A Foreigner’s Guide to Polish Jazz

Written by | jazz history, News

The ‘thaw’ – 1950s and 1960s

Despite the political obstacles of the 1960s, cultural and intellectual life in Poland continued to thrive throughout this and the following decades. Not surprisingly, in the 1960s, Polish jazz became one of the most important elements of cultural revival. Growing from its infancy into maturity, it became more diverse, more sophisticated and more stylish. During the 1960s, Polish jazz evolved into three basic styles: Dixieland (traditional), straight-ahead (mainstream), and avant-garde (free).

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 analyse modern jazz in Poland is to focus on its leading figures.

Krzysztof Komeda

Krzysztof Komeda, photo: Marek Karewicz / from the Kordegarda Gallery

The most important artist of the 1960s and in the whole history of Polish jazz was Krzysztof Komeda (real name Krzysztof Trzciński ). He was born on April 27, 1931, in Pozna? and started playing piano at the age of seven, but the war ruined any chance of him becoming a concert pianist.

He studied medicine at Poznań and chose to be a laryngologist. He picked his childhood alias “Komeda” for his artistic alter-ego – in 1950s Poland it was not possible for a reputable M.D. to play “the decadent music of the West” – jazz. He was one of the founders of legendary band Melomani; his professional jazz pianist career started at the 1st Sopot Jazz Festival in 1956 with Janusz Grzewiński’s Dixieland band and his own Sextet. He continued his jazz career in Poland and Scandinavia for the next 12 years with his own bands (Combo, Trio, Quartet, Quintet, Sextet), which dominated the modern Polish jazz scene.

Komeda’s role in Polish jazz cannot be explained in just a few sentences. Words like: genius, composer, visionary, collaborator and leader cannot fully describe him. How could this talented but not by any means virtuoso pianist with a medical degree make such a great impact on Polish jazz? How could all of the musicians who played with him emphasise what an overwhelming impact his music and his personality made on them? Komeda’s long time collaborator Tomasz Stańko commented:

Komeda was a very quiet man. At rehearsals he told us nothing, nothing. He would give us a score and we would play and the silence was very strong and intense. He wouldn’t say if we were right or wrong in our approach. He’d just smile. He was such a strong force, the music was so original and he always gave me plenty of space for self-expression and interpretation… He showed me how simplicity is vital, how to play the essential. He showed different approaches, using different harmonies, asymmetry, many details. I was very lucky that I started out with him…

His unique sound has to a lesser extent to do with conventional jazz-style timing, but rather with Slavic lyricism, 19th-century Polish romantic music tradition, and a variable treatment of time during the course of his compositions. He is widely credited as being one of the founding fathers of the uniquely European style of jazz composition.

During his life, Komeda released only one album, Astigmatic (Polskie Nagrania – Muza Recording Label), which the Penguin Guide to Jazz called “Simply – Essential!”. A new release with more influence on Polish jazz has yet to be recorded. Another field where Komeda excelled and achieved world class status was his work for motion pictures; he wrote music for over 40 films, including such Polish cinematic classics as Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers. He also collaborated with other Polish directors: Jerzy Passendorfer, Jerzy Skolimowski, Janusz Morgenstern, Jerzy Hoffman, Leonard Buczkowski, Janusz Nasfeter, and renowned Danish film director Henning Carlsen. Especially important was his very fruitful collaboration with director Roman Polański that included the soundtracks to Two Men and a Wardrobe, Cul-de-Sac, Knife in the Water, Fearless Vampire Killers and Rosemary’s Baby.

In December 1968 in Los Angeles, when working on Rosemary’s Baby, Komeda had a mysterious accident which led to his death due to brain damage. Decades have passed after Komeda’s tragically early death at the age of 38, but despite the passing of time, his music is still alive, inspiring new artists and conquering new hordes of listeners. Countless Polish jazz musicians have been exploring the legacy of Komeda and his songbook, with Tomasz Stańko and Leszek Możdżer being the most famous torchbearers.

Previous Next

Last modified: February 3, 2021