Yass: The Jazz, The Filth and The Fury
The 1990s saw the birth of a musical trend that wanted nothing less than to turn the established order of things to ash by the most drastic of means. This new trend was called 'yass'.
The recipe for artistic revolutions is built upon the critique of ancien régimes and the tossing of old masters from off their pedestals. The musical movement yass took up this battle on an entirely different scale, rebelling against everything: the authorities, a slovenly society, the media, the consumerism of the early capitalist period, the canon, the lack of colour, language, and even the weather.
The last two years of the Polish People's Republic were a period of gradual decay. The state's condition had a dominating influence on art, which was under its power, just like everything else. The censorship and strict control over almost every public performance inevitably doomed the rebels and innovators to the underground.
Polish jazz, which was celebrating its triumphs in the 1950s and 60s, gradually became bogged down under the power of omnipresent and omnipotent institutions - the Polish Jazz Association, together with its magazine, the Jazz Forum, and the Polish Art Agency PAGART. As the only event agencies, they had absolute power when giving out passports to artists, thus allowing them to travel and tour abroad. And they followed their own rules in this regard, which had nothing to do with actual interest from international promoters.
Among the bands to have painfully experienced this abuse of power was Tie Break, founded in 1979 in the south-western city of Częstochowa by trumpeter Antoni 'Ziut' Gralak. Ever since the group stepped onto the threshold of the audacious and vigorous avant-garde, the Polish Jazz Association and PAGART refused to invite them to any international festivals (including Germany and Belgium), choosing instead to offer performances by 'renowned jazz musicians', which in fact barely stepped outside the academic canon.
The first breath of freedom came from Tricity (the combined urban area of Sopot, Gdańsk and Gdynia). In 1986, Zbigniew Sajnóg and Paweł Konnak brought Totart to life. It was an artistic group whose shows (which were called 'transgressions and revelations') had the aim of awakening a numb society and stirring up ferment. The troupe's second performance was described by Paweł 'Konjo' Konnak in an interview with Sebastian Rerak:
Our appearance on the stage in strange costumes incited quite a stir in the audience. Back then, little was in fact needed to fire up revolutionary emotions. The secret police agents were also there, and they became quite frightened when we started to throw flyers from the stage, which had the word 'dupa' [the Polish equivalent of 'ass'] written in the style of the Solidarity logo. But what really killed them was the banner with a [rhyme that meant] 'the caretaker is on her period, it's gonna be a tough winter'. We painted this slogan on a huge, six-metre-long banner that had served in the 1st of May parade [a huge communist state celebration of International Workers' Day] which we stole from the Palace of Youth. They cut off the electricity and sent us home.
From one 'revealing' to the next, the group's actions became more and more radical, taking the quasi-theatrical idea of performance to its absurd limits. There was nudity, physiology (which included passing a stool onto a golden tray), vulgarity (the screenings of porn films that always accompanied the show) and profanity (such as simulating intercourse with the national emblem of Poland). The goal was fulfilled – boundaries, once crossed, no longer frightened the new daredevils.
One inseparable element of the transgressions would often be what was called the 'sink' action. It consisted of speaking aloud absurd monologues which were mixtures of a Joyce-like stream of consciousness and dadaist disintegration of language structures. Two artists were responsible for creating this form – Paweł 'Paulus' Mazur and Ryszard 'Tymon' Tymański, who had joined the group in its early period. The latter soon became the main ideologist and propagator of yass.
Other musicians also found themselves exposed to the Totart formation, including Tomek Gwińciński, Jacek Buhl, Jacek Majewski and Sławek Janicki. They worked in a band called Henryk Brodaty (Bearded Henry), and later made up an outpost of yass. Having experienced the Totart-ian transgressions, they soon set out to attack the stifled world of jazz.
In an interview for the Polish Radio station Dwójka, Tymon commented:
For me, playing jazz 'as God intended', a clean sort of jazz, was like a total fossil... I would simply be ashamed to play that kind of music. In the 1980s, jazz was totally antipathetic... jazz was passé... jazz was nothing fresh. Nobody knew why these guys even continued to play these standards, why nobody was listening to them, why their music had nothing to do with high ideas. This jazz made us think of the tinkle of cutlery, with things like a list of twenty standards, everything played at a fast pace, difficult harmonic runs which nobody got, [and not even] 5 people in the room...
In the documentary film Small Spaces, directed by Elvin Flamingo, Tymon further commented that:
[In the late 1980s,] the jazz scene was like the swimming pool in an old people's home: everybody was bathing in it, and shitting and pissing in it. There was no flow of fresh water.
Going back to the Polish Radio interview, according to Tymon:
The only fresh music that was created at the time, that was not tainted with this communist [sense of being a] 'flunkey', was punk rock and new wave. But we felt that nothing more was going to happen in new wave and punk rock. It was 1988, and the best of Polish punk rock happened between 1979 and 1983. This is how we turned towards jazz, which was also a no man's land. Besides, there was the myth - Komeda, Stańko, Seifert, and we felt that we could pick out a fragment, tear off a little Quebec, and found our own republic. I wanted to base jazz on Polish music, on its roots, perhaps on Polish rock and punk music. This was something that the whole yass scene would later base itself on, and it succeeded in stepping away from mainstream jazz.
Declared by the creator of the concept of yass, the above words can be treated like a chaotic manifesto. But such a reading should be undertaken with great care. This is because yass was also moulded out of many other elements and influenced by figures other than Tymon, even if he was the boldest and loudest voice. The other capital of yass, apart from the coastal Tricity, was the town of Bydgoszcz, located in central-western Poland.
Tańce Bydgoskie (Bydgoszcz Dances), recorded by the Trytony band, is considered the very first yass album. Trytony was founded by Tomasz Gwiciński, a native of Bydgoszcz. It's a very strange album, which brings together elements of jazz, untamed improvisation, songs, sounds made by chickens, tribal cries, allusions to folk dances, and the music of Bela Bartók. It is undoubtedly a unique piece. The yass character of the album was emphasised with the recital of a 'sink' poem Zazuły within the piece Die Moderne Metempsychosis - Zazuły. With such a variety of style and the craziness, the record, which was released on the whim of Gwiciński, simply had no audience to reach.
Miłość (Love), a group that made its debut a little after the release of Tańce Bydgoskie, did much better. Conducted by Tymon, after a long series of changes in the line-up, the group made its debut with a record that they also titled Miłość. Surprisingly, in spite of their daring manifestos and announced plans of destroying the jazz establishment, the debut turned out rather elegant. Instead of a revolution, the listeners were presented with a solid portion of well-performed jazz, although with a very expressive nature, and clear inspiration drawn from Coltrane's free jazz.
The 1992 track Miłość managed to get through to a wider audience, efficiently elicit publications and interviews, and even gain a high position in the Jazz Top poll, organised by an organ of the loathed Polish Jazz Association, the Polish Jazz Forum. The band's success was driven not only by their music, but also thanks to its leader's extraordinary talent in media relations. Their success also led to the band's artistic evolution. Miłość recorded a couple of fantastic albums such as 1994's Taniec Smoka (Dragon Dance), and 1996's Asthmatic, which were much more 'yassy' than their debut. Soon, they also had the opportunity to perform with an American legend of the avant-garde: the trumpeter Lester Bowie. Together, they recorded two albums, Not Two and Talkin' About Life and Death.
Although Miłość is considered a flagship yass band to this day, its main characteristic was an extraordinary multitude of beings. Artists connected to the movement founded countless groups – from those that functioned permanently, like Mazzoll & Arrythmic Perfection (with Jerzy Mazzoll as leader), Łoskot (Mikołaj Trzaska), Kury (Tymon), Trytony and Maestro Trytony (Gwińciński), through Kablox, Perplex, and Paralaksa, to ethereal formations that often did not last longer than a single show.
The one place where they always met was the Mózg club in Bydgoszcz. Equipped with a rehearsal space, a stage and a semi-professional recording studio, founded by yassmen of real flesh and blood, Mózg was a place of constant and free artistic experimentation. In a talk with Sebastian Rerak, the percussionist Rafał Gorzycki explained:
… they were [usually] one-off projects, which were so original that they basically had no right to exist. Nobody cared it they would last, it was only about the possibility to meet.
These shows by ad hoc groups also led to the comeback of Totart-ian performers and provocateurs. The trumpeter Janusz Zdunek describes his gig with Kotnasrał (in English: Catshitted), a group that only came together for one show:
During the concert, maybe five or seven people were listening to us, and the music wasn't sticking together. At one moment, I began to play solo. I closed my eyes in order to concentrate, and I felt the rhythmic section accelerate. I thought that it was my solo that motivated the others, so I kept on winding it up, while the rhythm 'engine' seemed to turn red-hot. I saw that people from other rooms were coming to the stage. I finished my solo very happy with myself, to the sound of a general ovation and shouts from the audience. It was only then that I looked around, and realised that it hadn't been my playing that rocked the band and gathered the crowd. It was Tymon, who had been doing a striptease all this time.
Yass lost its momentum about ten years after its creation. There were several reasons for this atrophy. First, there was the collapse of the flagship band, Miłość. The band finally disintegrated after the suicide of drummer Jacek Olter. Then, yass band leaders started devoting time to their own solo projects. There were also the growing personal tensions between band members.
The legacy of yass consists of numerous records (of which, at least a dozen are fantastic), as well as the myth of an idealistic art movement aimed at freedom of speech and sound. It's a myth that is still alive in the world of improvised music. The main Polish improv bands today, such as Sing Sing Penelope, Robotobibok (which has currently suspended its work), Contemporary Noise Sextet, Pink Freud and Ecstasy Project have their own ways of continuing the ideas brought on by Tymon, Trzaska, Mazzoll, Gwizdek and others.
This ideological and artistic movement strove towards what is best in independent music in general: the supremacy of art over entertainment, with more interest in what the artist has to say, rather than how they might be sold.
Translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, 10/04/2014
Sources for original Polish version: Sebastian Rerak "Chłepcąc ciekły hel – histøria yassu", Polskie Radio Program II, Elvin Flamingo "Small Spaces", Tymon Tymański "ADHD Autobiografia".