AUTHORITARIANS, whether of the left or right, have always feared ideas - even new thoughts coming in the form of music or popular culture. Untraditional ideas, after all - like the no-nonsense blare of a trumpet or the sweet wail of a saxophone in the night - have a way of catching one's attention and forcing fresh perspectives on the familiar. Thus, the conviction of five members of the so-called Jazz Section of the Musicians' Union in Prague is not unexpected. Granted, the actual sentences turned out to be lighter than they might have been. Two defendants were given brief jail sentences; three others were placed on probation. Still, the verdict has to be seen as curious indeed, coming as it does against the backdrop of increasing political and cultural liberalization in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, who, by the way, is shortly to visit Prague. And jazz itself, it might be noted, has won a substantial following in the USSR since its founding in 1917.
What crimes were committed by the Jazz Section? It continued to publish newsletters and books after the government's interior minister had ruled the group should disband. Over the years the Jazz Section has promoted jazz as well as various forms of nonauthorized cultural activities.
Czechoslovakia's ruling Communist Party leadership is attempting to walk a fine line, bowing to some of the liberalization under way in parts of the East bloc while seeking to ensure domestic order to prevent any recurrence of the Soviet invasion after the ``Prague Spring'' of 1968. But that aside, the reasoning of the court in the Jazz Section case cannot be cheering to libertarians - or those valuing art for the sake of art. Noting the professionalism of the five convicted defendants, the judge said that ``their cultural work was commendable, but it required a legal form because social values must be regulated.''