Saturday, July 7, 2012

Polish Jazz is blooming...?...


Friday evening in the Harris Piano Jazz Bar. Eighty guests fill the cellar vault: Grey heads next to younger fans, even a few teenagers are on hand, moving in tempo to the music, the braces on their teeth gleaming as they smile. Young and old alike, all are with it, clapping wildly when one of the musicians on stage has finished a solo — especially Piotr Baron, whose saxophone practically sings and who produces resonant riffs that ascend to lofty heights. Modern jazz at its best in front of an audience that really appreciates a kind of music that, amidst all this virtuosity, has a particular hue of emotive and playful twists and turns. Even the percussion instruments seem to croon in a particular way when Przemek Jarosz, with sticks, felt-covered mallets and soft brushes, strokes, rubs and beats surprising melodies from the cymbals and drums. “That’s Polish jazz,” says Marek Michalak. “Melodic and romantic — like we are.”

Marek sits at the very front of the stage, his trombone between his knees, maintaining eye contact with Piotr, who nods to him. Marek puffs his cheeks, carefully feeling his way into the piece, softly playing a mere two bars; then he’s on his feet, no longer able to stay seated, playing his solo in the midst of the audience, and finally jumping back on to the stage where he joins in with the rest of the group and their music.


During the course of the evening, Marek will involve himself again with a couple of other bands. If there’s one thing that Marek loves more than women and vodka, it’s jam sessions. Until the wee hours of the morning, he’ll hop from one to the other jazz joint in Krakow’s historic district, looking for any opportunity to jump in—no matter if it’s Benny Goodmanstyle swing or bebop, klezmer or New Orleans à la Louis Armstrong. Everyone knows the 62-year-old music veteran who has been on the scene since his early teens and, in the meantime, is considered to be Poland’s best trombonist. He manages bands, rents out music equipment, organizes jazz evenings and is therefore always on tour—a musical hallmark of the city between the old cloth halls of the marketplace, Wawel Castle and the narrow streets of Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter.

“Krakow is the liveliest jazz city in Europe,” says Marek with enthusiasm. “The concentration of clubs, restaurants and cafés is even higher than that of New York or New Orleans!” The internationally unique attractions include the two hundred jazz clubs in the historic district whose venues are located in multistory vaulted cellars from the Middle Ages—here, down below, is where the music making takes place in countless variations, dimly-lit with candlelight, as in U Muniaks, smartly styled and air conditioned as in Piec Art, or cool as in Harris Piano Jazz Bar. Taken all together, the continuation of a highly diversified tradition that has its roots in the roaring 1920s. Back then, the first music cafés and dance clubs appeared, modeled on Paris and Berlin, and swing that embodied a modern American cosmopolitan lifestyle.

During the Stalin era, jazz was forbidden, having been considered a decadent way of making music that mirrored Western capitalism, and something that was even compared with pornography. However, state repression had the opposite effect: It marked the real beginning of Polski Jazz, which continued to flourish in the underground catacombs, bringing with it a yearning for a freer world. Around 1954, the regime adopted a somewhat more liberal attitude: In Poland, jazz was finally publically allowed.


Marek Michalak played, as early as the 1960s, in various jazz bands; during the 1970s, he was a star who helped loosen the constraints on the people’s republic. He was permitted to give concerts abroad, played in almost all Western European countries, was famed for his appearances at the celebrated Sacramento jazz festival, and was paid well: “With what I earned on one evening in the West, I could take care of my family for a whole month,” he relates, taking a sip of beer and chasing it with a vodka. “I was even able to buy a house. And could have afforded a couple more. Unfortunately, I drank the money away.” Thankfully, one house is enough—most importantly, it’s located in Krakow: Warsaw is where politics is played out; Krakow is where the music plays — even if most musicians in Krakow earn, at best, 25 euros per evening.

On this evening, Goœciniec’s cellar is jammed, and smells strongly of barscht and bigos, of sauerkraut and sausages. While the band plays old-time melodies, the crowd eats, drinks and dances. A short time later, Marek, in a bright red jacket, stands alongside the band and begins a solo that audibly fires up the musicians. Swing is, in any event, the thing now, but the band can also bring the dancers to their feet with boogie-woogie and then, to the gentle strains of Gershwin’s classic “Summertime,” bring them back to a slow, close dance. “Jazz isn’t simply jazz,” says Jarek Smietana, who enjoys the hubbub in Goœciniec. “In France, jazz is hip and chic, in Germany it’s straightforward, but no matter where, you can sense blindly if it was written by a white or black musician.”


Smietana, a guitar player, has accompanied, over the past forty years, practically every jazz legend the world over. He recently returned from a three week tour through China and Japan, during which he accompanied star violinist Nigel Kennedy, with whom he was able to display the full gamut of his virtuosity. Like Kennedy, who has no problem mixing classical and rock music, Jarek Smietana dismantles the barrier between old and new music. One of his musical gems is an adaptation of the theme from the Revolutionary Etude by Polish national hero Frederic Chopin, embedded in the dissonant sounds of rock star Jimi Hendrix. Would Chopin have approved? Smietana’s answer comes swiftly and clearly: “No doubt about it: Chopin was a jazz musician!”

It’s shortly after midnight. On the next side street, Marek enters the cellar of Janusz Muniak, an older musician who has also played with numerous great jazz names and, for around twenty years now, has been appearing every weekend in his own cellar. At this late hour, only ten guests are still sitting around, beer glasses on the table in front of them. On stage, the musicians have begun to pack up their instruments. No chance here of joining in a number. Time to go home? Marek moves on: Maybe it’s not too late to stop by for a quick nightcap in Club Plastika, where the veterans from the Old Metropolitan Band, who he knows since his days at the music academy, are appearing. “The average age in the group is around seventy,” he says, sighing, “and they play mostly Dixieland, which is a bit too banal for me.” However, recently a young female singer has been stirring up the old boys. “Elzbieta Kulpa, an amazingly hot number!” says Marek, as he walks into the club. Lo and behold, the place is full, even the dance floor, and on stage, in the middle of the old hands, Elzbieta’s black hair whips about while she sings like a blues goddess on high heels, all the while swaying her hips.

Directly below her, near the edge of the stage, Marek takes a seat. When she begins to sing “Sweet Georgia Brown,” he orders a bottle of vodka. And puts his trombone to his lips.

Text: Uschi Entenmann, Photos: Piotr Kłosek, Ivo Saglietti, Bogusław Mielec
Bilfinger Berger Magazine 2/2011

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