Ron Carter once said of Czech bassist George (Jiří) Mraz, who passed away on 16 September 2021 at the age of 77: “Wonderfully chosen notes + great intonation + beautiful sound + a nice guy = George Mraz.” And Richie Beirach: “George always plays the exact right note you want to hear, and he plays the bass as though he invented it.” In this tribute, Czech pianist Emil Viklický remembers a good friend and colleague:
Back in 2007, George Mraz and I were sitting in the hotel bar after a concert in Brno. George was in a talkative mood, so we ordered some white wine and spoke about the past and present.
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All of a sudden, we were the last two customers in the top floor hotel bar, overlooking the serene roofs of central Brno, the church tower of St. Jacob’s illuminated in the distance. It was softly raining and very quiet. The bartender wanted to leave, so we cajoled and overpaid him to bring us one more bottle of good Moravian Pinot Gris. After the bartender left, we talked on.
George told me the story about his father who died in an accident in August 1968, shortly after the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. A Russian tank had been rolling down a street, and had not realised that streetcars have the right of way. The tank rammed into a streetcar that George’s father had been standing in, and the axial gun from the tank went through the window and hit George’s father in the head. Later, from the police report George learned that half a minute before the impact, his father had offered his seat to an old lady, who entered the vehicle at the previous station. She survived the scene without any injury. Because the incident involved a Russian, the Czech police were forbidden from pursuing the case. This incident significantly added to George’s decision to leave the country.
George then asked me about my departure from the world of mathematics. I told him the story, and he was quite amused. He then went on to talk of his grandfather who had been a maths teacher in Moravian secondary schools (either in Holešov and/or Kroměříž). While his grandfather was already retired, every now and then he still gave maths lessons to some students in order to prepare them for university entrance exams.
Based on his grandfather living to a ripe old age, I had strongly believed that George would overcome any and all health troubles and live a good long life. I had seen him bounce back from broken bones and illnesses with a twinkle in his eye. So when I heard the sad news of his passing while sitting in a shabby, “cozy” hotel in Pilsen, the news hit me hard. Combined with the constant rolling of trains from the nearby station, that night I did not sleep a wink.
George left Czechoslovakia sometime in 1968. First to Germany, and then later to USA. At Berklee College in Boston, the pianist Ray Santisi gave him a regular gig on the very first day of his arrival. Soon after, George moved to NYC.
We had not met in person until 1975. Before then, I had been studying mathematics in Olomouc. In 1971 I had finished my 5 year study and was ready to continue towards my doctorate degree when the dean of faculty told me: “I don’t give a damn about your symmetrical polynomials. If you want a doctorate you will devote yourself to Marxism.” That was how I took my papers, moved to Prague, and became a jazz pianist.
From September 1974 I started to play with Karel Velebny SHQ Quartet, a top Czech jazz group, and the same group George had played with before leaving the country. In spring 1975, SHQ happened to play at the Belgrade Jazz festival in Yugoslavia. Because of a mishap, we were not able to bring our contrabass instrument with us, and we were in need of borrowing one. As luck would have it, the group right after our time slot was the Stan Getz quartet with George Mraz, Albert Dailey and Billy Hart. George was then kind enough to lend his instrument to František Uhliř. I remember the night vividly because Albert Dailey complimented my playing. But Stan Getz did not have an easy night. He kept looking at his watch, and in the middle of the show (on a slow bossa, A.C.Jobim “O Grande Amore”) he stopped the band short during Albert’s piano solo and ordered them to leave. The audience clapped their hands for 10 minutes, but Stan did not play an encore, no way. There must have been some disagreement with the organisers.
Luckily, the SHQ was staying in the same hotel as Stan’s quartet, so after the show we had a chance to speak with George. František and I had heard much about this man, and we eagerly listened as he told us many amusing stories – everything ranging from playing with Oscar Peterson in Germany to meeting Queen Elizabeth with the Stan Getz quartet in London. After a while, Karel Velebny pulled out about 20 postcards and asked George to pass them to Stan to autograph for Czech jazz lovers. George immediately started laughing: “Are you serious? Ask Stan tonight?” Then George had an idea. He said, “OK, give me these postcards. And a pencil please.”
Pencil in hand, George took each card one by one, slowly and diligently writing a signature: Stan Getz. And then he said with a mischevious smile: “How many people in this world will be able to say that they have postcards with a signature by Stan Getz written by me?“
George had been approached many times about a memoir. Anyone could see that he was a man of many stories, after all. The Cheltenham producer of the Moravian Gems CD, Paul Vlcek, kept encouraging George to put his life to pen. But as far as I know, George kept saying no, that these stories were just for us musicians.
On Christmas 1999, George visited VIOLA theatre in Prague to see my trio with vocalist and dulcimer player Zuzana Lapčíková. After the show he asked me if we could record some of my Moravian folk arrangements for Milestone/Fantasy Records. At first I asked him how many beers he had had that night, but I could tell from the look in his eyes that he was (damn) serious. George and I recorded Morava CD, Milestone MCD 9309-2 in NYC in the summer of 2000 with Billy Hart and Zuzana. After running a few tracks, legendary producer Todd Barkan said, “Now I finally know from where George’s melodic sense comes from.” Todd called George Mraz respectfully and affectionately “Sir Bouncealot” for his supreme musicality, taste, heartfelt lyricism and swing. On top of that, George had an impeccable sense of musical empathy; he could pick up and enhance your ideas before you even knew where you wanted to go.
Mr. BOUNCE aka “bad Czech”, one of the greatest jazz bassists of all time, will be missed by many.
LINKS: George Mraz website