Laco Deczi sneaked past border patrol guards while they were watching a Russian hockey final in what was then called Czechoslovakia. The journey he began 27 years ago will lead him this coming week to the stage at Toad’s—where the world-famous jazz trumpeter will play some of his world-famous tunes—then to American citizenship.
This past Wednesday was just like any other day, said the world-famous jazz trumpeter, whose escape from behind the Iron Curtain in 1984 brought him here with his son Vaico.
“I’m tired,” he said, shaking his head as he stood in a black T-shirt and gym shorts in front of the Neighborhood Music School on Audubon Street. “I record new album, drink too much coffee, stay up all night.”
Deczi’s forthcoming album is called “Eggenberg,” after a beer factory in his homeland, which he still calls Czechoslovakia. On Sunday at 8 p.m., he’ll be joined at Toad’s by local harmonica sensation Chris DePino who’s releasing his own new album, “Master Attracter.” The event will raise money for the Neighborhood Music School
Deczi, who is now 73, has lived and breathed jazz since he was a young boy in Czechoslovakia listening to Voice of America radio every night at 9 p.m. “They would play the news for 15 minutes, and then for 45 minutes they would play jazz,” he said.
That was when he heard the greats: John Coltrane, Clifford Brown. It never occurred to him that years later he would play with some of the greats, including Carmel Jones, David Weckl (Chick Correa’s drummer), and New Haven’s own Buster brothers, Bobby and Eddie.
Around age 10 he bought his first trumpet, dirt cheap. (Today you can buy a “Laco Deczi signature trumpet.”) He graduated from a conservatory in Bratislava before being drafted into the Soviet army in the late 1950s, where he was constantly disciplined for bad behavior.
“I was a troublemaker,” Deczi says proudly. At night he would dig a hole under the fence that kept the soldiers in, burrow himself out, and hit the jazz clubs and bars to play gigs.
Deczi remembers where he was when the Russians invaded his home country in 1968. He was playing at the Prague jazz club Reduta (where Bill Clinton would later famously whip out his sax during a visit in 1994), when he looked out the window to see tanks in the streets and bullets flying.
When he escaped Czechoslovakia in 1984—using fake documents that were hand-painted by a friend—Deczi ended up on the East Coast and started the band Celula New York. His son, Vaico, is the band’s drummer.
Since the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989, Celula New York has been back on a tour of the Czech Republic and surrounding countries each year. DePino has toured with them several times since he began studying with Deczi in 2006.
The upcoming fall tour this year will be special.
An American Friendship
Four days before the band leaves—on Sept. 23, 2011—Deczi will be sworn in as an American citizen.
DePino says he owes much of his success to Deczi, whom he calls “The King.”
“I’m the weakest musical link in this band, but it’s also my greatest achievement in music,” said DePino, who was a New Haven alderman and state representative, then Republican State Party Chairman of Connecticut for seven years.
While sitting in the Neighborhood Music School lobby Wednesday, DePino turned to his mentor and asked: “When was the last time you paid me a compliment?”
“Oh, maybe 200 years ago,” Deczi said. It sounded like he was only half-joking.
The two have known each other since 1992, when DePino was studying classical harmonica. He made the switch over to jazz partly because of Deczi’s influence.
“I feel the essence of this guy, you know?” said DePino (pictured), who began studying jazz with Deczi in 2004 and was on tour with Deczi’s band, Celula New York, by 2006.
Sunday will be Deczi’s second time playing at Toad’s. In 2007, the band did a benefit concert there for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. This time the proceeds are going to the Neighborhood Music School, marking the school’s “first time at Toad’s,” said its executive director Larry Zukof.
“We play old school?” DePino told Deczi as he showed him the school’s promotional posters. “Well, THIS is old school!” He pointed to a flyer with the Neighborhood Music School’s age: 100 years.
Then he showed Deczi the cover of his new album, Master Attracter, which will be distributed for free to ticket-holders at Sunday’s concert. On this list of dedications is Deczi, labeled “the King.”
“I feel like Britney Spears,” Deczi joked.
Deczi and DePino are hoping 1,000 people will show up Sunday. The doors open at 7 p.m.