Polish Jazz for Dummies: 60 Years of Jazz from Poland

Cezary L. Lerski By

Sign in to view read count
In 1973, Michal Urbaniak released the groundbreaking album Fusion. This LP, recorded and released in the USA, very accurately captured Urbaniak as a leading force of not only Polish but American jazz. All elements of his artistic personality are already there: straight-ahead expression paired with Slavic ingenuousness, musical eclectics, contemporary articulation and the influence of Polish folk music, all flawlessly incorporated into the vocabulary of American jazz. In the next decades, Urbaniak has continued his hunt after cutting edge styles, sounds, genres and technologies from the jazz-rock of 1970s to the fusion and funk of the 1980s to the hip-hop of the 1990s always founding inspiration in his own folk tradition, when at the same time, creating homogenous form of musical expression in a truly unique jazz art form.

Adam Makowicz is one of the real geniuses of Polish jazz. His brilliant career spans decades and until today he always amazes jazz fans with his virtuosity and swing. AsJim Fuselli once wrote about him in The Wall Street Journal: "Adam Makowicz has been praised by Benny Goodman, compared with Art Tatum, Erroll Garner and Teddy Wilson, honored by jazz publications and toasted all over Europe as a genius. Mr. Makowicz's fiery style, firm chording, and rapid, Tatumesque right hand phrasing make him more than deserving of the accolades he has received."

Similar rave reviews were often written about another giant of Polish jazz Zbigniew Namyslowski. The quote from Willis Conover himself says enough: "When I first visited Poland, I was quite unprepared to hear Polish musicians at so high level. Namyslowski was clearly the best. International voting has proved that audiences in Europe recognize the best Polish musician as among the best anywhere in the world. He honors 3 traditions, of jazz, of Polish, of himself. Anyone who misses Namyslowski is missing a unique source of creativity in 20th century. Namyslowski is a giant!"

After the end of his legendary quintet, Tomasz Stanko has continued his solo career, primarily focusing his interest on free jazz. Since 1990s, and under the banner of ECM label, his music became more "approachable gaining worldwide recognition and unified critical acclaims. Today Stanko is one of the most important, successful and creative jazz musicians in the world, just next to another living giants such as Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins.


Starting in the late 1970s, the focus of Polish jazz began to shift. A new generations of musicians were ready to claim their place on the jazz map. In the early 80s, "the Young Power" movement -with composer and flutist Krzysztof Popek at the helmet -began questioning existing dogma. At the same time electric groups like pianist Janusz Grzywacz's Laboratorium, violinist Krzesimir Debski's String Connection and guitarist Jarek Smietana's Extra Ball have been slowly taking over with concertgoers and record buyers.

The process only intensified during the next decades. But despite being verbally critical and musically adventurous, the Young Power movement soon ran out of gas and blended into existing jazz spectrum. The same happened to members of Laboratoriums, String Connections and Extra Balls who merged into jazz establishment and soon, like in the case of Extra Ball leader Jarek Smietana, took over the role of the oligarchs. So, after another decade it seemed like nothing changed. The number of the Oligarchs increased but basically everything was going the same way and under the same leadership.

Of course there were exceptions to those rules. Since the late 70s, a parallel jazz scene has been developing with some of the most creative and important works in the history of Polish jazz. Initially represented by diverse personality such as bassist Helmut Nadolski and drummer Wladyslaw Jagiello, along with members of Kurylewicz's Formacja Muzyki Wspolczesnej (Formation of Contemporary Music). Composer and flutist Krzysztof Popek, saxophonist Wlodzimierz Kiniorski and many other creative and not-that-jazz-media-friendly musicians like pianist Wojtek Konikiewicz expanded and incorporated the creative force of the Young Power movement.

The new movement had no leader, no single ideology, no manifesto, no logo and no simply defined style. Actually there was not even recognition of the cohesiveness among the members of the movement who lived and worked alone. Only the following decades proved that the same ideas were developed, tested and finally articulated by various but artistically cohesive musicians. But the entire process and the musicians who were creating the new face of Polish jazz were not visible and has not been recognized by the jazz society, "the Invisibles." The Invisibles were different and they did not meet any artistically dogmatic criteria.

It is somehow difficult to define what distinguished the Invisibles from the rest of the crowd but a few elements stand out. They were more Ornette and less Parker, more solo and quasi-big band than trios and quartets, more diverse musical influences and less traditionally defined borders. Moreover, it is difficult to compare the Invisibles with anyone else before them. The Invisibles have never gained great prominence or recognition but their influence on the creative freedom, artistic sincerity and musical independence in Polish jazz cannot be underestimated.

The '80s were coming to and end and with it, the end of systems which dominated the landscape of Polish life, not only jazz but throughout the political and social systems, too.

The process only intensified during the next decades. But despite being verbally critical and musically adventurous, the Young Power movement soon ran out of gas and blended into the existing jazz spectrum. The same happened to members of Laboratorium, String Connection and Extra Ball who merged into jazz establishment. The history repeated itself again in the next decade when even "younger power emerged as most creative stream in Polish jazz of 1990s. They called their music "jass to distinguish themselves from to conventional "jazz . The band "Milosc (Love) was a superstar of the movement and its leading force. Despite its rhetoric -which had more to do with personalities of its leading figures them with artistic principles -jass remained an improvised music, based on the same doctrine and conventions essential to jazz. Jass followed the steps of Young Power and also merged into he main stream of Polish Jazz.

Polish Jazz Now

If one had to choose one word to describe a contemporary jazz scene in Poland, it would be "diversity."

The jazz landscape is very different, intense and richly populated by several generations of creative artists. From "Old Masters to young talents, from 1980s Young Power generation to the 1990s era dissidents of jass music, from traditional Dixieland styles to veterans of the avant-garde -jazz knows no borders and Polish Jazz 2005 is an art form that long ago crossed stylistic and geographical boundaries.

Now, hundreds of small, vibrant jazz clubs can be found all over the country: from Krakow's Alchemia to Mozg (the Brain) in Bydgoszcz to the biggest jazz festivals such as Jazz Jamboree JVC Festival, Era Jazzu and Warsaw Jazz Days. Jazz records are offered by hundreds of small, independent labels such as NotTwo and GOWI, as well as from catalogues of major record companies such as Sony and BMG.

Today, Polish jazz is a mature but still vibrant and evolving jazz form. The form with a deep respect and understanding of tradition but at the same time an art form that explores places, concepts and emotions previously unknown.

All About Jazz is proud to welcome you to the world of Polish jazz.

Ten Essential Jazz Recordings from Poland
  • Krzysztof Komeda Quintet: Astigmatic (1965)
  • Tomasz Stanko: Music for K (1970)
  • NOVI (Now Original Vocal Instruments): Sing Chopin (1971)
  • Zbigniew Namyslowski Quintet: Winobranie (1973)
  • Jan "Ptaszyn" Wroblewski -Studio Jazzowe PR: Seaweed Paddlers (1973)
  • Michal Urbaniak: Fusion (1974)
  • Zbigniew Seifert: Man of The Light (1976)
  • Andrzej Jagodzinski Trio: Chopin (1993)
  • Milosc & Lester Bowie: Not Two (1997)
  • Vitold Rek: Polish Folk Explosion (2001)
Special thanks to Matthew Ritchie (Scotland) and Michael Pronko (JazzNin -Tokyo, Japan) for help with this article.


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.