There is a tongue-in-cheek story about how Jazz originated in Poland:

According to Jozef Tischenr’s History of Philosophy According to Polish Highlanders:

People from all over the world came to Bialy Dunajec, a town in the Tatry mountains, to learn about Polish Highland music. They were taught to play fiddles and basses, and students from Africa mastered it quickly. Unfortunately, on their way home to Africa, they encountered a storm and all of their instruments were washed overboard. Arriving home with just their bows and no fiddles of basses, they used the bows to strike any kind of objects, creating the rhythms from which jazz was born …….

The actual development of jazz in Poland has faced far more challenges, and perhaps what makes Polish jazz significant is its reflection of the country’s own quest for freedom and democracy.

Until 1918, Poland was part of three separate countries – Russia, Austria and Germany (then Prussia). After the First World War, it became a country in its own right, until two years later the Soviet army invaded and more than half its territory was lost. Poland’s own army regrouped and held the rest of the country, bringing Poland twenty years of freedom, but freedom accompanied by ongoing periods of political unrest, ethnic conflict and economic difficulty.

It was also after the First World War that jazz began to spread to Europe and in 1923 the first Polish jazz band was formed by saxophonist Zygmunt Karasinski, pianist/clarinettist Szymon Kataszek, pianist Jerzy Petersburski and drummer Sam Salvano. It was called The Karasinski and Kataszek Jazz – Tango Orchestra and played music in the style of Paul Whiteman and Red Nichols. The band was so successful it toured Europe and the Middle East in 1934-35. Other bands were formed, playing for movies and recording and in 1934, the Polish National Opera staged the opera ‘Jazz Band, Negro and Woman’.

The growth of jazz was enhanced by many Jewish musicians who left neighbouring Germany for Poland in the early 1930s. Trumpeter Ady Rosner was one of those who arrived to form a swinging orchestra with Polish musicians. When Poland was again invaded in 1939, Rosner escaped to Russia where he went from being the highest paid musician to being made a gulag prisoner before re-emerging to become a driving force in Soviet Jazz.

As the 1930s came to an end, swinging big bands were as popular in Poland as they were elsewhere and the magazines Melody Maker, Down Beat and Metronome were arriving together with more American recorded music.

But in 1939, Poland was invaded by the armies of Nazi Germany which occupied the country for the next six years until, as the Second World War drew to its end, the German forces retreated before the Soviet Army.

An agreement reached at the Yalta Conference divided Europe East and West, with half of Europe including Poland being passed to Russia under the leadership of Josef Stalin. Many members of the 200,000 strong Polish Forces were still stationed abroad, many with no families or homes to return to. A pro-communist government was established in Poland and although initially set up on a provisonal basis, continued until the end of the 1980s.

Under this regime, only certain musical forms were allowed to flourish, particularly those with folk rhythms but without syncopation. Jazz was outlawed as being the music of Western Europe and the U.S.A, and was banned along with modern art and the right to travel abroad. Artists and musicians were required to follow a regime of ‘Socialist Realism’.

Not everybody complied. Some young people re-discovered jazz and took the music underground, or ‘into the catacombs’ as it was symbolically described. Jazz was only played at private homes and private parties. From the late 1940s, although not existing officially, jazz in Poland reflected a spirit of independence and non-conformity amongst part of the country’s population.

One band came to dominate the hidden landscape. That band, established in 1947, was Melomani (‘The Music Afficianados’). Without easy access to jazz recordings, radio broadcasts or publications, Melomani played jazz with which they were familiar – the music of W.C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton. The band hung out at the Lodz YMCA, one of the centres for independent thinkers in the late 1940s. Melomani’s technical abilities and repertoire would not have met Western standards of the time, but that didn’t matter to their fans who embraced it because they enjoyed it, it was illegitimate and because it was theirs.

Polish jazz musicians also owed much to broadcasts by the Voice of America radio station and tuned their Soviet-made radios to DJ Willis Conover’s programmes. His contribution to the development of Polish jazz at that time has been recognised and appreciated by musicians and fans in Poland for many years.

When Stalin died in 1953, Poland began to change. It became acceptable once again to listen to jazz and Polish Radio resumed its national broadcasts of swing concerts. Jazz Festivals began to take place with the first legal jazz gathering taking place in Krakow in 1954. A ‘time of frenzy’, as it was known, emerged after the first official Jazz Festival in Sopot in 1956, a key event in the history of Polish Jazz. The Festival marked the first major official recognition of the music.

Polish jazz veteran Jan Wroblewski recalled:

‘...man, until that time I haven’t played anything better than dance halls in Poznan, and for the public consisting of my colleagues only. Tens of thousands of people from all over Poland came to Sopot for the festival. When the legendary rally (inspired by New Orleans parades) went through the town you couldn’t stick a finger anywhere – it was packed. The party was going on 24 hours a day, extraordinary, fantastic party. People, free people, were everywhere, on the streets, on the Sopot pier, on the beaches …’

But in that same year of 1956, there was further political unrest as workers protested in Poznan against bad housing, a decline in real income, and against shipments of commodities to the Soviet Union. Rioters were killed and political prisoners were taken. However, after the initial response by security forces, the government recognised that the riots had awakened the nationalist movement, softened its approach, and a more liberal faction of Polish communists came to power.

The Sopot Jazz Festival took place once again in 1957, significantly including bands from Germany and Czechoslovakia and for the first time, American musicians were invited, including clarinettist Albert Nicholas.

‘Jazz’, the first monthly jazz magazine published behind the iron curtain was produced in Poland, jazz clubs such as ‘Stodola’ and ‘Hybrydy’ were formed, and for the first time other musicians from outside the country came to play to Poland’s jazz fans. In 1958, the Festival moved to Warsaw, and has continued every year under the new name of the Jazz Jamboree. Dave Brubeck also came to Poland in 1958 influencing a whole generation of jazz musicians and fans by introducing his brand of ‘cool’ jazz.

As in other countries, the 1960s saw the arrival of Rock and Roll – ‘Big Beat’, as it was called in Poland. Jazz, as in other countries, matured and became more diverse, evolving into three main styles: Dixieland (traditional), Straight-ahead (mainstream), and Avant-garde (free). Trumpeter, clarinettist, composer, Henryk ‘Papa’ Majewski was one of the most distinguished leaders of the traditional style creating ‘The Old Timers’ band which travelled around Europe playing with Albert Nicholas, Sandy Brown, Buck Clayton and Wild Bill Davison. Majewski also founded the Stodola Big Band and countless small groups.

In 1962, a twenty-year old trumpet player named Tomasz Stanko, a graduate of Cracow Music Academy, set up the band the Jazz Darings with pianist Adam Makowicz, and in 1963, Jan Byrczek founded the Polish Jazz Society which grew into the largest jazz organisation in Europe with branch offices across Poland.

Pianist Andrzej Trzaskowski representing the Polish Third Stream – a hybrid of Jazz and philharmonic music - formed his hard bop group 'The Wreckers', and Andrzej Kurylewicz , composer, pianist, trumpet and trombone player founded the Polish Radio Jazz Band. Pianist Krzysztof Komeda, who had been one of the founders of Melomani band, became very influential producing a unique sound described as having less to do with conventional jazz timing and more to do with the 19th century Polish romantic tradition. He wrote for a number of films collaborating with Roman Polanski on the soundtracks of movies such as ‘Knife In The Water’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’.

From the mid-1960s Poland was again experiencing increasing economic and political difficulties. Strikes and riots took place again in 1970 and Edward Gierek replaced Wladyslaw Gomulka as party first secretary. Gierek had good relationships with Western politicians and Poland received Western aid and loans that brought a rise in the standard of living. Pro-Western policies benefited Polish jazz and the 1972 Jazz Jamboree included Elvin Jones, Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley and Cat Anderson and, as the 1970s went on, jazz fans came to the festivals from many other countries of Eastern and Northern Europe. Another jazz magazine ‘Jazz Forum’ began to outsell the magazine ‘Jazz’ and was printed in Polish, German and English.

Tomasz Stanko, who had gone on to play with Komeda whose modern music had a profound influence on Stanko, formed his own Quintet until 1973 after which Stanko collaborated with many famous musicians including Don Cherry and Jan Garbarek. Tomasz Stanko has gone on to be one of Poland’s foremost jazz musicians throughout the following decades.

Unrest in Poland surfaced again in 1980 when a wave of strikes by the independent trade union ‘Solidarity’ resulted in the government declaring martial law in 1981. The unrest continued until at last, free elections in 1989 began the process of a peaceful transition from Communism. During this period, in 1983, one of the most important concerts in the history of Polish Jazz took place when Miles Davis’s band played the Congress Hall in Warsaw. Welcoming delegates for the Congress of the Polish Communist Party. Miles said:

‘This tour was something special because the people were so happy to see me. They really got into the music. I remember one date in particular in Warsaw, Poland. When I got through playing my concert they stood and cheered, and chanted that they hoped that I live a hundred years. Man, that was something!’

The 1980s brought the ‘Young Power’ movement led by Krzysztof Popek that revolutionised Polish jazz, and the 1990s had Andrzej Jagodzinski interpreting the nation’s favourite Chopin masterpieces in jazz.

In November 1990, Poland held its second post-war free elections when Solidarity’s Lech Walesa became President. At about the same time, the band Milosc (‘Love’) came to the fore playing what they called ‘Yass’, a fusion of post punk, free jazz, modern rock, surrealistic instrumental theatre and poetry.

Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004. It is now a thriving democracy. It’s jazz is now diverse and flourishing, richly populated by several generations of creative musicians. Tomasz Stanko is said to be perhaps the most popular and accomplished, but the jazz scene is bulging with talented musicians of all genres. Bands such as Simple Acoustic Trio, the Jazz Band Ball Orchestra, Loskot, Funk de Nite (sometimes with Bryan Corbett) and musicians such as saxophonist Adam Pieronczyk, trumpeter Piotr Wojtasik, Guitarist Andrzej Izdebski, pianist Pawel Kaczmarczyk, bass player Marcin Oles and drummer Jacek Kochan are keeping the music alive, writing their own compositions and making their own personal marks in jazz.

American critic Michael Keefe wrote in the introduction to the 2-CD compilation ‘The Best Of Polish Jazz’: ‘….Poland, a country that has been making consistently great music for 4 decades. It is criminal that American jazz fans are so completely unaware of this music…

This is only a brief summary based on an excellent, informative and comprehensive article on the website www.polishjazz.com. For anyone who would like to find out more about Polish jazz we would strongly recommend this site which has samples of music and much more information about particular musicians.

Sandy Brown Jazz
November 2008
With thanks to polishjazz.com

© Sandy Brown Jazz 2008 - 2014

Back to top