Vlasta Pruchova: Jazz singer with soul, Jan Hammer's red-hot mama swings at 74
By Alan Levy
My younger daughter, Erika, underwent brain surgery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on the second Wednesday of the new year. My wife and Erika's boyfriend were at her bedside. I was in Prague, with a bag packed in case there was bad news. At a distance of 4,338 miles (6,980 kilometers) as that Wednesday wore on, I was climbing the wall of my office. Even knowing that stateside operations aren't done at the crack of dawn the way they are here, by nightfall I could barely focus on my work, my life, everyday reality. Then, at 8:30 p.m. (2:30 p.m. Pitts-burgh time), the e-mail came:
"Erika underwent her vascular-decompression surgery this morning from 9:30-12:30, and is now asleep in the recovery room. The surgeons gave us an excellent report, immediately post-op ..."
My friend Marcela was already on her way over. She'd promised to take me night-clubbing if I had anything to celebrate, though she'd understand if I had to make emergency travel arrangements instead. When she arrived, she rejoiced with me and said, "You're going to like where we're going. It starts at 9."
All heart at AghaRTA
In the AghaRTA Jazz Centrum just off Wenceslas Square, while we were paying our 100 Kc ($3) admission in darkness, the show had just begun, and I was still a little woozy from my long wait. But the first words I heard, in English, caught my mood perfect-ly: "I'm as restless as a willow in a windstorm / I'm as jumpy as a puppet on a string!"
This time it wasn't a demure Jeanne Crain drifting wistfully through "It Might as Well Be Spring" in the 1945 movie State Fair. The singer onstage was a jolly, bejeweled golden grandma and her rendition was bouncy, optimistic, just right. I was enraptured.
Backed by a crackerjack jazz trio -- piano, tenor sax and bass -- Vlasta Pruchova, 74, was in her element. Mother of Jan Hammer, the Grammy-winning, Emmy-nominated composer for 90 episodes of television's Miami Vice, she is also the widow of Jan Hammer Sr. (1920-89), a beloved heart doctor, bass player and composer.
"It Might as Well Be Spring" was followed by a breezy "Gone With the Wind" and then a mellow "Love is funny or it's sad/ It's a heartache or it's bad/ But beautiful" which told me in the subtlest of ways that I was in the presence of an actress as well as a jazz singer.
Taking a break while the band played on, Vlasta, a longtime friend of Marcela's, joined us between her sets. She brought a half-consumed bottle of beer with her.
"I allow myself one beer a night," she explained when I tried to buy her another. A Canadian admirer, Calvin White, joined us to present her with flowers and a poem that proclaimed: "She speaks to us/ chuckles/ tells us to live/ leaves us wondering/ what to do/ with the rest of our lives."
Half an hour later, she was back on the small stage, confiding to the half-full house that "I'm Old-Fashioned" and "I'm Confessing That I Love You" before crooning a concluding "Cry Me a River" with a verve that verged on good cheer. For an encore she scat-sang "Flying Home" -- doobee doobee doo doo da tchoobee tchoobee tchaba daba daba daba day.
By the end of the evening, Vlasta Pruchova was looking like Marilyn Monroe to me. I later realized that MM (1926-62), frozen in time by early death, was 43 days older than Pruchova. Who knows what she'd have looked like today? That night, though, my mind was elsewhere. The next morning there was an e-mail from Erika in Pittsburgh: "My body knows that my skull was drilled, but my soul feels happy."
Far less painfully and perilously, Vlasta Pruchova had done the same for my soul. The following weekend, to thank her and learn her life story, I visited her in the downtown apartment she shares with her daughter and two grown grandsons.
She was born in the Fatra mountains of central Slovakia and reared in Trencin, western Slovakia. Her parents were a pair of Czech singers who'd migrated early in the post-World War I creation of a new nation, Czechoslovakia, to help repopulate Slovakia with Czech culture after a millennium of Magyar domination.
Vlasta's life in Trencin revolved around school, scouting and Sokol, the Czechoslovak body- and character-building organization. So she was appalled when Slovak fascists chanted "Jews out!" at her friend Lydia Suss. But, after 1938, nothing could save Lydia and her family from deportation and death. Then, in 1939, the cry was "Czechs out!" On 14 days' notice, the Pruchas moved to Prague.
Meeting in Moravia
In the summer of 1941, Vlasta, just turning 15, visited a film festival in Zlin, Moravia, and met Jan Hammer, 20, a medical student making his living as a musician after the Nazis closed Czech universities. He played Jerome Kern's A Fine Romance.
Their fine romance continued when both were back in Prague, but they didn't marry until 1947. Jan Hammer Jr. was born April 17, 1948.
Vlasta had taken up singing under false pretenses in 1946. Jan Sr. -- back in medical school after the war -- had been entertaining medical and law students on summer vacation in the spa of Marianske Lazne (Marienbad) and missed his fiancee, so he pretended she was a singer and had her invited, too. "Bring a nice dress and a couple of songs," he told her. When she showed up and sang "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "Sentimental Journey," her career as the Czech Queen of Swing was launched. In Prague clubs that autumn, she started singing for a living. When her husband finished night work at hospitals, he'd join her and jam.
A daughter, Andrea, was born in 1953. Her 5-year-old brother was taking classical piano lessons but improvising jazz variations. By the time he was 11, Jan Hammer was filling in as his mother's accompanist at the Lucerna Grand Hall and working part time with big bands at jazz festivals and other top venues. One weekday midnight, his schoolteacher showed up for a show; Jan had to escape through a window for fear she'd learn the hours he was keeping.
In the fateful year of 1968, faraway Amerika beckoned to both Jan Hammers. Jan Sr., by then a noted heart doctor at Krc hospital in Prague 4, was offered a fellowship to work at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Washington, and Jan Jr. a scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. When they landed in New York that September, Jan Jr., 20, told them: "I'm not going back." But they told him they would be.
When they came back and their son didn't, his name was removed from the TV credits of a children's film classic, Silene smutna princezna (The Terribly Sad Princess), for which he'd composed the score in his teens. And Jan Sr., though still allowed to practice in Krc, was barred from the coronary station he'd built there. He died of cancer on May 2, 1989, six and a half months before the Velvet Revolution.
"Now I have heart trouble and he's not here to treat it," says Vlasta as wistfully as a willow in a windstorm. Though she used to visit her famous son and his family in upstate New York, now they must visit Vlasta at her Prague address where she presides over three generations of her family. At home, her daughter is ailing and her two Czech grandsons are unemployed. "But I leave all my problems behind when I go onstage. When I start to sing, I forget all else. I will sing 'til I die."