Fifty years ago, a young Polish journalist named Leopold Tyrmand lost his job at the country’s last surviving independent publication, the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, which was being liquidated for its anti-Communist stance. Tyrmand went back to writing fiction, though it wasn’t until the 1956 thaw that he was able to publish his stories. The following year, his novel Zly— pronounced “zhwee”–became a bestseller. It was a sprawling, panoramic study of his native Warsaw, much influenced by the proletarian fiction of American writers like James T. Farrell and the collectivist aesthetic of the younger, radical John Dos Passos in Manhattan Transfer. Tyrmand’s characters–a young secretary, a journalist, a bookkeeper, a gynecologist, gangsters and other members of the city’s demimonde–are all connected through their relations, fleeting and otherwise, with the title character, the “Bad Man.” Throughout the novel, music–mostly bad music–plays an important symbolic role, suggesting the regimented lockstep of the Stalinist years, the thin gruel of popular movie culture and the dreary repetitiousness of life under Communism. In one of the book’s most powerful scenes, a band plays the waltz “Adventure in Warsaw” eighteen times straight, too tired and enervated to stop or even change their material.
Music was important to Tyrmand himself in his other role as Poland’s leading jazz critic. The story of jazz behind the Iron Curtain is a complex one, paralleling but subtly diverging from the story of jazz under National Socialism in Germany. As the music of an oppressed people, it had obvious appeal to a Marxist regime; as an American music, it was problematic. S. Frederick Starr has traced jazz’s history in the Soviet Union in his book Red and Hot, while individuals like record producer Leo Feigin have written personal testimonies about this essentially samizdat musical culture.
As in so many respects, Poland represented an exception. Politically and culturally recalcitrant, Poland was the least pliable of the Warsaw Pact countries, an identity forged over many centuries of being passed back and forth between competing empires. Though jazz survived in both Czechoslovakia and Hungary, as well as under the very nose of the Kremlin in the Soviet Union itself, the music put down particularly deep and early roots in Poland. Perhaps something in it chimed with the libertarian Romanticism of Polish classical music, from Chopin and Szymanowski to Modernists like Penderecki (who collaborated with the American trumpeter Don Cherry), Witold Lutoslawski and Andrzej Panufnik, who played in jazz cellars during World War II. Miles Davis’s much bootlegged performances in Poland in the 1980s were signature moments in the decline of Polish Communism, symbols of a yearned-for freedom. And now one of Davis’s followers and fellow trumpeters has become the first Polish jazz musician to achieve a genuinely international reputation.
The musical style of Tomasz Stanko, who is on tour with his quartet in twelve American cities from March 9-24, has been described as “predatory lyricism.” It’s an enigmatic term, until one hears Stanko’s raw, dark approach to a jazz ballad on his latest ECM record, Suspended Night. Its release last year coincided with that of a self-selected compilation of his work for Manfred Eicher’s label over a nearly thirty-year period–or rather in two very distinct periods, starting in 1975 with the beautiful Balladyna and picking up again in 1994 with the film-inspired Matka Joanna. The music on Rarum XVII: Selected Recordings is uniformly slow and mostly plaintive, with just a whisper of anger and fear informing tracks like “Morning Heavy Song” and “Die Weisheit von Le Comte Lautréamont.”
I have visited Stanko in his tiny apartment on the banks of the gray Vistula several times over the years, an experience that always reminds me of the Warsaw in Zly. The streets convey a mixture of threat and opportunity. They’re better policed than under the old regime, but they need to be. Goods are openly on sale rather than the object of furtive negotiation. Stanko’s phone no longer carries the hollow bong of a tapped line, and nobody seems interested in the identity of visitors. Inside it’s as sparse as one of his Miles-like solos, which are as suggestive as the Modernist sculptures that take up a fair share of his floor space. There are few records in evidence but many books. Indeed, literary sources–Joyce, Rimbaud, Isidore Ducasse (better known as Lautréamont)–are as important to him as musical ones.