During the 20th century, the history of Polish music was not written exclusively by Poles. A revolution in Polish jazz was started by refugees from Nazi Germany, and even earlier the pre-war press lamented that African musicians were taking the jobs of local artists. Later on, the children of Greek communists would form girl groups and prog-rock bands. Take an eye-opening look back at these overlooked musical histories.
We have whole books filled with stories of Poles' achievements abroad, but we know far less about the foreigners who had input in creating Polish culture. It may seem like everybody was leaving Poland, starting from the Great Emigration in the first half of 19th century and finishing in March 1968. However, the canon of Polish popular music was created not only by Poles and Jews, but also by refugees from neighbouring countries, economic migrants and people who accidentally ended up in Poland and decided to stay. Here are a few of their stories.
"Because it’s a negro playing!"
The history of Polish jazz did not start with underground jam sessions in the period of Stalinism, but on the dancefloors of fashionable clubs in the interwar period, where swing ruled. While some enjoyed the 'psychosis of dance', others complained about 'jazz-banditry' and 'wild negro weed' (specifically Kornel Makuszyński, who hated jazz). An article entitled 'Shady characters in brightly lit rooms: How is Warsaw 'enjoying' itself? published in the daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita in 1929 said:
On stage there appears the original ‘imported’ black ‘goods’, and with his negro movements he plays the saxophone in an ‘exotic’ way, trying to stun the audience. After each song he gets thunderous applause. Because it’s a negro playing! As if a Polish musician could not manage to do it better.
Sam Salvano's success is proof that audiences were not convinced by what the conservative critics said. Salvano was primarily a drummer, but he also tap-danced and sang in five languages – no wonder that at the opening of the renowned Adria club in Warsaw, he was the star of the show. But even though he was from Congo, the posters said ‘straight from New York’.
Salvano performed with Karasiński's and Kataszek's orchestra, considered the first true Polish jazz band because they did not strictly play music from the US but rather focused on improvisation. The orchestra launched their career at Warsaw's clubs, then went on the road and conquered Polish dancefloors and resorts. They then went on an international tour, first to Europe, then the Middle East, before going all the way to India. Their popularity becomes clear when we remember the fact that they were hired for a campaign to promote Indian, the American motorcycle brand.
Foreigners performing with the orchestra also included Hungarian guitarist Imre Berta, American saxophonist Henry Nattan, and multi-instrumentalist Georg Scott, who was formerly a part of another pioneer ensemble founded by Henryk Gold. Scott was born in Tbilisi to a leading African-American oilman and a Pole from Sweden. He was also active as a musician during the war. He had American citizenship so German orders and decrees were not applicable to him. For example, he was allowed to have a radio, which was used by his colleagues from the Home Army and jazz enthusiasts.
Another black musician who settled by the Vistula river before the war was August Agbola O'Brown. He was born in Nigeria and came to Poland in 1922 from London through the Free City of Danzig. He was a drummer in bars, first in Kraków before he decided to move to Warsaw. During the war he was part of the resistance: he helped people escape from the ghetto, distributed underground press, and took part in the Warsaw Uprising as part of the ‘Iwo’ battalion (his alias was Ali). After the Second World War, he continued to play music. The band he played with would promote themselves as a ‘black orchestra’.
Being ‘exotic’ was also popular also in plays and vaudeville. Thanks to this fashion, the singer Reri moved over from Tahiti and became Eugeniusz Bodo's long-time partner. Bodo wrote the script Black Pearl especially for her and in the film she performed a song called Dla Ciebie Chcę Być Biała (‘I Want to be White for You’).
This was the scornful greeting young German jazz lovers would use as a way of mocking Nazi Germany. After the Nazis took power, swinging Berlin was tormented by the Gestapo and moved underground, but most musicians decided to escape in order to save their lives. As trumpeter Ady Rosner once joked:
Being a Jew and playing black music was dangerous even if your name was Adolf.
The main direction for emigration was obviously the USA, but those who could not or did not want to cross the ocean moved east, mostly to Warsaw. It influenced the music scene along the Vistula river in a very positive way. Dariusz Michalski wrote:
A flood of highly-qualified instrumentalists from Berlin strongly shook our dance orchestras, forcing them to replace good musicians with perfect and excellent ones, and to raise their artistic standards. They suddenly appeared in droves... all sorts of Rosner Players, Jolly Boys, Speedy Boys and Sam Weinroth Syncopators. Because artists simply considered it a new trend, at first some Polish bands changed their names to English ones or simply translated them (for instance, Karasiński's and Kataszek's Jazz d’Or), but they were soon forced to completely reform and reorganise. ‘Gentlemen, we have competitors!’ The famous bandleaders were scared. The competition was really strong.
One of the newcomers was the aforementioned Ady Rosner, who met Louis Armstrong, the undisputed king of the trumpet, during a tour in Italy. There was a music battle between the trumpet players. Although Satchmo won, in recognition of Rosner, he have him a photo signed ‘for the white Louis Armstrong’. It is said that in return Rosner gave Armstrong his own photo with dedication ‘for the black Ady Rosner’.
Jazz in pre-war Poland was not very artistically ambitious, and was primarily just seen as an everyday entertainment. However, instead of dancing, Rosner's audiences would stop and listen to his concerts. He was also a talented businessman, and opened his own club in Warsaw called Chez Adi.
After the outbreak of war, Ady Rosner escaped to Russia. In the USSR, he was asked to create the National Jazz Orchestra of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. He performed with the orchestra in field hospitals across the country. The legend says that they also gave a private concert for Stalin. But things changed when the Cold War began, and the slogan ‘those who play jazz today, will betray their country tomorrow’ appeared. Shortly afterwards, Stalin began his anti-Semitic propaganda campaign. In 1946, Rosner was accused of 'cosmopolitanism' and sent to a Gulag in Magadan. He spent 8 years there, leading an orchestra in the camp. In the 1990s, a film was made about his life: The Jazzman from the Gulag.
Another Jewish jazz band that moved to Warsaw after 1933 was Arkady Flato's Orchestra. The band was so popular that they immediately started collaborating with Polish Radio. The bandmaster was famous for his Argentinian tango arrangements and for playing swing on the violin. He did not survive the war and there are many alleged stories about his death. Some say he died in a camp, possibly Treblinka or Trawniki, while others say he committed suicide in the ghetto in Warsaw.
After the Bolsheviks' victory, Warsaw became one of the main destinations of ‘white emigration’ from the USSR, and many military representatives, political activists and artists went there. Aleksander Wertyński was one of them.
He was probably the most famous Russian singer of the interwar period, although he started his 25-year-long odyssey as an immigrant after the October Revolution. He lived in Constantinople, Paris, Shanghai, and Hollywood, and he stayed for a couple of years in Warsaw. He wrote lyrics to his compositions (translated into Polish by Julian Tuwim and Jonasz Kofta), joining the traditions of Russian romance together with the aura of decadence. He sang about bohemia, destructive affections, and drug addictions. The atmosphere was completed with his stage image of Pierrot, a sad clown with a face covered in white powder and wearing a black and white costume. The Second Republic of Poland was as crazy about him as the world was later on about the Beatles. He was often criticised by artists who had emigrated, but also by domestic defenders of public morals. One concerned reviewer described his concert in Białystok as follows:
He stood on the stage, white as death. An artist with extremely sensitive nerves, singing his cocaine vocal songs with his weak voice. And the cocaine-addicts, nymphomaniacs, sadists and adepts of lesbian love from Białystok, excited by his productions, with eyes burning with astonishment and affection, applauded and shouted with delight. These ovations were a true sabbath of degenerate women, starting with teenagers and moving to over-ripened matrons.
Another one had a slightly different view on Wertyński's performance:
Wertyński is only a mirror of his times. And you cannot curse the mirror for your ugly snout!
The artist himself was not concerned about the criticism, he was a superstar and remembered his stay in Poland fondly. The reason he ultimately left the country was very prosaic – the authorities did not extend his visa and he could not perform.
Nightlife in interwar Warsaw was not only jazz, but first and foremost, it was about theatres and cabarets. Fanny Gordon was close to this environment. She was born in Yalta, and after 1917, her family emigrated to Poland. She was the only composer of popular music in the Second Republic of Poland, moreover she learnt it by herself and was not able to read musical notation. Lyrics to her songs were written by Jan Brzechwa and Andrzej Włast, and performed by, for instance, Mieczysław Fogg and Albert Harris. Nowadays her most recognised song is Bal u Starego Joska, popularised by Stanisław Grzesiuk as Bal na Gnojnej and wrongly regarded as a song rooted in urban folklore.
Indirectly because of the revolution, Fryderyk Járosy also found himself in Poland. He was a big star: compère, director and leader of many cabarets in Warsaw. He was originally Hungarian, but in a poll after the fall of the Habsburg monarchy, he chose Austrian nationality. Before 1917 he lived in Russia where he worked with the Blue Bird, a cabaret organised by Russian emigrants, and in 1924 he came to give guest performances at the Vistula river. He stayed in Warsaw, according to some because of his love for Hanka Ordonówna and according to others because he had more possibilities of pursuing his dream career as a director. And his career was truly impressive – he collaborated with the most popular stages in the capital: Cyrulik Warszawski, Cyganeria, Banda, and Qui Pro Quo.
After September 1939, he did not want to sign the so-called ‘Reichlist’ and lead a theatre ‘nur für Deutsche’, so he was arrested. He managed to escape during transportation and hid under the false name Franciszek Nowaczek, partially at the ghetto in Warsaw, because he was sure that the Nazis would not look for him there. He was active in the resistance. After the downfall of the Warsaw Uprising, he was sent to Buchenwald. After the war, he went to London where the new authorities deprived him of the Polish citizenship granted him before the war. From London he wrote to Stefania Grodzieńska and Jerzy Jurandot:
Greet warmly all our friends and this soil, which gave me so much happiness in life for the past 20 years, and in which I was so firmly rooted, despite not being a Pole, that I can not love nor curse in any language but in Polish.
‘A tiny cover of Western culture’
In the first post-war years, there was a revival of the spirit of swing orchestras. It wasn’t until 1949 when the Polish Composers Association (Związek Kompozytorów Polskich) condemned jazz as a bourgeois and imperialist invention. The irony was that it had just started to be music not only for the upper class. The trendy youth of the time, sometimes referred to as ‘bikiniarzy’, were a mix from both the intelligentsia and working-class families. The underground jazz movement started to become more public from around 1954, and eventually emerged fully in 1956 with the first edition of the Jazz Festival in Sopot. The legendary Jerzy ‘Duduś’ Matuszkiewicz said:
We understood that thanks to jazz we were keeping a tiny cover of Western culture in Poland. We were very young back then, so we were not even afraid.
It is worth mentioning three of the most important female singers from this period. Not to undermine their talents, but coming from outside Poland made their careers easier in the cosmopolitan-fixated jazz world.
Jeanne Johnstone came to Poland with her husband, a pilot who fought in the Battle of Britain. She sang with almost all the most important bands of the first decade after the war, those referring to swing or Dixieland traditions, as for example a band established by Charles Bovery, a Czech saxophonist based in Poland, or bands like Melomani who flirted with the then-modern bebop.
The second one was Elizabeth Charles, a mixed-race singer from Scotland. When and why she came to Poland is still unknown. From 1945 onwards, she performed with the reactivated Karasiński's Orchestra. For over 5 years, she was also a soloist with Zygmunt Wichary's band, renowned for introducing jazz to mainstream music.
Carmen Moreno who also a soloist for Wichary. Her father was from Mysłowice in Poland, and her mother was from Andalusia. They met in Paris and established the dance and acrobatic duo Los Morenos. Carmen spent her childhood on tour with parents and performed at stages in South America and Western Europe. She debuted in Nice at the age of 5 by dancing the Cuban rumba. She sang for the first time at the age of 7, at the Alhambra Theatre in London. The war put a stop to the good times:
My father died during the war, and in 1945 me and my mother went to Mysłowice, to dad's family. For both of us everything was so remote: the country, people, language, the whole life. None of us thought about coming back on stage: I was 17 and found work as a shop assistant in Sosnowiec... It lasted until 1954 when my neighbour convinced me to go to a rehearsal for a band created by Zygmunt Wichary because they were looking for a singer... I visited half of Europe with him – the second half of course, the one I did not know as a child, meaning Hungary, the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia and the USSR.
She was married to Jan Walasek, considered the best saxophonist of the period. And, just like her parents who created a dancing duo, she and her husband created a jazz duo.
The Cosmonauts' anthem and Gypsy beat
Anna German is still a huge name in Poland. One of the streets in Urgench in Uzbekistan is named after her, as well as a celestial body in our solar system discovered by a Soviet astronomer. Moreover, it is not the only connection between the artist and the Soviet space programme. A song called Hope was treated by the astronauts as a kind of talisman – they listened to the song before their missions. Poles revived their love for her after a biographical TV series, but in countries of the former Soviet Union, she has long been treated as an icon, perhaps perhaps because she could sing in Russian without an accent. After all, it was one of her first languages, along with German.
The singer's parents met in today's Uzbekistan. Her mother, Imra Martens, came from a family of Mennonites in the Netherlands, who settled in Kuban to try and avoid religious persecution. Her father, Eugen Hörmann, was the son of a German pastor and born in tsarist Łódź, spending most of his life in Ukraine. He later ended up in central Asia, trying to get to Iran before emigrating to Europe. He decided to stay when he met Imra, but they had to hide from the NKVD. In 1938, when Anna was 2 years old, Eugen was accused of espionage and executed. His wife and daughter were sent to Kyrgyzstan. Imra's second marriage to an officer of the Polish Army under Soviet command meant they could settle in communist Poland after the war.
Another star of the 1960s was also born in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Michaj Burano came from a Lovari Romani family. He started performing at the age of 6 with his father's Song and Dance Ensemble of Moldovan Roma. During a tour in Poland, the family stayed in the suburbs of Lublin. Michaj said in an interview for Sztandar Młodych magazine:
My father was the leader of the Roma society in Lublin. He took care of everybody: helping them settle down, providing them with jobs, convincing them to let their children go to schools. He also led a band. But I was not interested in his music. I was listening to the Radio Luxembourg.
The 14-year-old boy found himself in Trójmiasto and joined Rhytm & Blues band created by Franciszek Walicki and considered the first rock’n’roll band in Poland. Michaj adopted the pseudonym Burano (‘storm’ in Romani). He had stage charisma, but it was not always clear which language he was singing, which soon became a basis for jokes. His English-language song entitled Big Boogie Woogie recently reappeared in the Polish film Ida. Band member Leszek Bogdanowicz said:
He was singing ‘big-bagga-wagga’ instead of ‘big-boogie-woogie’, but the audience gave him a big round of applause anyway.
In an interview, Burano answered the jokers:
I have the right to not know Polish well... My work is a pleasure, but I regret that I cannot learn more. We are on tour all the time!
After Rhytm & Blues he performed with big beat legends Czerwono-Czarni and Niebiesko-Czarni. Niebiesko-Czarni were the first rock'n'roll band from behind the Iron Curtain to perform in Western Europe, which was a prelude to Michaj Burano's career. In 1968, he established Burano & Leske Rom group, including musicians from Dżambla and Breakout. They sang mostly in Romani and Jerzy Ficowski wrote lyrics for them.
Far from Athens
Life in Szczecin right after the war was either seen as a western or a post-apocalyptic horror. Germans were exiled and the city was almost as badly destroyed as Warsaw from the Allied bombardments. People were afraid to go out after dark because the streets were ruled by armed bands of looters.
At the same time, trains full of displaced people were arriving there in search for a better life in this ‘wild west’. Filipinki, the first all-female Polish band, was established by daughters of these pioneers, repatriates from Vilnius and Kazakhstan, all of them born around 1945. Amongst them was Niki Ikonomu, the daughter of a political refugee from Greece, which in 1949 was ruled by a military junta. She sang in her song Far from Athens:
I said goodbye to Greece, when I was five.
I was going away, to an unknown land.
Polish Szczecin embraced Greek children.
And who would, who would guess that?
In an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza, Milo Kurtis spoke about his experiences as a Greek child in Zgorzelec:
Hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing Greece, so my parents did. My mother was an opera singer, my father was a professor and an anti-Stalin communist. In Greece, the left wing was divided into two camps, supporting either Moscow or Paris. Poland accepted 15,000 refugees from this flood. It was a lot. And they provided Greeks with amazing support. We had a Greek education, we could easily learn the language, history, geography and philosophy. My father wrote books for these schools and helped organise them. As a child it was always hard for me, because I did not attend religious education classes. ‘You Jew,’ I heard. ‘I’m not Jewish, I’m Greek,’ I kept on answering. But they would beat me up anyway.
The biographies of the Greek musicians raised in Poland are packed with endless activity. For instance, Apostolis Anthimos was a member of classic prog-rock band SBB, performed with much-loved singer Czesław Niemen, and later with world-renowned trumpeter Tomasz Stańko. Jorgos Skolias worked with Krzak, Tie Break, Young Power and Cracow Klezmer Band. And of course the earlier-quoted Milo Kurtis whose artistic resumé is so rich that it would be enough for dozens of other musicians.
Kurtis began in the avant-garde Grupa w Składzie group, developed his fascination with ethnic music in Osjana and in Ya-Sou, established together with Wojciech Waglewski. He formed Maanam with Marek Jackowski, took part in creating Polish reggae when performing on Izrael's first albums. What’s more, he has performed with Voo Voo, punk band Deuter, the funk-oriented Zgoda, and The Users from the 90s ‘yass’ jazz scene…
When Kurtis was asked in the previously-quoted interview why he did not change his home from Poland to Greece when it finally became possible, he answered:
If it was enough for me to play the bouzouki on a couch, maybe I would live there. But I play open, avant-garde music. In Greece I would end up with a few concerts per year and I only maybe have a full room. But in Poland I can play as much as I want. The audience here is the best for listening to more difficult music. Each and every American jazzman would tell you the same.