When jazz added European folk rhythms to its classical African- American traditions it took off in fascinating new directions. Phil Johnson samples the Czech take on jazz, which forms part of the programme `Made in Prague', at the Riverside Studios in west London.

Of all the strands of contemporary Czech culture to be unwound in the Riverside Studios programme Made In Prague, which includes film, photography and performance art as well as music, jazz is both the least known and, perhaps, the most revelatory. The season occurs at a moment when European jazz has never been more esteemed; the Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko has made the album of the year, with Litania, on the German ECM label, and much of the most interesting new jazz is a mixture of European folk and classical forms with African-American traditions.

In Czechoslovakia (as was), jazz has had a history as dramatic in its own way as the events that gave rise to the music in America. Banned by the Nazis, banned again by the Communists three years after the war, and forced during both epochs to take its musical models from short-wave radio broadcasts in which, between whistles and squeaks, snatches of Duke Ellington or Dave Brubeck might be heard, Czech jazz has had a hard road to travel. In the Prague Spring of 1968, restrictions were relaxed; American stars came to play, and Czechs toured or studied abroad. Then the curtain descended again, until the Velvet Revolution. Now there are nearly as many jazz clubs in Prague as there are in London.

A revealing memoir by the writer and amateur trumpet player Eric Vogel, Jazz in a Nazi Concentration Camp, emphasises some disturbing aspects of the history of Czech jazz.

First serialised in the American Down Boat magazine in 1961, and collected in The picador Book of Blues and Jazz edited by James Campbell, Vogel recalls how he formed a swing group called the Kille Dillers in Brno, under the Nazi occupation in 1942. He had found the phrase "killer diller" in a copy of Down Beat, though he didn't fully understand it and changed the first name to Kille (from the Hebrew kehila), the name for the Jewish community. Vogel was then transported to a "transit camp" at Ghetto Theresienstadt, where he founded a new band, The Ghetto Swingers, who were made the camp's "official" band and used as part of a plan to hoodwink a Red Cross delegation into thinking that the camp was a model of humanitarianism. Once the delegation had left and a propaganda film had been made, transports to Auschwitz began. In Auschwitz, Vogel joined another band, who had to play all day for the German SS. In 1945, after escaping from a train bound for Dachau, he was rescued by US soldiers whose jeep bore the legend "Boogie Woogie", and taken to their officers' club where - bizarrely - he was given a blindfold test of the latest jazz records.

The Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky has also written a memoir of his experience in jazz bands in the war period and the early Communist years. Red Music appeared as the introduction to his novella, The Bass Saxophone, in 1967. Skvorecky recalls the restrictions which the Nazis placed on dance bands ("On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo be tolerated") , and with heavy irony notes that when his parody of these regulations was published in a story in Czechoslovakia's first jazz almanac in 1958, the entire edition was confiscated by the Communist authorities. When the story was reworked into a film script for the young director Milos Forman (whose films form part of the Made in Prague Riverside season), the script was banned on the personal orders of President Novotny. And while certain forms of jazz were allowed to flourish in the Communist period, there were fierce ideological battles over what was considered permissible. When the leading bandleader of the time, Karel Viach, would not submit to the censor's demand that he relinquish his fascination for the works of Stan Kenton, he was sent out into the country to accompany a travelling circus.

Karel Ruzicka, who appears at the Riverside Studios on Thursday and Friday with his quartet, and Emil Viklicky, who plays on Tuesday 16 and Wednesday 17 December with his quintet, are both pianists and composers who first learned about jazz by listening to the shows of Willis Conover on the Voice of America radio station in the Fifties. "I was about 14 when I first heard jazz, and it was the spirit which attracted me, and also, of course, this sensation of freedom", Ruzicka says. "We felt it very strongly. Today, when I speak to my old friends in the jazz clubs they tell me, `You can't realise how important it was for us to hear you.'" Now Ruzicka's son, also called Karel Ruzicka (and also to appear in London), is a guitarist with an international reputation. "I hope he will study in New York at the New School, if he can afford it," Ruzicka Sr says. "Paradoxically, it was not so difficult to get money to study abroad in the old days, because it was official."

Emil Viklicky studied at Berklee in Boston in the Seventies, spending his first night there jamming until 3am in a night-club, and he has played with many famous American musicians, including the guitarist Bill Frisell, a colleague at Berklee. "But I realised that if I wanted to find my own voice then sooner or later I had to fish in my own waters, he says. "One day I bought a book called Moravian Love Songs by Janacek and I thought that if I wanted to have my own style it would be nice to have those folk melodies - what Janacek called patterns of speech - and harmonies." Accordingly, for the last 20 years, Viklicky - who earns much of his living composing music for animated films - has developed his transcriptions of Moravian folk songs, often collaborating with an ethno-musicologist. The final concert of the season, on 17 December, will see Viklicky playing with a group of British musicians, including Julian Nicholas and Dave Wickins. You never know, it could be a chance to hear the next big thing.

Made In Prague: Czech Week at the Riverside Studios, London W6, 11-17 December. Box Office, 0181-741 2255.

Czech Centre Information Hotline: 0171-291 9929