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Jazz in Poland: Individual, Free and Brotherly

Self-fulfilment in a collective: Polish jazz has perfected this quality to a degree that's pretty unique in Europe.

Spotlight on Poland at the Elbphilharmonie

From 10 September to 25 November 2018

To the concerts

Michał Hajduk is probably right, and the explanation is simple. The young official of the Adam­ Mickiewicz Institute, a state-sponsored cultural institution from Warsaw, is a man who wears three-piece suits and makes a seriously business-like impression. If you ask him why jazz has been able to develop so freely in Poland in these politically turbid times, he says: »Because this is music that manages without words.« That sounds as if an art form that expresses itself without language has no teeth and can't be a danger to anyone.

And it's true that stage artists who work first and foremost with language are now subject to close observation again in Poland, with government checks sometimes blatant and sometimes discreet.  But with jazz, a music genre that celebrates freedom of expression more than any other, the Polish state is currently pursuing cultural foreign policy with quite a bit of success. This year Poland is celebrating 100 years of independence, and the »flourishing landscapes of jazz« have apparently been selected to create the impression that not only the art of musical improvisation is flourishing, but culture in Poland and indeed life in general.

Read the complete story in the latest Elbphilharmonie magazine (German only).

Jazz is a music genre that celebrates freedom of expression more than any other.

Joanna Duda

Joana Duda

Joanna Duda Trio (jazzahead! 2018)

More than Just a Minority Interest

Thus Poland was guest country at the jazzahead! festival in Bremen in April 2018, and gave international music critics an ample demonstration of the wealth, stylistic diversity and high artistic standards of the jazz played by Germany's direct neighbour to the east. Brilliant artistry, intensive ensemble playing, on occasion conjuring up the country's own musical tradition between folk music and Chopin, but then going to lengths to be cosmopolitan: in the space of three days, nearly 20 bands supplied evidence of the high standard of improvisation in Poland today.

Polish jazz owes it to a long tradition and a history of acceptance that it is able to draw on such unlimited resources. Between the two world wars, jazz was far more than a minority interest in Poland, and one or two old-timer bands have survived to this day. But the Poles tend to reserve their true admiration for representatives of post-war jazz, and two musicians, both of whom died early, are especially highly regarded by all generations: violinist Zbigniew Seifert (1946–1979) and pianist Krysztof Komeda (1931–1969).

Zbigniew Seifert: Spring On The Farm

Zbiggy Seifert

100 Years of Independence

Poland 1918-2018 in review

Read the story


»Zbiggy« Seifert's uniquely beautiful, virtuoso violin playing, modelled on the style of sax icon John Coltrane, had a formative influence beyond the borders of his native Poland. Seifert spent the last six years of his life in the West, and was one of the most creative figures in the often unfairly decried genres jazz-rock and fusion jazz. Posthumously, he found a worthy successor in Adam Bałdych (born in 1986). Bałdych possesses a phenomenal technique, he thinks and phrases in long and logical arcs, and has perfected a guitar-like vibrato on his instrument that gives his tone the utmost individuality and lends his playing a remarkable fluidity.

Krzysztof Komeda: »Prawo i pięść« (The Law and the Fist) (piano: Leszek Możdżer)

Krzysztof Komeda


Krzysztof Komeda in turn, comes right after Frédéric, sorry: Fryderyk Chopin, on his compatriots’ list of music idols. Komeda was not a piano virtuoso, but he was a poet, an abstract artist and someone who got to the heart of things in a way that few fellow jazz pianists managed on this instrument that encourages diffuseness. He came to world fame in the 1960s as the composer of the soundtracks for some of director Roman Polanski's best films– »Knife in the Water«, »Rosemary's Baby«, »Dance of the Vampires«.

At the same time, he was the leader of a jazz quintet. The album »Astigmatic«, recorded in 1966 with bass player Günter Lenz, the recently deceased gifted trumpeter Tomasz Stańko, sax player Zbigniew Namysłowski and the Swede Rune Carlsson on drums, consists of only three pieces, but it's regarded with its very free improvisations as a key work of Polish jazz. One could say that the Komeda Quintet has remained the blueprint for Polish jazz to this day, thanks to the magnetic ensemble playing of strong personalities who strive for the maximum individuality without losing sight of one another.

High Definition Quartet (jazzahead! 2018)

High Definition Quartet

Individual, Free and Brotherly

To borrow the words of the Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet: To be like a tree, individual and free and brotherly like a forest (no easy task, to be sure) – this is something that the Poles have perfected to a degree that's pretty unique in European jazz, be it in the quartet of the young alto player Maciej Obara with its vertiginously dense interaction, or the dreamy abstraction of pianist Piotr Orzechowski's High Definition Quartet; be it in the trio of pianist Joana Duda, who oscillates wilfully between electronica and free jazz, or in the comparatively affable project that connects master pianist Leszek Możdżer with the best-known Polish female jazz singer Anna Maria Jopek.

To be like a tree, individual and free and brotherly like a forest – this is something that the Poles have perfected.

Great Festival Tradition

In addition to these big names, Michał Hajduk of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute also wants to prepare the younger generation for the international market. There is certainly no lack of opportunities for jazz musicians to appear in public in Poland: the country has a lively club scene and some 100 jazz festivals in the meantime, including many small regional ones. Then there are events that can almost be called historic, such as the Jazz ­Jamboree in Warsaw, Jazz On The Odra in Wrocław, the Kraków Summer Jazz Festival or the Sopot Jazz Festival.

The 1957 jazz festival in Sopot, a seaside resort on the Baltic north of Danzig, can be seen as the time when modern jazz first saw the light of the day in Poland. The country's young musicians responded with enthusiasm to the new sounds, and started to evolve their own jazz language in Łódz´, Kraków, Wrocław and of course in­ Warsaw as well. This was no easy task: records from abroad were hard to come by, and the professors in the conservatoires made sure – and still do so – to keep their distance from the world of jazz. Nonetheless – or perhaps precisely because of that –, an idiom began to emerge in the 1960s whose indomitable love of freedom and individuality has remained alive in the music of excellent fusion groups like Laboratorium, Extra Ball and Sunship.

Wolf Kerschek: »My Polish Heart« (piano: Vladyslav Sendecki)

Wolf Kerschek: My Polish Heart

The Polish Heart

Vladyslav Sendecki, the pianist and keyboarder of Extra Ball and Sunship, left Poland in 1981 at the peak of his success out of fear that the Communist regime would throw him into gaol as a dissident and Solidarnosc supporter. After spending time in Switzerland and the USA, he accepted an offer from the NDR Big Band in 1996 to come to Hamburg, where he has lived and worked since. In 2009 Sendecki made his first appearance together with the NDR Big Band and ­prominent guest musicians in Kraków, where he had lived alone with a great-aunt as a gifted 11-year-old piano student: for years to come, he had to make do with very little money as he made his way as an upcoming musician. The concert with his new colleagues from Hamburg was a little bit like the homecoming of the prodigal son.

Vladyslav Sendecki
Vladyslav Sendecki

A few years later, Hamburg jazz musician and composer Wolf Kerschek, whom Sendecki had become friends with, wrote a concerto for him for piano, keyboards, big band and orchestra with the title »My Polish Heart«. Exactly what this Polish heart is, Vladyslav Sendecki finds it hard to say. He prefers to answer with a rhetorical question: »Why do so many Germans hire nurses from Poland?« The expression on his face suggests that it is not because they work for a few euros less than their German colleagues. From the grand piano in his apartment with a view of the Alster lake, ­Vladyslav Sendecki takes a beautifully illustrated certificate with a flowery Polish text, which was presented to him in 2017: it confers on him honorary citizenship of the little town of Gorlice, where he was born in 1955. The way the musician with the long blond hair holds the certificate in his hands, one suspects that it means more to his Polish heart than all the record prizes in the world.

Author: Tom R. Schulz

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