Barometer of Freedom

26 March 2018

Like a universal language, jazz brings together cultures, traditions and music styles from all over the globe. On 30 April, we are celebrating International Jazz Day.

Established by UNESCO, the event celebrates the genre as a vital means of social communication. Jazz has roots in African, North-American and European music traditions. By seeking inspiration from such diverse sources, it fosters intercultural dialogue and respect for human rights. Its democratic character also serves to promote equality and eliminate social discriminations. Duke Ellington put it best himself, saying, “Jazz is a good barometer of freedom”.

This dimension is clearly visible in the Polish chapter in the history of the genre. Kraków – widely regarded as the cradle of Polish jazz – is the best example. It was home to the first jazz association in Poland, founded in 1926, just eight years after the country regained independence. During the 1920s, when Kraków was overjoyed at this newly found freedom, the city was home to The Jolly Boys Band, founded by a group of swing-loving students. A few years later, Ady Rosner’s jazz orchestra of Jewish musicians found a haven in Kraków after being forced out of Germany in 1933. When Cole Porter heard them play live during a visit to Kraków in 1937, he wrote to a friend saying that Rosner’s ensemble is the most swinging orchestra he’d heard in Europe.

Soon after the war, the new regime denounced jazz as being a part of degenerate capitalist culture. Fans were forced into the underground, marking the beginning of the catacomb period, when jazz was mostly played in private homes. Following the political thaw of 1956, the legendary club Helikon was founded, becoming a cultural home for artists such as Krzysztof Komeda, Tomasz Stańko and Zbigniew Seifert. Helikon soon started officially hosting the hitherto clandestine All Souls “Zaduszki” Jazz Festival, marking the beginning of an era of major jazz events in the city.

Kraków jazz festivals have long, rich traditions. The Young and Old, or Jazz in Kraków International Festival is held for the 24th time this year, bringing together the finest musicians from Poland and abroad. This year’s headliners are the Hammond organ virtuoso and his ensemble Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles (18 April, Studio), and the big band led by Christian McBride, one of the greatest jazz double-bassists working today (7 May, Variété Theatre). Celebrations of International Jazz Day on 30 April feature the concert by the Polish/Norwegian Maciej Obara Quartet at Manggha Museum.

Events organised by the Cracovia Music Agency include the performance by Human Element at Radio Kraków on 22 April (as part of the Faces of Jazz cycle) and the recital by the acclaimed jazz vocalist Stacey Kent under the banner World of Great Music (26 April, Kijów.Centrum). The agency led by Witold Wnuk is also working to reinstate the cult festival of small jazz formats Solo Duo Trio, initiated in the late 1980s by Andrzej “Kuba” Florek who passed away in 2005. Held between 22 and 24 May at clubs including Pod Jaszczurami and Serce, the event features young Polish musicians including Kuba Płużek and the sax virtuoso James Carter and his trio. But Carter has competition from the much younger saxophonist Kamasi Washington, playing at Studio on 22 May. Since the launch of his breakthrough album Epic, the artist has been hailed as a messiah of new jazz and progressive improvised music – a label he has readily embraced.

The summer months also exuberate with music during Kraków’s largest jazz festival bound up with Piwnica Pod Baranami. Here we have a surprise: held for the 23rd time, the event comes with a brand-new title Kraków Summer Jazz Festival (24 June – 5 August). According to the tantalising previews, there will be 150 concerts featuring 500 (!) performers held over the course of 41 days. But Piwnica Pod Baranami is just one of the festival venues: the main concerts will be held at the Manggha Museum (including the Alfredo Rodriguez Trio, Leszek Możdżer and Tomasz Stańko Project), Kijów.Centrum (Charles Lloyd & The Marvels and the legendary saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders) and the Auditorium Maximum of the Jagiellonian University (Take 6 vocal sextet, winners of ten Grammy Awards). We will also hear more delicious jazz at Piec Art, Harris Piano Jazz Bar, Alchemia and U Muniaka Jazz Club – venues which resound with jazz throughout the year and make sure Kraków never truly sleeps. This year, the festival features an accompanying programme Golden Centenary of Polish Jazz showcasing leading Polish jazz soloists and ensembles as part of the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Polish independence.

The summer holidays also resound with the 3rd Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition, increasingly recognised on the international stage – winners of the first two events, Bartosz Dworak and Mateusz Smoczyński, are both in high demand! Competition reviews are held in Lusławice, but the finale gala comes to Kraków on 28 July.

After the summer holidays, the Krakow Jazz Autumn makes a welcome return for the 13th time; initiated at Alchemia, the format of the avant-garde celebration of free jazz and improvisation is becoming less conventional with each passing year. The festival is centred around artistic residencies and music commissioned specially for the event.

And the All Souls “Zaduszki” Jazz Festival we mentioned above has 62 successful official years under its belt and keeps going from strength to strength. We can exclusively reveal that on 2 November, the event hosts the acclaimed jazz guitarist Al Di Meola – put it in your diaries now!

The year of jazz culminates in Kraków with the platform Hitch On Music Exchange, held in early December and rooted in four decades of traditions of the Jazz Juniors competition. As well as the competition, the new formula includes numerous presentations and concerts by jazz stars.

Igor Kuranda, Karnet magazine

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