Growing up in 1950s Communist Poland, Michał Urbaniak and his friends would congregate in each other’s apartments, listening in reverential silence to jazz shows on Voice of America or Radio Luxembourg, or to an Ornette Coleman record someone might have obtained on a rare trip abroad.
“When we started out jazz was forbidden,” says Urbaniak, a jazz musician and composer who has played and recorded with many of the greats, from Miles Davies to Herbie Hancock, and authored influential albums himself. “Even now I sometimes catch myself—I feel the element of protest in me all the time.”
Jazz lost no time crossing the Atlantic in the early 20th century and rapidly became popular, with bands emerging everywhere from Moscow to Paris. In Soviet Russia, however, it was swiftly suppressed by Stalin, who detested it as a symbol of “decadent” American imperialism. As the Soviet empire expanded following World War II, the clampdown spread throughout Eastern Europe. Jazz was driven underground, though it never died out.
Listen to the artists featured in this story. Track list: 1. Krzysztof Komeda– Knife In The Water – Poland 2. Collage- Halb Sirp (Bad Sickle)- Estonia 3. Aura Urziceanu- Cîntec Din Oaș- Romania 4. Michal Urbaniak- New York Polka- Poland 5. Energit- Říční Písek- Czechoslovakia 6. Vesselin Nikolov And White 7. Green And Red - Alleluia- Bulgaria 8. EABS- Pingwin VI- Poland
Jazz as the language of freedom and counter-culture in the East
Behind the iron curtain it came to symbolise freedom, the music of the counter culture, and after the eventual relaxation of restrictions following Stalin’s death in 1953, the music of the avant-garde.
With limited access to Western bands, many jazz musicians turned for inspiration to local folk traditions, from Crimean Tatar music to klezmer bands, gypsy riffs and Balkan rhythms. “Musicians did try to copy American jazz but there weren’t so many records so they didn’t know how to play it,” says Adrian Magrys, co-founder of the London based Lanquidity Records, which specialises in Eastern European jazz from the Cold War era until now. “They’d put in some folk stuff, or they’d play in their own, Eastern European way.”
“It shows the power of their imagination,” says Mateusz Surma, the other half of Lanquidity. “Maybe that’s the reason why this music is so powerful, 40 years later.”
Ironically, Communist restrictions only increased a transatlantic yearning. “From the age of 14 I knew I was American,” declares Urbaniak, who eventually defected to the US in 1973. “We all thought one day the Americans would come and rescue us.”
He wasn’t alone in his obsession. “We dressed like Americans. We’d visit second-hand shops and buy old jackets and shoes from the US. Most of us didn’t speak any English, but we knew the titles to the songs. So we’d walk along the street pretending to speak English, but all we were doing was talking song titles.”
The era of Eastern avant-garde jazz
After Stalin’s death, things relaxed somewhat. “In the late 50s, early 60s, Eastern European governments realised: ‘We do have good musicians’. In every country there’d be a jazz festival and one record label,” explains Surma.
Unlike film or literature, jazz got a surprising amount of leeway, for the simple reason that it had no lyrics. “There was no message,” says Magrys. “That’s why the Czechoslovaks, the Polish, the Soviet countries had lots of experimental, avant-garde jazz. The politicians thought, ‘It’s just some crazy people playing crazy music. We’ll leave them alone.'”
Urbaniak was the youngest of a group of musicians who included an ear, nose and throat doctor who adopted a stage name, Krzysztof Komeda, to avoid embarrassing his colleagues. He set up a quintet, and in 1966 recorded Astigmatic, a seminal LP later hailed as “one of the finest jazz albums ever made in Europe”. Featuring only three tracks, it was heavily influenced by John Coltrane, but was also distinctly new, filled with a particular Polish mournfulness and unafraid to draw on local folk traditions.
Komeda’s circle included the film director Roman Polanski, for whom he composed the soundtrack to many films, including Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby. When Polanski defected to the US, Komeda soon followed, only to have his promising and prolific career cut short when he died in a mysterious accident at the age of 37.
Jazz never lost its counter culture status, and it played a central role in the 1989 revolutions. In Czechoslovakia, while the Communist government was busy imprisoning anyone who owned the Frank Zappa Song Book, the Reduta Jazz Club in Prague became an important rallying point for dissidents, who included the writer and future president Václav Havel.
Yet by 1995, when President Bill Clinton visited the Reduta club and made headlines playing a saxophone Havel had given him, Eastern European jazz seemed to have lost its soul.
Rocky soul-searching and new jazz
Now that everyone was ‘free’, many Eastern European musicians moved abroad. Audiences only wanted Western pop. The German cigarette company, West, summed it up on their billboard ads across what had been Eastern Germany, with the slogan: “West is Best.” From a poignant, visceral music that expressed a thousand emotions, Eastern European jazz had been reduced to background music for restaurants.
In Poland it took a group of musicians with a punk rock background, who for many years refused to even acknowledge that their music had anything to do with jazz, to bring the genre back to life. The movement, known as Yass, which spanned the 1990s, was epitomised by bands like Łoskot and Miłość, whose anarchic, arrhythmic sounds made venerable Polish jazz institutions like the Jazz Jamboree festival and the magazine Jazz Forum recoil in horror. “It was a kind of war between the young and the old Polish musicians,” says Surma.
“Yass was experimental, it changed boundaries,” say the members of EABS, which stands for Electro Acoustic Beats Sessions. With a background in hip-hop and electronic music EABS are one of the freshest things in Polish jazz right now. In May 2017 they launched an acclaimed debut album, Repetitions (Letters to Krzysztof Komeda) which samples and reworks lesser-known Komeda recordings, layering them with jungle, electronic, gospel, funk and hip hop flavours. Calling this “reconstruction from deconstruction”, they added their own jazz improvisations, bringing in Michał Urbaniak, who had worked with Komeda, on one of the tracks.
But is it jazz? Urbaniak recalls the controversy when he mixed genres himself at a concert in New York in 1989. “I brought a band with four guys singing R&B and one guy rapping. The audience, they booed me out! Actually, it was a great experience in a way… I knew that I was doing something right.”
For Urbaniak, jazz must be allowed to evolve. “It’s like having a child; you can’t go on treating a 40 year-old like a ten year-old boy. Come on! Jazz grew up.”
“When I play the Krzysztof Komeda songs with EABS, things I originally played on the saxophone with Krzysztof in ’62, ’63, it’s like a mirror which has been improved or updated. The feeling remains the same.”