baritone sax follows with a hearty and bit a
funkier solo, then Bartos follows (on trumpet) for an uplifting relay; finally, Markovic comes in on his tenor for his solo, before Clinton returns for a short finale but too quickly joined in unison by the entire group to a rousing conclusion and an even louder applause.
Clinton seems more reflective on the second song: “My Funny Valentine,” a lover-man’s anthem, so Clinton kicks it off with a more passionate plea. The group keeps this one slower than the first. It has a sultrier vibe, and on this one, a last-minute guest baritone saxophonist Jan Konopasek joins in. But Clinton stands out even if he can’t or if he doesn’t try to play like the titans. He is a disciple of Parker and Coltrane, but not a hard-and-fast-blower. Instead, he plays it as a seducer’s version, for close-hugging slow-dancers, though there are none of such dancers in the room; one can almost hear the whispers of Chet Baker in the room, or on Clinton’s shoulders; Clinton yearns as a player – a jazzman for one night only in Prague, caressing his new Amati.
All Photos including the featured image © Jiri Jjiru | All rights reserved.
Tony Ozuna is Art Director and senior lecturer for the School of Journalism, Media & Visual Arts at Anglo-American University in Prague.
Last modified: January 11, 2024