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Polish Jazz for Dummies: 60 Years of Jazz from Poland

Cezary L. Lerski By

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Introduction

After 1945, like the rest of the Eastern and Central Europe, Poland fell under the dominance of Stalinist Russia— and the Soviets certainly did not dig the swing!! Consequently, only certain musical forms were allowed to flourish, particularly those with folk rhythm, without syncopation. One tempo was prescribed for everybody and army marching bands rose in importance. The process of political and cultural oppression intensified after 1949 and jazz music was outlawed as the music of the enemy. In Stalinist Poland, jazz music was banned along with modern art, decent toilet paper and the right to travel abroad.

Thankfully, not everybody toed the party line. Young people in Poland with no taste for Russian recipes and political doctrines rediscovered jazz. Being banned and sometimes even persecuted, jazz went underground, or, as was said, into "the catacombs." Jazz could only be played at private homes and private parties. Since the late 1940s, jazz has embraced the spirit of independence, nonconformity and cosmopolitanism in Poland.

One band came to dominate the hidden landscape of the Polish jazz scene. The name of this group was Melomani ("the Music Aficionados"). The ensemble was established in 1947 from among the hippest cats of the day. Many of them were students of the Lodz Film School, famous for establishing one of the leading European film movements and commonly referred to as the "Polish School." Musicians of the Melomani hung out at the Lodz YMCA, one of the few existing oases for nonconformists and independent thinkers in the Poland of late 1940s.

The lineup of Melomani fluctuated and many musicians passed through the band. Having been separated from the development of western jazz and without any jazz recordings or publications, Melomani played the sort of music that they thought was jazz, such as Jelly Roll Morton and W.C. Handy. The quality of the music, technical abilities of musicians and obsolete repertoire would not have met the standards of any reputable jazz club in Western Europe or the United States at the time. But that did not matter for Melomani's fans. They embraced it because it was illegitimate and because it was theirs.

Still, of course, there was no jazz music on the Polish radio, no jazz records in the stores, no books and no sheet music for sale. However, there was the will, the enthusiasm and the Voice of America. Instead of listening to reports about the success of the Soviet Union and achieving heaven on earth, jazz fans and aspiring jazz musicians tuned their Soviet-made radios to Willis Conover programs. For Polish jazz devotees of the late '40s and early '50s Poland, Willis Conover was a musical messiah. Conover's programs allowed access to the desired alternative: the right stuff and the real thing. His contribution to Polish jazz would never be forgotten.

1950s

After Stalin's death in 1953, the perception of jazz in Poland changed. It became acceptable to listen to jazz, to talk about jazz, to write about jazz and, most importantly, to play jazz. Polish Radio resumed its national broadcasts of the swing concerts. Official jazz festivals began to appear in the second part of the 1950s. The first legal jazz gathering took place in Krakow on November 1st 1954. Other events soon followed. The first official jazz festival took place in Sopot in 1956 and initiated a tradition of regular jazz festivals in Poland.

In the late 1950s, for the first time, jazz fans in Poland had a chance to listen to musicians from outside of the country. This changed everything, especially the perception and interpretation of what was jazz and what it wasn't. The foreign musicians that came to Poland in those early years -and what they played -had an extremely important influence on the development of jazz in Poland. Dave Brubeck was one of the first, visiting in 1958. Consequently, his brand of "cool" jazz influenced a generation of Polish jazz musicians and fans.

In February 1956, after having overcome many difficulties, the first issue of the monthly music magazine called Jazz was published in Poland. Created by chief editor Jan Balcerak, Jazz magazine came to be the only jazz magazine published behind the Iron Curtain. Polish journalists finally got a forum where they could not only write strictly informational texts, but could also venture into the previously unreachable territory of daring polemics.

Another development in the Polish jazz scene of the 1950s was the creation of the first official jazz clubs. Amongst the most prominent were Stodola and Hybrydy in Warsaw. For the next few decades, these jazz clubs were thriving venues. Young jazz enthusiasts, such as Jan Borkowski of Hybrydy fame, got their own format where they were able to cultivate their love of jazz and hunger for western culture. By the end of the 1950s, the jazz clubs in Poland had created their own first semi-official association: the Polish Jazz Federation, with bassist Jan Byrczek at the helm.

One man was especially important for jazz to develop and become an important fixture in the Polish cultural landscape: Leopold Tyrmand, a writer and enfant terrible of Warsaw's cultural elite. Well dressed and articulate, he was fiercely anticommunist and very knowledgeable on the subject of jazz music. Tyrmand wrote and published the first books and articles about jazz in Poland, helped to organize the initial jazz gatherings and is credited with the creation of the most famous festival, the Jazz Jamboree.

1960s

Growing from its infancy into the 1960s, Polish jazz became more diverse, more sophisticated and more stylish. Along with the political stabilization of "real socialism" in Poland, art and culture began to stabilize as well. During the 1960s, Polish jazz evolved into three basic styles: Dixieland (traditional), straight-ahead (mainstream), and avant-garde (free).

Many bands played their own version of "the original New Orleans style" of jazz, basically mimicking the Dixieland revival that had taken place earlier in Western Europe. They toured frequently, recorded many popular records and helped Polish jazz gain acceptance amongst the wider public. As time passed, Dixieland jazz became more professional and produced many excellent players.

The increased interest in jazz also blossomed into a growing acceptance of more demanding styles. It is difficult to clearly mark the distinction between mainstream and avant-garde jazz in the Polish jazz of the 1960s and 1970s; too many musicians walked the fine line between the two. Perhaps the best approach to analyze the modern jazz in Poland is to focus on its leading figures.

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