Book review

Komeda: A Private Life in Jazz by Magdalena Grzebałkowska

Komeda: A Private Life in Jazz – Magdalena Grzebałkowska
(Equinox, 466pp. Book review by Chris Parker)

The life of Polish pianist/composer Krzysztof Komeda is marked, above all else, by paradoxes. He is frequently cited as one of the most important figures in the creation of a distinctive European jazz aesthetic, yet his chief avowed influences are US jazz musicians such as Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans. He is revered as a pioneering jazz musician/bandleader/composer, yet most of his career was devoted to the creation of film soundtracks (over forty of them) for the likes of Roman Polański and Andrzej Wajda. His most celebrated composition, ‘Astigmatic’ (recorded in 1965 by a quintet including two of his most famous collaborators, trumpeter Tomasz Stańko and alto saxophonist Zbigniew Namysłowski), is twenty-two and a half minutes long, yet contains very little ensemble interaction, instead featuring dialogues and trio passages for much of its length, the intensity of which is subtly dictated by Komeda’s piano.

Komeda is thus something of an enigma, so a detailed biography is overdue. Komeda: A Private Life in Jazz is commendably thorough, containing a painstakingly researched catalogue of his jazz collaborations, early gigs, foreign engagements, struggles to establish himself as a film composer, and his eventual emergence as the most important figure on the Polish contemporary jazz scene. It also chronicles his somewhat turbulent relationship with his wife Zofia, the odd extra-marital affair, his love of skiing and fast cars, and his estrangement from his parents (with whom he generally communicated via postcards from foreign parts beginning ‘Dear Home’). Despite said thoroughness, however, Komeda remains enigmatic, invariably described by his friends simply as ‘quiet’ and ‘gentle’, providing a stark contrast both to Zofia, who seems to have been a rather more assertive character, and to Polański, who comes across as a ceaselessly energetic artistic sparkplug.

Where the book does score heavily, though, is in its depiction of the tricky negotiations and accommodations required to survive as a jazz artist under the Soviet system. Anyone who has read either S. Frederick Starr’s Red & Hot (on jazz in the USSR) or Mike Zwerin’s La Tristesse de Saint Louis (on swing under the Nazis) will already be aware of the often ludicrously inconsistent but irritatingly intrusive interference of totalitarian regimes with a style of music they don’t actually understand but nevertheless find deeply suspicious (is it the cry of the suppressed black proletariat or just decadent Western dance music?). Being an award-winning journalist and historian, Magdalena Grzebałkowska is particularly adept at winkling out all the ironies, ambiguities and occasionally farcical instances of such attempts at control. One example: when in Bulgaria, Andrzej Kurylewicz, a bandmate of Komeda, finds that when he asks for something in a shop, he is invariably answered with the word ‘nyama’ – ‘there aren’t any’ – so writes a tune, ‘Nyamaland’, dedicated to Bulgaria. On playing it subsequently in the GDR, however, he is visited after the concert by a stern-looking colonel who instructs him to remove this ‘libellous’ piece from his repertoire, which he pretends to do, but in fact plays it at his next concert under another name, ‘Blues Five Four’. He is never invited back to East Germany and has his passport withdrawn.

So Komeda is something of a curate’s egg: excellent at depicting the social context of its subject’s life (and coming alive in its final chapter dealing with Komeda’s time in LA and his still mysterious accidental death there) yet oddly lacking (perhaps inevitably given Komeda’s elusiveness) in psychological penetration. Despite occasional infelicities of style – it is written, irritatingly, in the present tense throughout, which results in unnecessarily jarring contrasts with the past-tense quotations from interviewees – this is a valuable study of a uniquely influential figure.

LINK: Find out more on the Equinox website

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