When my son, Will, decided he wanted to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston, my first thought was, Wow, that’s far from home. Okay, my first thought was, How am I going to pay for that?!?!? Then, I thought about how far away Boston is from Houston (1,605 miles to be exact). New city, new school, new people. Who could he count on if he needed anything?
Will was non-plused about the whole thing. He’s always been laid back. He put on his cowboy boots, packed up his French horn and headed north. I was relieved to hear that the chair of the Brass Department was named Tom Plsek. A name like that, he must be Czech. Not only that, he was from Texas. It gets better, he was from West, Texas, home of Westfest. AND he played in a polka band, called The Highlighters, when he was in junior high and high school. Somehow I just felt a sense of relief that a fellow Czech-Texan was on the campus.
Tom and Will became good friends. Will even worked in the Brass Department office for a couple of years. As Westfest rolled around this year, I thought of Tom and decided to interview him about growing up in one of the polka capitals of Texas. I wanted to get his insight into Westfest since he no doubt had gone to at least a few of the 34 held so far. “I have never been to Westfest,” he said in an e-mail. “Do you still want to talk to me?”
I told him yes. I still wanted to talk to him. And I’m glad I did. I found out about his polka roots. Just because he hadn’t been to Westfest doesn’t mean he didn’t know about the polka scene in his hometown known as the Czech Point of Central Texas.
“I grew up listening to polka on .78s and on the radio,” Tom recalls. “I thought the whole world was that way--doesn’t everyone listen to polka?” Pretty much everyone in West did and when Tom took up the trombone in seventh grade, he joined a polka band. Charles Nemec led the band called The Highlighters. (Charles went on to become president of West Bank & Trust and still has a polka band.) The Highlighters featured Charles on trumpet, TJ (as Tom was known then) on trombone along with accordion, drums, guitar, sax and clarinet.
Some of Tom’s favorite polkas to play back then were Julida, Rain Rain, Red Raven and Barbara. “In high school, we’d play at dance halls in West, Taylor and the Dallas area Friday, Saturday and even Sunday night. It was a family affair. Whole families would go to the dances. You’d sprinkle the wax on the dance floor and have a great time for the next four hours,” Tom says. “You could not sit or stand still when a polka was playing. My grandmother would wear out several partners dancing during the course of an evening.”
He remembers the pay wasn’t too bad either for a polka band in the 1960s. “I could earn $25 a night, maybe $35 on New Year’s Eve.”
Tom went on to study music at TCU in Fort Worth and didn’t play any polka gigs there. In fact, he was wondering if he made the right choice majoring in music. “I didn’t see many jobs available and I didn’t want to be a high school band director.” He considered switching to pre-med until his dad offered some words of wisdom. “He told me, ‘As long as you have a roof over your head, food to eat and clothes to wear, then you should pursue your dream.’”
Tom joined the teaching staff of Berklee in 1972. He speaks Czech and has been to the Czech Republic about five times to perform and judge brass competitions. “Big and small towns there have brass bands and the polkas they play have a little different feel from what’s played in Texas. It’s not just 2/4 time. It has a little swing to it,” he says.
There has not been a polka day at Berklee, although the school does sponsor an international folk festival. But Tom reports, the Czech students who come from Europe to Berklee want to play jazz, not polka.
Tom is proud of his Czech heritage and polka roots. “My generation grew up to be American, but we should make an effort to maintain the Czech culture. That’s why events like Westfest are so important,” he says. “Because of polka, I am where I am today. Polka music gave me my first experience of being a commercial musician.”
So, oh yeah, why has he never made it to Westfest? “Because Berklee’s fall semester begins after Labor Day and I always have to be in Boston getting ready for that.”
In our conversation, Tom mentioned a CD that he thinks any Texas polka fan would love. It features Texas-Czech music from 1929-1959 and can be found at Amazon.Click here to go directly to the page.
He also mentioned Czech-American TV out of Chicago which covers festivals in all parts of this country and the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Click here to check out recent broadcasts.
How about the polka scene in Boston? Tom says they started a polka band a few years ago and it became so popular he couldn’t keep up with the number of gigs and his Berklee duties.