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Jazz Messenger

Komeda: A Private Life in Jazz by Magdalena Grzebałkowska tells the story of Poland’s most talented musician of the jazz generation, and reveals what exactly jazz meant to a Polish society in the throes of rapid change.

Jazz was a key conduit of Cold-War cultural exchange, and Poland was one of its major centres of power.

Recent years have seen a lively interest in the role of popular culture during the Cold War. While much of the attention has been devoted to the lightning bolts of rock and pop that travelled from West to East, rather less attention has been paid by the cultural innovations that travelled in the other direction. 

Jazz, in particular, was a key conduit of cultural exchange from the 1950s onwards, and Poland became one of the European jazz’s major centres of power. Magdalena Grzebałkowska’s biography of pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda sheds light on how this came about, and what exactly jazz meant to a Polish society in the throes of rapid change.

Krzysztof Komeda (1931-1969) was one of the key figures in making Polish jazz a national brand. He only produced one truly great album – 1966’s seminal Astigmatic – but such was its emblematic importance to Polish jazz that it became the standard against which all other albums were measured. Komeda also had an additional, equally important claim to musical immortality: he composed soundtracks for many of compatriot Roman Polański’s films, beginning with the student short Two Men and a Wardrobe in 1958 and culminating in the Hollywood productions The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Poland’s most iconic jazz performer was born in Poznań as Krzysztof Trzciński in 1931. The “Komeda” (a deliberate misspelling of the word komenda or “command”) was adopted later as a stage name, possibly to draw a distinction between his nocturnal jazz-club existence and his day-job as a trainee doctor.  Komeda’s Poznań-based Sextet was one of the first outfits in Poland to start playing modern jazz; and also one of the first outfits to don all-black, hep-cat stage clothes devised by Komeda’s manager (and subsequently wife) Zofia Lach. The Sextet’s performance at the 1956 Sopot Jazz Festival caused a sensation, and cast Komeda as the cultural trailblazer of post-Stalinist Poland – a status he never really lost.

Sweater Bands

Indeed it is with the Sopot 1956 that Grzebałkowska starts her story. With the sedate seaside town swamped by tens of thousands of fans from all over the country, the jazz festival was symbolic of a country in the throes of great change. Impresario and co-organizer Leopold Tyrmand called it a “festival of the sweater bands”, a reference to the beatnik dress codes of the young generation. Unruly behavior created a scandal, however, and the festival was cancelled after an even more chaotic second edition in 1957. But the genie was out of the box: jazz became the main signifier of youth culture, jazz bands sprang up all over the country, jazz clubs opened in Poland’s major cities, and state record companies started releasing jazz LPs.

Polish Jazz had been driven underground by the country’s communist rulers in the years following World War II. Communist activists even went to the Łódź branch of the YMCA, which had hosted jazz parties in the immediate post-war period, and smashed up their vinyl records with a hammer. The relaxation of hard-core Stalinism after 1953 ushered in a greater degree of cultural tolerance. The gradual reopening of the jazz scene, and indeed the first edition of the Sopot Festival, took place before the ascent to power of national communist Władysław Gomułka in October 1956, and in many ways anticipated the sense of optimism that greeted his election as party secretary. Jazz went on to bring certain benefits to Gomułka-era Poland, allowing the country to present itself as a culturally tolerant, progressive place that no longer adhered quite so strictly to Moscow’s rules. Jazz soon entrenched itself as a form of music that deserved to be taken seriously, written about by serious newspapers and magazines. Festivals, such as All Souls’ Jazz in Kraków and Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw, emerged from the student clubs that had initially nurtured them to colonize prestigious concert venues and philharmonic halls. 

A seasoned news reporter with several non-fiction books to her credit, Grebałkowska tells Komeda’s story in the present tense, generating an urgency that pulls the reader through the cultural landscape of mid-twentieth-century Poland. Komeda’s was a career cruelly cut short; he died in 1969 at the age of 38, the result of a freak accident in which he banged his head after a good-natured push by Polish writer Marek Hłasko. The event is signaled right from the start with chapter headings that begin with the words “thirty–eight years to go”, and so on throughout the book.

“The key to reportage is detail”, Grzebałkowska once said in an interview with Polish Vogue, and brings plenty of telling observations to bear on the biography in hand. A particular role in the narrative is played by the Komeda Sextet’s vibraphone, an expensive instrument that they had to borrow from (frequently rather unwilling) friends because they didn’t have one of their own. The difficulty of finding a vibraphone crops up again and again in the story, and the sonorous but delicate instrument becomes a metaphor for the whole fraught business of being jazz musicians in ‘Fifties Poland.

Indeed such resourcefulness was crucial in a country that lacked a functioning consumer economy. Musical instruments, tape-recorders and vinyl records were all in short supply; musicians and music fans often had to pay large sums for imported gear, or wait patiently for friends or relatives to send things from abroad. Everything required an effort. Grzebałkowska tells the story of how double bass strings were so hard to get hold of that someone in Gdańsk started making his own out of plaited wire and plastic coating. They proved highly durable and were much sought-after.

Despite the explosion of jazz culture in mid-Fifties Poland, Western countries were initially to pick up on its potential for cultural diplomacy. When UK jazzers Dave Burman and band were invited to Sopot in 1956, the Foreign Office tried to talk them out of going. West German jazz groups invited to Sopot in 1957 faced similar obstructions. Foreign guests were greeted like superstars by the Sopot audience. “I sat down at the piano and played the boogie-woogie. The audience went mad” is how the West Germany-based American Bill Ramsey remembered it in 1957.

The Americans, perhaps because they regarded jazz as an essentially American form and therefore an extension of its cultural authority, were quicker to recognize its advantages. Baritone-voiced broadcaster Willis Conover had begun presenting his weekly Jazz Hour programme on Voice of America in January 1955. Conover made no secret of the fact that he identified jazz with freedom and the American way. For him it was not, as it may have been optimistically portrayed by others on both sides of the iron curtain, a form of music that was subversive or anti-capitalist. On the contrary, it was a confirmation of how vibrant and emancipatory western society could be.

Dave Brubeck visited Poland in 1958 as part of a tour financed by the American State Department’s Cultural Ambassadors programme. Brubeck also visited Turkey, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran – jazz was very definitely seen as an American cultural weapon, but it was not exclusively deployed against the communist regimes of Eastern Europe (judging by Brubeck’s itinerary, the main focus of the USA’s jazz offensive was elsewhere).


Jazz also played an important role in East-East cultural diplomacy. Komeda’s Sextet was sent to Moscow in 1957 to take part in the World Youth Festival; Poland’s discreet way of saying that they had an edgy, avant-garde culture that other communist states did not. Polish jazz musicians were very much in demand across the Eastern Bloc throughout the early Sixties; Komeda had a two-month residency in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Sunny Beach in 1962. In another of Grzebałkowska’s telling details, she reveals that Polish musicians called Bulgaria “Nyamaland” because nyama (which roughly translates as “we haven’t got any) was the only word they ever heard in shops.

Warsaw’s annual Jazz Jamboree, founded in 1958 and still going strong today (the word “jamboree” sounded a lot cooler in the Fifties that it does now), went on to become an important meeting place for bands from communist-ruled Europe, as well as inviting top names from the West. The Vilnius Jazz Trio, the epochal art-jazz band that made a huge impression on Soviet culture in the pre-Gorbachev era, recorded their first album for Polish label Pronit in 1977, a time when their own record industry wouldn’t touch them. 

Despite the ubiquity of jazz in late Fifties and early Sixties Poland, musicians like Komeda could barely eke a living, and were somewhat undervalued by a system that failed to take them seriously. Performers were paid too little for concert appearances and studio recordings. Despite his success as a film soundtrack composer Komeda was never admitted into the Polish Composers’ Union, receiving instead a string of rejection letters from officials who made it clear that they considered his work too trivial.

Innocent sorcerers

A concert by Komeda formed one of the key episodes in Andrzej Wajda’s 1960 film Niewinni Czarodzieje (“Innocent Sorcerers”), a moody if celebratory look at the developing culture of parties, music, drinking and sex. Wajda and screenwriter Jerzy Andrzejewski were a touch too old to fully understand the jazz generation; they brought in poet and budding film director Jerzy Skolimowski (a fan of Komeda ever since first seeing him perform at Sopot ’56), to inject a bit of authenticity into the script. Although dismissed as superficial by jazz insiders, the film confirmed the emergence of a new generation in Poland, creating a culture of their own in the midst of what was a still a traumatized country recovering both from World War II and the hard-core Stalinism that had followed it.

On the whole, Polish bureaucrats tolerated jazz but remained unaware of its cultural power. Andrzej Trzaskowski’s band toured the USA and played at Newport Jazz Festival in the summer of ’62; saxophonist Zbigniew Namysłowski recorded an album for Decca in London two years later. In general however, Poland’s jazz musicians were under-used as cultural ambassadors by a bureaucracy who did not fully understand what they were doing. 

Komeda’s masterpiece was Astigmatic, the album that absorbed the lessons of American be-bop and free jazz and combined them with a distinctly European, lyrical sensibility. It was an extraordinarily rich album, harnessing Komeda’s compositional and ivory-tinkling skills with the raucous virtuosity of two other outstanding Polish jazz musicians, saxophonist Namysłowski and trumpeter Tomasz Stańko.. Recorded in 1966, Astigmatic wasn’t released until March of the following year, by which time Komeda was already thinking of following friend Polański’s advice to move to Los Angeles and compose soundtracks for Hollywood. Which is where Komeda’s story came to its premature end.

The Rolling Stones had played in Warsaw in April 1967, just a month after Astigmatic’s release. Many Polish music critics were less than enthusiastic about the Stones’ performance, not because they were communist prudes offended by the decadence of western rock, but because they felt that it was more conformist, and less subversive, than the jazz with which they had grown up. When Krzysztof Toeplitz reviewed the concert for Kultura (the Warsaw periodical rather than the Paris-based émigré journal of the same name), he complained that beat music was a “movement based on nothing but its own conventions”. The popularity of groups like the Stones led young people into unhealthy obsessions with haircuts, fashions and record collecting; for Poles of both Toeplitz’s and Komeda’s generation, it was jazz, not rock and roll, that was the true devil’s music. 

Komeda: A Private Life in Jazz by Magdalena Grzebałkowska (trans. Halina Maria Boniszewska) is published by Equinox