Why you should care
Because this is not your traditional jazz bar.
A wide, yellow-lit corridor doesn’t make for a conventional entrance to a jazz bar, but the rock-hewn theater at the bottom of the corridor’s stairs is anything but typical. Hidden beneath the cobblestoned streets of Prague’s Old Town, AghaRTA Jazz Centrum combines smooth saxophone notes and gritty guitar riffs with the mystique of New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns. It’s a cold, rainy day in Prague, and I’m searching not only for warmth but also for a taste of the city’s love with jazz that survived a Nazi crackdown and outlasted communist Czechoslovakia. A flier posted on a wall leads me to AghaRTA — a 14th-century cellar.
Drummer Michal Hejna opened AghaRTA in September 1991, a day after the death of jazz legend Miles Davis (the club is named after Davis’ album Agharta). But it is AghaRTA’s location, rather than its name, that bestows on the club “a beautiful atmosphere that is our main advantage,” Hejna says, when asked what gives the place its identity. Such cellars, he says, were common in medieval Prague until repeated floods forced people to build higher. AghaRTA sits in what was once a large, underground living room, with an uneven, 20-foot-high ceiling and black, rough-cut walls that shield patrons and performers from Prague’s weather. An elevated stage marks the front, while tables and stools dot the rest of the cavernous cellar.
The raw acoustics will leave you gazing at the rock roof in amazement.
The club, which can hold about 100 patrons, has attracted some of the jazz world’s biggest names — John McLaughlin and Betty Carter performed the year AghaRTA launched. It also organizes concerts in the spring and summer at the Lucerna Music Bar, a hall located within Prague’s Lucerna Palace, and an annual open-air festival during the first week of August at the Old Town Square, next to the city’s famous clock tower.
AghaRTA isn’t for jazz purists, though. The evening I’m there, Hejna, a heavyset man with a passing resemblance to Stephen Fry, is on the drums, performing with the in-house band. They start with their own compositions, then turn to covers of jazz classics. What happens next would be sacrilege in many traditional jazz bars: They play jazz covers of the Beatles. That balance, Hejna says, is necessary in a city where, despite a long history of the music form, jazz musicians have often struggled to make a living. He understands that “jazz is sometimes an intellectual thing,” and respects the purists. “But I need to have a full hall and people who are leaving with a smile,” he says.
The raw acoustics will leave you gazing at the rock roof in amazement. Each note lingers just long enough to sink in, without echoing. “The same performer sounds better here than elsewhere,” says Robert McDonald, an American student in Prague on a study-abroad stint, and a regular at the city’s jazz bars. “The cave’s cozy too.” The evening I’m in attendance, the audience is diverse: a young Czech man pouring chilled wine for his girlfriend, a scholarly-looking man, a visibly inebriated Scottish woman and a middle-aged British couple — all tapping their feet.
If you’re feeling cold, there’s lifesaving hot wine. If it’s just warm, try the beer. But don’t interrupt Hejna and his band. The Scot tries, shouting out her song preferences. “This is my show, I’m the boss,” he responds firmly.
AghaRTA may not transport you to Harlem or New Orleans. But it will pull you into the heart of Prague’s legacy of struggle, compromise and survival — through the notes of jazz, in a cave.
Go There: AghaRTA
- How to say it: Agharta — the pronunciation doesn’t distinguish between capital letters and lowercase ones.
- Directions: Take the Prague Metro, disembark at Mustek station. It’s a six-minute walk to AghaRTA, which is on Zelezna Street. Map.
- Price: The entry fee is 250 Czech koruna (about $10).