INTERVIEW: Janusz Stefański

Janusz M Stefański, 2016
Photo credit © Paweł Mazur/ Zbigniew Seifert Foundation.

Percussionist, composer and band-leader Janusz M Stefański performed with violinist Zbigniew Seifert’s quartet, with Tomasz Stańko and then in Hans Koller’s “Free Sound”. The introduction of martial law in Poland in 1982 encouraged him to move to Germany, where he has lived ever since. Since the move to Germany he has been a member of the Vienna Art Orchestra, the Polski Jazz Ensemble, the Heinz Sauer Quartet, and Emil Mangelsdorff’s quartet. Mary James interviewed him during the 2nd International Zbigniew Seifert Jazz Violin Competition in Poland, where he was on the jury. She started the interview by asking him to look back at his association with Zbigniew Seifert, which started his five decades in music:

LJN: When did you first perform with Seifert?

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JS: I was attending secondary music school in Krakow in 1962, I was 16 years old. Zbyszek – as we call him –  was the same age but he was a year ahead of me. He was playing classical violin at this stage, in order to pass his examinations after 5 years at school. There was a growing interest in jazz in the school. He was inspired by Coltrane so he bought a sax. [The first album Seifert bought was Coltrane’s Blue Train.] He said “I want to learn to play the saxophone because I want to play jazz”. In 1962 we started our first band, it was his Quartet. We were too young to go to actual clubs. We waited a couple of years and then we could go clubs in Krakow such as the Helikon and Piwnica pod Baranami. [Helikon attracted actors, painters, photographers as well as musicians. Tomasz Stańko had his first contact with jazz there. It closed in 1969.] Many clubs were closed down by the communist authorities because of student political unrest.

We found some teachers who helped us with jazz harmony and there were a few records to listen to. Eventually we had our first concert in 1965, in the studio of the Krakow State Philharmonic Hall. We had our first poster too. All our names were there, Zbyszek designed it, we had no money. We were very excited! It was start of the Zbigniew Seifert Quartet.

LJN: So how did the band develop?

JS: In 1966 we were invited to the jazz festival in Wroclaw, Jazz on the Oder River, it was a competition for beginners. We didn’t win First Prize as an ensemble but we were popular, and one year later Zbyszek got the soloist prize. After this, we had an entry ticket to the professional scene – we were both 20. Zbyszek finished school and went to university in Krakow where he studied violin for the next five years. I went one year later and studied classical percussion. In 1969 Tomasz Stańko invited us to join his ensemble, with Zbyszek playing alto sax, and the band’s first attempts at free jazz began. So the Zbigniew Seifert Quartet had to be put on hold because two of us were with Stańko.

While touring with Stańko , Zbyszek was exposed to musicians such as Peter Brötzmann. Someone said “Please try to play jazz on the violin”. Coltrane’s phrases are not designed for the violin but Zbyszek wanted to play like Coltrane but on the violin, not the sax, so he worked very hard. We only had two or three Coltrane records to listen to and we listened to them over and over again every day for 5-6 hours at a time, we all lived together, had a break for one hour then played the records again.

LJN: So you played two types of free jazz – with Stańko and then with Hans Koller?

JS: Yes, in 1973 we were invited to Vienna to play with Koller. We had finished with Stańko by that stage with Jazz Jamboree, our last concert. Koller’s band was “Free Sound”. It was different. Koller was much older and he was very experienced in many styles. And we had a lot of freedom. We were allowed to say exactly what we wanted, in musical terms. Just a few bars were composed, the rest was improvised. The audience loved this freedom of expression. Hans Koller had a good name in Germany and other countries. We played long tours, two or three weeks non-stop, across many different countries. I was 27.

LJN: What was it like to play with Zbigniew?

JS: He had a clear conception of what to do, what to play, how to play. He composed strong compositions with many possibilities for interpretation. So I could grow with him, he was like a brother and best friend – we talked about life, about girls, money or lack of money, about smoking, about alcohol, about everything. And of course about music. He wasn’t a typical “I am the boss” bandleader. Of course he was the leader and the band had his name and he was at the front.There are so many possibilities to show your soul in jazz, to express your temperament. But he would listen to everyone and sometimes he would just give a very short message like “Please can you play a little less, or a bit more, or a bit louder, or softer” but the rest was about freedom, you are a free man, just play. It was up to you how you reacted.

LJN: What was Zbigniew’s impact on Polish jazz and beyond this scene?

JS: You must remember we were born in Poland, grew up with music, I had a chance to hear a lot of Polish folk and classical music. Polish music is melancholic. Our history wasn’t happy. And it’s romantic. You have this in your blood. My mother used to sing Polish songs to us before we went to sleep. It’s about expression – one minute very quiet but the next you may explode. Those emotions are in our hearts and souls. His biggest legacy is his expression of freedom. Playing with him was a fantastic start for me in jazz world – it was without conflict. It was important to play jazz – it was the guarantee of freedom, to feel free you had to play jazz.

LJN: Let’s talk about the competition now. It’s the second competition – and you were on the jury for the first one too. What’s it like?

JS: Well, the musicians are so human, they talk to each other. They don’t show off or isolate themselves. The standard is so high. I didn’t expect it to be so high – I did not know there were so many jazz violin players around the world! 63 people applied in 2014 – each supplied 3 compositions so it was over 180 compositions to listen to. It’s a heavy job being on the jury! So this is a serious competition. It wasn’t easy then, and it is isn’t easy now, to make a decision about the winner. Some of them are professionals, teach in universities.

LJN: Do you have one piece of advice you’d give to any musician?

JS: Try to find who you are as a person. Try to understand yourself. Why do I do this or that? You are given your first name and your surname, but when you know who you are, then that is your third name. This third name is known only to you. But in jazz you have the opportunity to show this third name, your soul. Find the sounds, the energy, the rhythm, the melody that is close to you. Don’t be intellectual. It’s not mathematics. Make it easy for your audience by finding a universal method of communication, so you are understood.

It takes time to find this third name. Everyone makes mistakes and it takes time to find the balance between music and the rest of your life. Private life is sacrificed, people settle down late. I married in 1977. I was 31. My first daughter was born in 1978 and, you know, for the next 3 or 4 years I was never at home. My wife shows me a picture of Julia aged 3 and I think “I missed this”. Zbyszek did not have children. He was 33 when he died. He had a big career ahead. He cared about music first. I still miss him very much. I was angry when he passed.

LJN: What’s it like hearing his music played here by these young musicians?

JS: I know the music, I have played most of it. Of course I feel very happy to hear it. It is played differently now – there is fresh air in the music, new and young energy. It is bright material, everything is possible. You can play it more slowly or faster. I like to hear how they use the form and atmosphere of Zbyszek’s music. His music was very deep. Zbyszek was very strongly connected to standing on the ground but he was also connected with God.

The next International Zbigniew Seifert Jazz Violin Competition will be held in 2018.

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