Article Art, Politics & Protest

Between cultural revolution and protest: galvanizing jazz behind the iron curtain

Perceived as “the decadent music of the west” and suppressed by communists, jazz nonetheless found its way to exist in the countries of the Eastern Bloc during the Stalinist era. The development of the jazz scene in 1950s and 1960s was intricately linked to a quest for democracy in those societies.

Under those conditions, jazz embodied a new meaning of rebellion and freedom and drew the attention of youths who sought various ways to counter the official socialist culture. In that time, jazz musicians displayed unprecedented creativity despite the grim reality and the lack of adequate facilities.

Clandestine jam sessions

The origins of jazz in Poland date back to the 1920s. The late 1940s and early 1950s are known as the “Catacomb Era” of Polish jazz, because at that time the communist government’s hostility forced it underground.

Despite large-scale criticism from the government, interest in jazz didn’t decrease in society. By contrast, it had the taste of a forbidden fruit. Art banned by the regime became more attractive, especially among young people. Standard American jazz was unofficially performed in private homes and clubs. Such meetings drew artists from different fields, intellectuals and students. Jazz performed in semi-conspiratorial conditions created a distinct, fascinating and ennobling culture. Participation in clandestine jazz events strongly consolidated people. Jazz embodied art with cosmopolitan character and appeared as a symbol of freedom, cultural independence and non-conformist lifestyle. There were jazz enthusiasts who expressed their non-conformity to the official socialist culture in their very extravagant way of dressing: the so-called Bikiniarze.

“Participation in the world of jazz in a political context became an expression of one’s opposition to models of socialist culture enforced from the top and attracted people who didn’t even care for jazz, yet manifested their distinctiveness in that way,” claims Dr Igor Pietraszewski, author of the book Jazz in Poland: Improvised Freedom.

A unique jazz academy

The American Willis Conover’s Jazz Hour, broadcast on Voice of America, which achieved cult status, played a key role in popularising jazz in Eastern Bloc countries. The programme first appeared on January 6 1955. The cyclical programme presented not only music, but also interviews with the most interesting jazz artists. Approximately 100 million people listened to Conover’s broadcasts around the world. They were extremely popular behind the iron curtain. In light of the shortage of music handbooks, records and scores, these broadcasts became a source of information for an entire generation of jazz performers, something of a jazz academy.

The jazz that developed in the countries of “people’s democracies” brought new sounds and new dimensions of jazz expression. Because of the political context, this music symbolised a new hue of freedom. The music that Conover called a cross between total discipline and total anarchy undertook a new meaning in “people’s democracies”.

In Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, Gustav Brom’s band, which played Dixieland and swing, became extremely popular. Later, this band was classified as one of the top 10 big bands in the world, according to the American jazz polls. György Szabados was sometimes dubbed “the father” or “king of the Hungarian free jazz movement” in the 1960s. This avant garde pianist artfully mixed in his music Hungarian folk and modern jazz.

Jazz revolution in Poland

A new phase in the history of jazz began after Stalin’s death. The changes related to the political thaw swept the jazz scene as well in Eastern Bloc countries.

In Poland, jazz was included in state culture more frequently. The government took over the patronage of jazz concerts, and radio and television programmes as well as books devoted to jazz appeared. The jazz “invasion” was spreading rapidly. At the beginning of 1956, the magazine Jazz was established in Gdansk. In later years, it became the only periodical devoted jazz that appeared in the entire Eastern Bloc.

The cultural revival after 1956 opened up new prospects for jazz musicians in Poland: cooperation with radio, television, recordings and jazz bands’ trips to festivals abroad. Jazz meant modern music, fashion, lifestyle and customs. The jazz movement, which integrated people from different milieus, also became the driving force for many intellectual initiatives and projects.

Jazz events were accompanied by exhibitions, theatre performances and poetry readings. Jazz was popular in intellectual circles. Meetings during which jazz was listened to and performed were a pretext for heated debates, not only about jazz.

Polish jazz was strongly connected to the film industry. For example, during the Catacomb Era the band Melomani was established in the milieu of film-makers. Some of its members later graduated from the National Film School in Lodz (among others were Witold Sobocinski, an acclaimed film operator). Thanks to its cooperation with the film industry, Polish jazz later gained great recognition abroad.

In this favourable climate, there was a gradual professionalisation of jazz musicians. Thoroughly educated young musicians whose aim was to play both traditional and modern jazz, at the same time seeking out their own sound and musical identity, appeared. Truly authentic art was being creating then.

“Playing jazz was for us a scream, a protest, an expression of longing for freedom, which was a manifestation of America,” says Michal Urbaniak, a co-founder of the Polish school of jazz. “The established jazz movement of the 1950s and 1960s created a completely new reality. It was a special time when Polish jazz musicians displayed unprecedented creativity in spite of the grim reality and the lack of adequate facilities, including problems with the acquisition of instruments and limited access to the records, scores and difficulties in travelling abroad for concerts,” adds Urbaniak, a world-renowned composer and multi-instrumentalist who has worked with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Quincy Jones, among others.

Breaking the barriers of sound

A great event in the history of Polish jazz at the national level was the first Sopot Jazz Festival, which was held on August 6-12 1956. The event gathered an audience of 30,000. For many people, this festival was an uninhibited celebration of all that jazz symbolised.

An overview of Polish jazz was presented. Bands playing catchy melodies in the Dixieland style aroused the huddled crowds’ enthusiasm. However, the festival’s biggest stars were Krzysztof Komeda’s band. These young musicians from Poznan gave a nuanced and refined modern jazz performance. The success of the group performing the challenging music in a style reminiscent of Gerry Mulligan and Modern Jazz Quartet inaugurated a new stage in the development of Poland’s jazz scene. Shortly thereafter, Komeda’s name was on everyone’s lips.

Thanks to the Komeda Sextet’s performance in Sopot, which was widely discussed in the press, modern jazz - which was hitherto known only to connoisseurs - became more and more in vogue. Each day Krzysztof Komeda, a pianist and an ENT doctor by training, gained more and more popularity. The Komeda Sextet began touring regularly. From the beginning of his career, Komeda showed a willingness to experiment and to find his own artistic style. His strong individualism was expressed in his compositions as well in the way he conducted the band.

“Komeda was a wonderful, modest man and charismatic composer and bandleader as well. He had a strong personality and he knew from the beginning what he wanted from his music. He wasn’t satisfied with routinely playing chords. He wanted us to play on the edge of harmony, to risk looking for tough notes in the direction of ‘breaking the barriers of sound’. At the same time, his compositions were characterised by closed form,” says Urbaniak, who worked with Komeda and took part in the recording of his albums, including Jazz Greetings From The East.

The new phenomenon

The Polish jazz school, the phenomenon that appeared with the wave of changes in 1956, was created by a new generation of jazz musicians who had impressive skills and were fascinated by styles like cool and hard bop.

“Polish jazz school was an artistic and sociological phenomenon, which brought to the world of jazz a new Slavic sound: melancholy, lyricism, some kind of phrase,” claims Urbaniak.

Komeda, born Krzysztof Trzcinski, become the leading Polish jazz pianist alongside Andrzej Trzaskowski a in relatively short period of time. Later music bands he founded and future musical collaborations with prominent jazz musicians in Poland and abroad strengthened his position as a daring innovator, acclaimed leader, arranger and outstanding composer.

“Krzysztof Komeda didn’t play music. He let the music play. He had a vision, and he let us extrapolate what he didn’t know. A musician was himself when he was with him,” says Urbaniak.

In 1963, Komeda invited young trumpet player Tomasz Stanko to join his band. Stanko’s trumpet’s unique, rugged sound brought a new dimension to the emotional depth and melancholy of Komeda’s music. Today, Stanko is regarded as one of the world’s outstanding jazz trumpet players. He has collaborated with many acclaimed jazz musicians, including Cecil Taylor, Jan Garbarek, Gary Peacock and Dave Holland.

New dimension of film music

The turning point in Komeda’s career was a meeting with Roman Polanski and working on the score for Polanski’s short black and white silent movie Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958). Komeda’s début as a composer of film music was a big success. His disturbing music, original and ideally fitting the film’s aura with a leitmotif in the form of a lullaby, gained rave reviews. Since then, the jazzman continued working for the film industry. Writing music for Polanski’s films opened the door to an international career. His score for Rosemary’s Baby was nominated for a Golden Globe.

Over the course of 10 years, Komeda wrote the music for approximately 65 films and worked with the most famous Polish directors of this period, as well as with film-makers from Denmark and the US. In addition to composing film scores, he continued recording jazz albums and toured. In December 1965, during two days at the National Philharmonic, a recording session took place for the legendary album Astigmatic. Today, many music critics consider this album a milestone in the history of jazz. Komeda gained international critical acclaim for his original style of composition.

Komeda’s career drew to tragic close in April 1969. His death followed an accident a few months earlier in Los Angeles. His contribution to Polish and world jazz is invaluable.

“Krzysztof Komeda became the symbol of the entire Polish school of jazz, a phenomenon that stands out in European and world jazz. The original style of Komeda’s compositions and his characteristic leitmotifs are a source of endless inspiration for future generations of musicians,” says Tomasz Lach, artist, writer and Komeda’s stepson, heir and curator of the legendary musician’s legacy.

Komeda became one of the most important figures of his generation, alongside Polanski, Andrzej Wajda and Jerzy Skolimowski, a generation that celebrated jazz in all its fullness.

“The Polish jazz movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a sign of significant social and cultural changes of the young generation searching for freedom and democracy, as well as a certain otherness. As a sociological phenomenon, it was related to protest movements in Europe and the US in the 1960s, including student protests in France and the American hippy movement” says Lach.


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