Region: Notes from New York City

When the Brno-born musician Ondřej Pivec first arrived in New York City in 2009, he had intended to stay a year and a half and then return to Prague, where he had lived since he was 14. It seemed like a manageable thing, leaving a town like this eventually.

He was going to take some lessons, play some sessions, hang out, experience the scene and bring all that back to the Czech Republic. New York, though, held on to him, like it does with so many young artists from so far away.

Pivec, 28, first went to New York City with the intention of taking some lessons as a jazz organist and just hanging out, but the city soon got under his skin, drawing him to a black church in Coney Island, where he plays gospel on Sundays.

“After being here for a while, I began to understand that I’m really attracted to the challenge New York throws at me and I decided to stay longer,” says Pivec, now 28. “God only knows I had no idea what there was in store for me. And I have a feeling I still have no clue.”

For one major example, he was a jazz organist when he got to town; now he plays gospel on Sundays in a black church way south in Coney Island, though he keeps a weekly running gig at Smoke, up north in Harlem, a long, long way from Prospect Heights, where he lives in Brooklyn. He also plays in an electric fusion-funk trio called CPR, in which he, Karel Růžička and Russel Carter show their skills on various instruments. CPR has recorded a debut CD to be released early this year, followed by a tour of the Czech Republic.

The church, though, where he has been playing since summer 2011, has represented an important transition for him. “To be honest with you, it is the black American music – gospel, R&B and soul – that keeps me here in New York,” Pivec says. “I’m not really so much on the jazz scene. I kinda naturally gravitated away from it.”

This city, and going on four years in it, has proved to be the journey more than the destination, and Pivec, with a strong online following and plenty more folks seeing him and his mates live, is living one of those only-in-New York immigrant stories. And for now, he’s content to do it for a while longer mostly in New York.

“There are two main factors,” Pivec says. “First, jazz is an American art form; therefore, the music is more authentic, you can still see and hear people that were forming the style as we know it now. That also allows you to observe the physical aspects of playing that music, which is an important part of learning. Secondly, NYC has as many people as the entire Czech Republic; therefore, there is more of everything. You need a drummer last minute, there’s 20 of them in your phonebook – five of them will be available. That also creates a sense of competition: You have to at least try to be better at something than the next person to get by in a decent way.”

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