Bayou City

Kovanda's Czech Band Keeps Houston Seniors On Their Toes

The woman in black was 80 years old, if she was a day. She’d just danced nearly non-stop for the better part of an hour to Kovanda’s Czech Band, which visited her and her fellow residents of Treemont, a west Houston retirement community, on a Wednesday night for a show. She didn’t trust my motives enough to share her name with me, but she did offer something. Sizing me up as I chatted with others at her table, she said, “You’re going to write about how young at heart we all are, aren’t you?”

The snark in her voice told me I’d better promise her I would not write a trite, borderline-condescending piece about how a concert turned the whole crowd into rejuvenated hipsters, like those elders in Cocoon. I pledged to avoid this pitfall and simply report on the show. She gave me a “We’ll see” smile.

So, here’s what happened when I reached out to local musicians who occasionally perform at area retirement communities. I connected with Kathy Jolly, the secretary for Kovanda’s, a Czech heritage band that’s been performing since 1984. She said the group was slated to play an evening show at Treemont, where the band practices on Wednesdays.
The show wasn’t all that different from others I’ve been to in Houston. Like the indie bands I’ve seen at Walters or Notsuoh, Kovanda’s drove up to the venue, unloaded and set up. When the show started, some eager music aficionados were already in the audience, noshing finger foods, sipping wine and bobbing their heads to the polka beat. Others arrived fashionably late. The band played its first few songs to an empty dance floor, until a brave soul or two ventured out and got things going.

When in Rome, they say, so I found a glass of wine and moved about the room, just as I would at any other show, listening for chatter about the performance or spying interesting people taking in the music. When the band took a request — the “Too Fat Polka” — no one in the room whined about how politically incorrect the song might seem. The requester stood up from her motorized scooter and started singing robustly, “I don’t want her, you can have her, she’s too fat for me,…”

I sidled up next to her and she said her name was Dorsie Miller. When I mentioned I was a music writer, she beamed and told me she once was a singer, in Detroit, years ago. She worked with Billy Williams, best known for “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” She said she met Patsy Cline and that she was “the nicest singer, a really nice lady.” In the background, the band played on, but Miller and I bonded over the music, the way people do at shows.
The band’s director, George Jolly, chats with the audience between songs. Like Bruce Springsteen explaining “Thunder Road,” Jolly shares tidbits about the waltzes and polkas the band runs through. He credits his wife, Kathy, with arranging the next song, Kovanda’s version of “Blue Eyes Crying in The Rain.”

Almost by instinct, I grabbed my phone and started fumbling for the video recording. My wife put her hand over mine, which was still cupping the phone. If there was a difference between this audience and others, it’s that no one was on his or her smartphone trying to capture the highlights of the show. They simply enjoyed the music and the moment. So, I decided to also. Sorry I can’t share with you a video record of how awesome it is to hear a C&W classic done in the Old World style of a Czech brass band. You’ll just have to see the show and experience it for yourself.

By the end of the night, there was a circle of seniors on the dance floor. Some are doing moves reminiscent of the "Single Ladies" dance to a polka song. There's a lot of smiling and laughing happening. After the show, I made my way back to Dorsie Miller to say goodbye.

“So that was a pretty good crowd. Do y’all usually have such a good turnout for these music events?” I asked.

“Well,” she said pointedly, “what else are we gonna do?”
Post-show, we caught up with Kovanda’s at the nearby Five Guys Burgers and Fries to talk music. We’d just witnessed 90 minutes of euphoniums and E- and B-flat clarinets honking out the hits, so naturally, we spent the better part of a half-hour talking punk rock. Kathy said her earliest music interests revolved around the Texas scene of the 1980s, populated by bands like Trish Herrera’s Mydolls, the Big Boys from Austin and others all unleashing mayhem on venues like The Island.

Turning back to Old World Czech brass music, we learned that the bad is named for its founder, Vlastimil Kovanda; the style of music is called dechovka. The band has multiple recordings and plays festivals and events outside of retirement communities. They’ve got at least one gig a month for the next several months in places like  Hallettsville, Austin, Alvin and Galveston. As a heritage group, they don’t take money for playing. They may get an honorarium from groups they play for, which goes into the band’s nonprofit coffers for expenses and projects. The band’s members are all volunteer players. They all have day jobs or are retired from careers. And, almost all play in other bands. At one time, George Jolly said he played in four different bands. He admits it might have been a bit of overcompensation for not playing for 10 years after college.

Like any other band, these musicians play for the love of playing.
I told the band I’d promised not to focus on the audience’s age, in spite of the fact that I’d actively sought to shadow a band that specifically performed for retirement communities. Kathy said the best part of these gigs is taking the show to “people who can’t exactly stay out past 10 o’clock at night. If we come to them, that works too.”

And, it’s appreciated.

“There was one lady, as I was leaving the room, she came over and talked about how the music is such good medicine and makes you healthy,” George said.

It may not be alien magic with youth-restoring powers, but that's a pretty solid endorsement for how music keeps us all young at heart.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.