Photo credit: Hans Kumpf
There was a time in the early 1950s when jazz was illegal in Poland. It was played only by a group of enthusiasts secretly in the catacombs. Now Polish jazz is known and valued worldwide, and its stars, such as Tomasz Stańko, Michał Urbaniak, Leszek Możdżer or Adam Bałdych, have built truly international careers. Paweł Brodowski, a legendary Polish music journalist and a one-time bass player, has been Editor-in-Chief of Jazz Forum magazine for the past 38 years, and his perspective and his knowledge of this evolution is unique. The year when Poland marks 100 years as an independent nation is a good moment to reflect. Interview by Tomasz Furmanek for LondonJazz News:
LondonJazz News: When did jazz appear in Poland?
Paweł Brodowski: Jazz in Poland began, like in all other European countries, before World War 2. Poland regained its independence in 1918, and from the early 1920s jazz began to be played there, talked and written about. Jazz came to Poland mainly via Paris, Berlin and London. There were bands playing jazz at dance halls, in restaurants, cabarets and in films. We had some outstanding musicians, like Adi Rosner, who was active in Poland in the second part of the ’30s until the outbreak of war. However no jazz records were recorded in Poland at that time and during the WW2 jazz completely vanished, because it was forbidden by the Nazis.
LJN: What happened after the end of WW2?
PB: Jazz was briefly reborn, there were official small jazz concerts in Warsaw and Krakow around YMCA centres. But then in 1949 – again – jazz music was banned by communist authorities as an imperialistic American music. It vanished from the radio, YMCA centres were dissolved. The period from 1949 to the mid-’50s is remembered in Polish history of jazz as a “catacomb era”. At that time jazz was the music of young people, many of whom were students. Young musicians played jazz at clandestine session at private homes or after hours, not officially, for the sake of their own pleasure. Some of them were expelled from universities or music academies, for example saxophonist Jan Walasek or pianist Andrzej Kurylewicz… Listening to foreign radio stations was forbidden too, but stations like The Voice of America, Radio Munich or Radio Berlin were listened to secretly, with great caution, as a neighbour could report it to the authorities. At that time, when all correspondence was checked, if you were caught trying to send a letter to America, you could be suspected of espionage.
LJN: In those pioneering times, who were the leading musicians?
PB: The first jazz group which emerged in that era was called Melomani, its leader was saxophone and clarinet player Jerzy “Duduś” Matuszkiewicz, a true father of Polish jazz after WW2. This group included a pianist Andrzej Trzaskowski. Occasionally Krzysztof Trzciński (later known as Komeda) would sit in. Trzaskowski and Komeda were the most outstanding and influential Polish jazz musicians of that time.
LJN: Was the situation slowly changing during the 1950s?
PB: After Stalin’s death there came a thaw, jazz slowly started to surface more and more. In November 1954 jazz musicians from several different cities gathered together in one place for a two-day jam session know as All Souls Day Festival. The tradition has been continued till today. A major breakthrough was the World Youth Jazz Festival, which took place in Warsaw in the summer of 1955 bringing many young musicians from around the world, including Africa, the Caribbean countries, and… Great Britain. Saxophone player Bruce Turner came from London with his band. The record he cut in Warsaw was the first jazz disc released in Poland after WW2. There was an excitement, there was dancing and the first sounds of jazz heard on the streets of Warsaw! In February 1956 the first issue of Jazz monthly was published. It was modelled after the British Melody Maker when it comes to the layout and size. This interesting journal continued for the next quarter of a century.
LJN: Then the legendary Sopot Jazz Festival was a massive breakthrough for jazz in Poland…
PB: It was in 1956 – a very important date for Polish jazz – when the first Sopot Jazz Festival took place. Young people from all over Poland came to this small seaside resort called Sopot. Some 30,000 young people arrived, with no place to stay because there were no hotels, so they slept under the sky on the beaches. There were streets riots. A New Orleans parade went down the streets leading to the pier, it was like an earthquake. The authorities couldn’t stop this wave of freedom anymore. Apparently, no such event was held anywhere in Europe in the ’50s, so it was really a pioneering situation. One of the few foreign bands that performed in Sopot was the Dave Burman Group from Great Britain. Among the Polish groups the most important and most popular was Melomani, as well as the Komeda Sextet which made its debut as the first group in Poland playing exclusively modern jazz. Its repertoire was modelled after the Modern Jazz Quartet and Gerry Mulligan.
LJN: But then, very soon, a new festival was created, the famous Jazz Jamboree?
PB: When the 1958 Sopot Jazz Festival was cancelled by the authorities, students in Warsaw decided to start a festival of their own. After a modest beginning, Jazz Jamboree became a world famous festival hosting most of the outstanding jazz stars, including Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis.
But, it’s important to mention, that in the ’50s the primary force and the main source of information was Willis Conover’s nightly programme Music U.S.A. – Jazz Hour broadcast on V.O.A. since 1955. Willis himself came to Poland in 1959 for the first time, and was welcomed at the Warsaw Airport like a messenger of freedom. He had a very special bond with the Polish jazz community and this friendship continued for many years until his death in the ’90s.
LJN: Were there any American jazz musicians visiting Poland at that time?
PB: The first top American group that played in Poland was the Dave Brubeck Quartet, who came in 1958 for a two-week tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Stan Getz, a top American saxophone player, arrived in 1960 to play at the Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw and Cracow with a Polish rhythm section (the Andrzej Trzaskowski Trio). These were the main events and milestones of that epoch.
LJN: And how did collaborations with the British jazz scene look then?
PB: As Jazz Jamboree started, slowly various British musicians started to appear. There were some contacts before that, as in the ’50s a few influential editors and radio people would visit England, attending jazz concerts at Ronnie Scott’s or 100 Club on Oxford Street. The first British musician to play at Jazz Jamboree was baritone saxophonist Ronnie Ross, who was followed by, among others, the organist and vocalist Georgie Fame, pianist Mike Westbrook with vocalist Norma Winstone. John Surman created a sensation at Jazz Jamboree ’70, when he performed with his trio including Stu Martin and Barre Phillips, performing their brand of ferocious free jazz that took the audience by storm. These intense contacts with Britain were developed in the following years.
LJN: What about some Polish jazz musicians visiting Great Britain in those days? Was it happening?
PB: Actually, when the Zbigniew Namysłowski Quartet had a great success at Jazz Jamboree ’63, a British promoter invited him and his group to tour Great Britain three times! When in London he recorded his debut album Lola for Decca. It was the first album ever recorded by a Polish group in the west. A fantastic record! I have an original copy which I bought several years later in a second-hand record shop in South Kensington. It has since become one of the most sought after records of Polish jazz, a real collector’s item. Even Zbigniew himself doesn’t have a copy. Alas, the master tape of this recording has disappeared. There were a lot of contacts at that time with Great Britain. As Polish musicians started to travel and perform in Western Europe, the slogan “Polish Jazz” assumed weight and became more and more popular.