Friday, September 23, 2011

Helikon: where underground met with heaven in jazz!

(Editor) I welcome warmly among writers on this blog Philip Palmer. In his first text he sheds light on relatively unknown but crucial role of famous jazz clubs in development of Polish jazz scene... Fascinating reading indeed!!! 

The thriving jazz scene in 1960s Krakow mainly centred around three venues. Students tended to catch their jazz at their official club, Pod Jaszczurami, or at Piwnica Pod Baranami. But musicians tended to opt for Helikon, one of the few places in Poland where the artistically inclined could speak their mind without fear of retribution. For this reason, membership was strictly limited to musicians, artists and people who could prove they were ardent jazz fans. The initiated gained entry by whistling ‘klezmer style’, at which point the barman would remove the sofa which blocked the door from the inside and let them in.

Until recently, it was difficult for the curious to find out more about Helikon. But that changed last year with the publication of a collection of contemporary eyewitness accounts given by musicians, their wives, political activists and artists. Helikon (PWM, 2006) was compiled by original club member, Grzegorz Tusiewicz.

Tusiewicz clearly remembers the anxious wait in the autumn rain as the club committee carefully perused his membership application and the jubilation when it was granted. For becoming a member of the Helikon was like being invited into an underground network of anti-establishment musicians, artists and thinkers.

The members of the club were united by an interest in modern art, intellectual freedom and political jokes of the kind that had to be whispered into ears in public places. They had a certain manner of dress, a way of combing their hair. According to the account in Tusiewicz’s book by political activist, Adam Macedoński, listening to jazz “was a protest against communism, its rules, the morals it endorsed, the un-Polish culture, or rather the anti-culture of the Soviet paradise.”

The exclusivity of the club extended to performance. Standards were high, especially after bassist, Jan Bryczek took over in 1962. Stanko told Radio Krakow about his first visit to the the club. Krzysztof Komeda was at the piano.

“We weren’t even bold enough to approach him, but I remember his distinctive frame hunched over the piano with that half-mocking, half-derisive, half-serious smile on his face.”

Stanko’s band ‘The Jazz Darings’, featuring Janusz Muniak on saxophone, would eventually take the club by storm with their take on The New Thing. Other revered regulars included Andrzej Kurylewicz, Andrzej Trzaskowski and Zbigniew Seifert.

The reminiscences in Tusiewicz’s book corroborate each other to a remarkable extent. People remember how cramped the club was, especially with musicians sleeping on benches and under the piano. They remember the message-laden prints by Wieslaw Dymny that adorned the walls, the thick smoke, the biting cold (there was no heating) and the thin stream of light filtering down from one small window. But what they most remember is the extraordinary atmosphere generated by uncensored discussions on jazz and politics and of course the intimate performances by jazz greats that still inspire them to this day.

Unlike Pod Jaszczurami and Pod Baranami, which still operate today, Helikon was unceremoniously shut down by the communist authorities in 1969. Tusiewicz attended the sad closing ceremony as the keys were handed over to the local magistrates.

Originally published in the September 2007 edition of Jazzwise.

Author of text: Philip Palmer 

(Editor) As musical accent please listen to Polish Radio Big Band from their album issued in 1965 under Andrzej Kurylewicz who was one of most famous residents of Helikon club in Cracow...


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