[JPL] How jazz pierced the Iron Curtain

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Sat Dec 24 12:36:27 EST 2011

VACLAV Havel struck me as the most unlikely of revolutionaries when we 
first met in the smoky fug of his favourite cafe overlooking Prague's 
Vltava River. His nervousness had something to do with the secret police 
eyeing us shiftily from their table by the window.

But he was also concerned that his demands for the truth, to lift the 
Stalinist miasma that had wearily settled over Czechoslovakia, might 
eventually challenge the democratic socialism in which he believed. So 
at all our meetings he would chain-smoke and agonise, but not even the 
threat of a return to prison (he had already served four years) could 
weaken his resolve to fight for freedom of thought and speech.

I was in Prague to arrange support for political prisoners. Havel's own 
crime had been to draw up Charter 77, a demand for human rights. It was 
1986, by which time the country's rigid but corrupt communism had 
produced an official rate of exchange so absurdly at variance with 
reality that US dollars were accepted at 30 times their official value 
everywhere in the city. But when I tendered them to pay for our meal, 
Havel stopped me and explained (I kick myself for not realising) that he 
would immediately be rearrested by the watching police as an accomplice 
in black marketeering. "This is the first rule of being a dissident," he 
instructed me. "You must scrupulously obey the law."

It was the first of many Kafkaesque ironies to which I was introduced by 
this unassuming philosopher-playwright. I visited Prague regularly in 
1986-88 on behalf of the Jan Hus Society, a rainbow coalition of Western 
writers (ranging from Tom Stoppard to Harold Pinter), which organised 
funding and public support for the defence of Czech dissidents. Havel 
was courageously prepared to be my mentor, explaining to me which cases 
were important, which lawyers could be trusted to handle them, and which 
families most needed financial support. By this time the authorities 
were playing a cat-and-mouse game with him. His celebrity in the West 
gave him a certain protection, but he was always threatened with return 
to prison if his activities became too embarrassing.

Gustav Husak's Stalinist government was doing a good job of embarrassing 
itself. It had just passed a criminal law against possessing a copy of 
The Frank Zappa Songbook, and an 18-year-old youth had already been sent 
to prison. "He was a dissident," Havel told me sorrowfully, "before he 
was a man." The government's concern about Zappa dated from 1976, when 
members of Plastic People of the Universe - a rock band that took its 
name from the songbook - were jailed in the first assault on 
"alternative" culture. Now it had arrested the entire executive of the 
Czech Jazz Society, who had published a three-volume Encyclopedia of 
Rock with a long entry on Zappa. It was to assist their defence that I 
had first come to Prague to meet Havel, who explained how important the 
case was to his strategy of "velvet revolution", of confronting and 
confounding communism with its own phoney commitments to human rights.

The genius of Charter 77 had been to argue that the Czech government's 
ratification of the UN's covenant on civil and political rights had 
imported these rights into its municipal law, pursuant to promises made 
by the Soviets in the 1975 Helsinki agreement. This was something of a 
fudge (Helsinki was a rudimentary handshake on East-West co-operation, 
specifically made non-binding so the US could sign) but it called the 
Soviet bluff: human rights appeals by dissidents could gather momentum 
by taking these international agreements at their face value, however 
much the governments that signed them lacked intention of honouring them.

So the Jazz Society was briefly permitted to flourish, attracting more 
than 100,000 young people to its Rock on the Left Wing concerts, its 
tree plantings in honour of John Lennon and its seminars with Green 
parties from Western Europe. Havel's involvement with the Jazz Society 
gave him the support base that came out on the streets to propel him to 
the presidency in 1989. But in 1986 its existence, by clinging to its 
supposed rights under Helsinki and through its UNESCO affiliation, had 
infuriated the government.

Its leading members were sacked from their jobs and then, when they 
continued to organise concerts, arrested on charges of "unlicensed 
trading". The government pretended to the world that this was simply a 
fraud case ("A crime in your country too," Czech diplomats would tell 
Western counterparts) but this was propaganda: the Jazz Society was a 
strictly non-profit enterprise.

Havel identified this case as a crucial test for socialist legality and 
took me along to the trial of its chairman, Karel Srp. This was the time 
of Soviet-style "telephone justice" when the trial itself was a sham: 
the verdict (and more importantly the sentence) was delivered in a 
telephone call from the party boss to the judge on the night before the 

There had been sufficient fuss made about the case in the West for Srp 
to be given a lenient sentence - two years' imprisonment - and when we 
emerged on the steps of the court for Havel to announce the result to 
several hundred waiting supporters, they struck up a ragged chorus of We 
Shall Overcome. "You can always tell who are the secret police on these 
occasions," explained Havel with a tight grin. "They are the ones who 
know all the words."

I have never much liked jazz - you keep thinking it will turn into a 
tune, and it doesn't. But it had been banned by Stalin and condemned as 
"decadent" by the Nazis. What, I asked Havel, is its subversive secret? 
He gave his trademark grin and invited me to an "official" jazz concert 
organised by the government after it disbanded the Jazz Society, in 
order to show it was not afraid of music. We sat through hours of 
sclerotic Russian "big bands" (old men in suits playing Glenn Miller) 
until after midnight, when thousands of young people turned up in the 
cavernous Lucerna Theatre to hear Herbie Hancock and Mike Westbrook, and 
to laugh about the stupidity of the police. "You see now why 
totalitarians distrust jazz," said Havel. "Because it's music you can 
talk under."

It was to the Lucerna - ironically once owned by Havel's wealthy family 
- that his supporters flocked two years later to listen to his hoarse, 
halting but determined speeches about the need for a "socialist 
legality" that could respect human rights and allow criticism of the 
state. "We must fight with our only weapons - words," he declared, and 
the words of the crowd, "Havel to the castle", propelled him to the 
presidency as the dishonest, geriatric regime finally faced up to the 
truth and withered away. One of Havel's first actions as president was 
to invite Zappa to make an official visit.

Back in Britain, we hosted Havel at the Institute of Contemporary Arts 
on his first presidential trip abroad. After his lecture, some idiot 
from Marxism Today asked him accusingly why he wasted so much 
presidential time with an American rock singer. Havel seemed lost for 
words, but then politeness got the better of him. "Because ... well, 
because he seemed a very nice man."

It would have taken too long to explain the symbolism, too many 
imperfect words to conjure up for some pampered English Marxist what it 
was like to live under the constant threat of losing one's liberty as 
punishment for reading another's lyric.

Havel's presidency was plagued by smoking-related illnesses and the 
difficulties of keeping any socialist faith at all in a free market 
free-for-all. I went back to Prague to lecture on free speech but 
discovered that what Czechs needed most was guidance in contract law and 
in conveyancing of private property. Havel, in and out of power over the 
next two decades, remained an inspiration. His speech to the Canadian 
parliament during NATO's bombing of Kosovo, which he justified "out of 
respect for a law that ranks higher than the law which protects the 
sovereignty of states", was an influential contribution to the evolving 
principle of humanitarian intervention.

Havel was the most humble man I have worked with - and probably the most 
influential. He stands with Andrei Sakharov at the head of the pantheon 
of people prepared to sacrifice their liberty so others could enjoy 
liberty as a right. Politically, he achieved his aim of revising the map 
of middle Europe so disastrously drawn at Yalta. Philosophically, he 
never quite squared the circle over which he agonised in that cafe by 
the Vltava - how to reconcile his belief in both socialism and freedom.

Geoffrey Robertson QC is the author of The Justice Game and Crimes 
Against Humanity.

Dr. Jazz
Dr. Jazz Operations
24270 Eastwood
Oak Park, MI  48237
(248) 542-7888
SKYPE:  drjazz99

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