Gustav Brom 100: biography
Although he was born in the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia, he lived in Brno from the age of 12 and became a Brno patriot. Bandleader, conductor, composer, and musician Gustav Brom would have turned 100 this year. His musical legacy still lives on, through many immortal arrangements as well as his ensemble, currently operating under the name Gustav Brom Czech Radio Big Band.
HOW BROM WAS BORN
Gustav Brom was born as Gustav Frkal on 22 May 1921 in the Slovak town of Veľké Leváre. The first years of his life were far from an ideal childhood. His father went bankrupt and took their money and fled abroad, where he died. His mother Marie had to take care of him and his one-year-older brother alone. Given her sad life experiences, she decided to return to her native Moravia. Her career as a postal administrator required a lot of travel across Moravia, so she often entrusted her sons to relatives or children’s homes.
After several almost nomadic years, the family finally settled in Brno in 1933. Gustav began attending I. státní československá reálka (the 1st National Czechoslovak Real School) on Antonínská Street. It seemed that after some difficult years, Gustav’s life was finally gaining order and direction. In addition to playing the violin, he began the clarinet and saxophone and also founded the band R-Boys. Before graduating, he joined a resistance group. On 1 June 1939, he was arrested for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets and imprisoned for four months at the Gestapo prison in Špilberk. He just barely escaped being shot or taken to a concentration camp.
After his release, he brought R-Boys back together and started trying to break through with them. At the same time, he changed his surname. There were two simple reasons for this – Gustav Frkal was on the government’s watch list and, in combination with the instrument he was playing, he felt his name fostered amusement rather than respect. And so in 1940 Gustav Brom was born.
FROM BRNO TO EUROPE
Gustav Brom stood on his own two feet relatively early. Already in 1940, specifically on 15 June, he got his first engagement with R-Boys, at the Radhošť Hotel in Rožnov pod Radhoštěm. In Brno, the group began to hold regular concerts in the Passage Hotel on Lidická Street. During the war, the group gradually doubled in size from its original six members. Brom himself didn’t just play the alto sax, clarinet, and violin, but even occasionally sang and wasn’t afraid to pick up a bass. After the war, he developed the orchestra from a cafe band into a concert and radio ensemble.
Brom’s orchestra got its first permanent postwar engagement at the Rozmarýn cafe in the Zemský dům (Municipal House) in Brno and briefly played at the Savoy cafe. Jazz dance music was on the rise and the band found success in Brno, but the centre of the Czech swing scene at the time was definitely Prague. And so Gustav Brom decided to test his luck in the capital and headed right for one of the most famous dance cafes – Vltava. The Prague public enthusiastically accepted the Brno orchestra, and the band began building its general reputation and renown. Its first invitation to perform internationally came from concert attendees from the Swiss embassy, and it recorded its first three records for Esta on 26 September 1945.
The orchestra moved from Prague to Zlín at the start of 1946 and in the same year got an engagement with Bratislava radio, which offered seven hours of broadcasting a week. The next year, Gustav got married and then lead the orchestra on a several-month tour to Switzerland.
SEEKING A SOUND AND A REPERTOIRE
The “victory of February ’48” hit Brom during a broadcast for Bratislava radio. While on air, Brom publicly expressed his vote against the dictatorship of the proletariat. He didn’t have to wait long to feel the consequences. Brom was removed from his position and was even banned from the building. For some time, he laid low in less exposed places. He returned to playing in Brno cafes and occasionally travelled around Moravia for concerts.
During these years, the orchestra underwent a major shift towards a unique sound and excellent performances. Gustav Brom was able to follow and under difficult conditions maintain contact with foreign trends in jazz. In the 1950s, the group expanded into a big band able to play very well a diverse repertoire of styles including Dixieland, swing, bop, cool, west coast, pop, and even polka. The band’s success and quality didn’t escape representatives of the East Germany music agency who in 1954 invited the Gustav Brom Orchestra to the Leipzig Trade Fair. The group fared well, got the chance to play concerts in more countries, and a year later returned to the studio after a nine-year break.
Brom surrounded himself not only with proficient musicians but also composers, and so the adaptations of foreign songs were joined by originals from orchestra members. And these included daring songs, certainly including the four-part Egyptian Suite by trumpeter Jaromír Hnilička and bassist Luděk Hulan. The band also began to play songs very well received by audiences, such as the immortal “Hvězdy jsou jak sedmikrásky nad Brnem”.
THE GOLDEN BIG BAND SIXTIES
For the orchestra, the 1960s were truly golden. Some of their songs got popular, such as “Pocta astronautovi” (“A Homage to an Astronaut”). This song came in a flash. It was written on 12 April 1961, when Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human to travel to outer space. The band was recording in Ostrava and the idea came to put the first journey into space to music. The song composed by Jaromír Hnilička with lyrics by Pavel Pácl and sung by Gustav Brom was cast into the ether that very day. In the end, it helped the ensemble set off on a grand tour of the Soviet Union, all of Europe, and even overseas.
While the Czech public was singing about Major Gagarin, experts appreciated especially the progressive and unique approach to big band songs. At that time, Pavel Blatný, the first Czech student at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, composed songs for the orchestra in the genre known as third stream. In the early 1960s, the group also began to perform at foreign festivals. They found great success, for example, at jazz festivals in Warsaw, Manchester, and Antibes. Their concerts and records included performances by leading solo vocalists and instrumentalists from Czechoslovakia and abroad, including Edmond Hall, Maynard Ferguson, Bill Moody, Mark Murphy, and Diana Ross.
The orchestra’s name thus resounded in their home country and elsewhere, as seen by such facts as the prestigious US magazine DownBeat ranking it among the top 10 big bands in the world, specifically in 7th place.
54 YEARS AS A BANDLEADER
Over the years, the orchestra’s discography swelled to more than 570 records. Under Brom’s leadership, the group went on more than 250 foreign tours. With the break-up of the Soviet Bloc and especially the end of East Germany, Brom lost one of his biggest markets. But his orchestra still went on a successful tour of Norway and India.
After the death of Josef Audes, a long-time member and pillar of the orchestra, Gustav Brom cancelled his engagements and the orchestra basically stopped functioning. Not long before his own death, however, Brom gave the ensemble a fresh start. When in 1994 he passed the conductor’s baton to Vlado Valovič, he ended his 54 years with the ensemble that he had given his name, but even more so his heart. He was at the time the longest-tenured conductor of a single ensemble in Europe. Several months later, on 25 September 1995, he died. But his oldest child – the Gustav Brom Czech Radio Big Band – is still going strong. Although it turned 80 in 2020, its music refuses to age.