He's too busy telling lurid stories about the exploits of the Russian mafia in communist Czechoslovakia, answering his cell phone in any one of four languages, and going out to flip the charred fish on his prized backyard grill. He intersperses his tall tales with occasional phrases on his trumpet, sounds filled with a haunting purity and nostalgia that transport the listener to a time and place distant in mind and memory.
In Bratislava, Slovakia, where Deczi was born in 1938, and throughout what is now the Czech Republic, you would be hard pressed to find a person on the street who does not know his name and his music; on his Czech tours, he performs for audiences of up to 1,000, including diplomats and presidents. A film biography of his life, titled Voľná noha, was released in the Czech Republic in 1990.
The trumpeter and prolific composer enjoys a different kind of celebrity in his East Haven neighborhood. He spends his days puttering around in an old white Mitsubishi with the bumper hanging off, catching snappers in the Long Island Sound, and recording in his home studio. He knows where to get the best pizza in town, who will cut you a deal on car repair, and who could be persuaded to give you a deal on waterfront property. With his fly-away hair, bare feet, and tan shoulders, he looks more like a beach bum than a jazz star. Still, Deczi is a consummate performer and storyteller, and slips in and out of recollections as his hard blue eyes focus and then unfocus on the world around him.
“I live[d] in communism, and listened [to] American music on short-wave radio,” he says, in a heavy accent. “At this time there was no records, nothing.” Among his heroes were hard bop trumpeters Blue Mitchell, Fats Navarro, and, especially, the virtuosic Clifford Brown, who he calls, simply, “a genius.”
Deczi worked his way up through the cafes and bars in Prague, and started writing his own music when he was about 20 years old. Throughout the 1960s, he was a part of vibraphonist Karel Valebny's SHQ Ensemble, a forward-thinking post-bop group that, no doubt, encouraged Deczi's propensity for the avant-garde. He started his own group, Jazz Cellula at the end of 1967 to perform his original compositions, inspired by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
Then, in 1970, Dezci got the education of his life when he began what would become a 15-year stint with the state-sponsored Czech Radio Big Band. “That was probably the best big band this time in Czechoslovakia,” he says. “For those 15 years, I got a [lot of] experience, because all those musicians were better [than me].” He started to gain some recognition as a soloist, and released his first solo album Sentimental Trumpet in 1971.
While creative expression and free speech were strictly controlled under the communist government, according to Deczi, the communists did not consider jazz to be too great a threat: “The communists don't bother [with] jazz, because they don't know what it is. There's no words. You can strike up the rock band, with the words, and make a protest. But doodly-doodly-doodly-doo, that's nothing strange,” though many the world over consider jazz to be a prime example of expressive freedom.
Deczi escaped from communist Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s on papers which were forged for him by an artist friend. He landed in Berlin, where, he said, “The Germans took care of me.” African-American trumpeter Carmell Jones, who gained his fame with Horace Silver's album A Song for My Father, was also living in Berlin at the time, and Deczi took the chance to study with him. Jones died in 1996, a date Deczi repeats each time he looks at the photo of Jones he has tacked to his studio wall.
On an invitation from Sonny Costanzo, who Deczi described as an “excellent trombone player, very special,” the trumpeter came to New York City for a visit in 1984. He was soon gigging regularly with Costanzo's big band in the New Haven area, and in 1985 moved permanently to the United States. Costanzo's death in 1993 meant the loss of a mentor, but Deczi found other collaborators.
Drawing on players from his gigs at small clubs in New York and a few musicians from New Haven's Cafe Nine session, Deczi founded Jazz Cellula New York in the mid-1990s, which has since released about a dozen albums of Deczi's original music on the Arta, Multisonic, and New York Sound labels. The ensemble currently features the talents of Eric Meridiano of France on piano, Nob Kinukawa of Japan on bass, and Deczi's son Vaico on drums. They have recently completed a Czech tour in which they performed for the president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, among other dignitaries, and plans are in the making for a live album to be released soon. Business back in the States, however, remains slow.
“It is problem,” Deczi says, “because there used to be much more work, more money here. Now it's very bad – for everybody. I am up and down. Everybody lives the jazz musician life.”
“Laco's story is one of both joy and sadness,” says friend, harmonica player, and former Republican State Party Chairman Chris DePino. “America has given him freedom of expression to create musically. In Czech, Laco is a household name, with millions of people who grew up with his music turning out in droves to see his concerts. Here, his experience has been that of an everyday, struggling musician, working to get the attention of a non-interested public.”
“He came from a place where you could go to jail for saying the word 'marketing,'” DePino adds.
Now, when Jazz Cellula tours the Czech Republic, Deczi is awarded with a homecoming fit for a jazz prince. “When we toured the Czech Republic, there was never a moment where the house wasn't packed, and the audience wasn't listening,” says DePino. “With those former communist bloc folks, it's like anything goes with them; they cherish their freedom more than you can imagine. They relish people exhibiting creativity in front of them, because that's something they were never able to do.”
Deczi is a man of many talents; he paints, writes film scores, and has published a book on jazz improvisation in Czech. By some estimates, he has written over 300 compositions, some of which were lost when he escaped from Slovakia. One of his dreams is to write for symphony orchestra. “I listen [to] all music,” he says. “I listen [to] African music, Arabian music,” which might be a clue to the source of the fascinating harmonic and chromatic scales he uses in his writing.
At the age of 70, he shows no signs of slowing down. Leapfrogging the stuck-in-the-mud disease that can afflict some jazz practitioners, Deczi seems eternally in touch with the youthful pulse of his audience. He explained, “We've got a [big] young audience. The old one is in the cemetery, rooted, like a flower in the ground.”
Perhaps it is that Deczi's compositions are so utterly danceable, full of interesting polyrhythms and exotic scales, completely infused with the sounds of his Eastern European roots, giving his music a distinctive voice that is a rarity in a music market saturated with sound bytes and often unfriendly to music which requires a longer attention span.
It is true that, had he had the opportunity to develop his music in America from the beginning of his career, he might have achieved more commercial recognition. Then again, a Laco Deczi who had not endured and trumped communism would not be Laco Deczi at all. It is the struggles he endured that molded him into the supreme individualist he is today. In a world full of copies, Deczi is undoubtedly unique. He disdains both free jazz and high society as parallel evils. He throws nothing away, preferring to repair it, a technique one can perhaps see in his compositional process as well.
The man is hopelessly in love with his music; he is constantly penning new tunes, and finds no greater joy than to sit uninterrupted in his studio, perfecting Jazz Cellula's most recent recording. Sitting and listening to their new live album, one gets the sense that Deczi's star is on the rise, and if this is any measure, listeners here will come to realize what an enormous talent they have living just next door.
I originally published this article in the October 2008 issue of New Haven Magazine.