I’m Not Ashamed of a Single Note: A Chat with Michał Urbaniak
default, Michał Urbaniak, Kraków, photo: Mateusz Skwarczek / Agencja Gazeta, center, michal_urbaniak_ms170908_246-2.jpg
Denys Shpigov talks to Polish jazz legend Michał Urbaniak about his life, his music and the importance of being yourself.
Jazz means New York
Denys Shpigov: You keep on travelling between Warsaw and New York. Where do you feel most at home?
Michał Urbaniak: New York’s the only home for a jazzman. I dreamt about becoming a New Yorker since I was 15. I’ve been one for 45 years, and this won’t change, regardless of where I am. The life of a jazz musician equals travelling, and that’s part of its joy. New York jazz is the only kind of jazz for me. It’s jazz that came to New York straight from New Orleans. It’s a very authentic jazz, very close to its roots.
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DS: Where is it easiest for you to write music?
MU: It’s easy to write music anywhere, but it sounds different. Any sensitive musician and composer feels the environment surrounding them. It’s different to write a music in a city full of noise, sirens, metal, glass and skyscrapers – and different in a place where there are only trees and peace.
DS: And what serves as your inspiration?
MU: For me, above all, it’s a woman. Then it comes down to the environment I’m in, who I’m seeing, what I hear. What enters the spirit stays there somewhere and has to have some influence. Being around people who feel things is also important. They don’t have to feel authentic jazz in every detail, but they need to have a sense of rhythm and, as some say, feel the music. There are people in New York who have no idea what jazz is – they don’t listen to it, but dressed in an elegant suit, carrying a bag or a laptop, they walk down Broadway swinging. Jazz is American culture. It’s the only art form that originally comes from the United States.
DS: One of the last editions of your Urbanator Days workshops did not shy away from hip-hop. How does this genre relate to jazz?
MU: It’s not a relation, it’s the same music – authentic and connected to its roots. It started in Africa and came to America with slaves. Later, these people heard European music played in the States and the two fused. Blues and gospel emerged, later Dixieland, swing, etc. Hip-hop is a consequence of that. Every 10 years, we see a new chapter in music; it’s a result of generational changes. For rebels, it’s a form of protest. We also played jazz in Poland in the 1950s and 1960s – we wanted to protest against communism. They played against slavery, hunger and poverty. Today, a new generation appears, rebels and does something new.
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DS: What is jazz opposing today? Or maybe it’s supporting something?
MU: I sometimes notice on stage that I instinctively play with my middle finger raised. Why? I can’t answer. But when it goes well, it’s just like that. There are many educated musicians today, which isn’t always good, in my opinion. It’s because you can’t learn about authentic feeling and an authentic calling. It’s like with religion – you could read the Bible and not believe in God.
It has to be hot!
DS: Could I ask you to define what Polish jazz is?
MU: That’s difficult. The world’s a village, we all travel and fly. It turns out that it’s faster to reach New York from Warsaw than to get from Przemyśl from Szczecin. The 1960s saw the appearance of some great bandleaders, such as Krzysztof Komeda, Andrzej Trzaskowski and Andrzej Kurylewicz, and musicians, such as Zbigniew Namysłowski, Wojciech Karolak, Tomasz Stańko, etc. At that time, borders still existed, people had less connections, less influence. Back then, it was possible to speak about Polish jazz. But it’s different now. Today, somebody records an album in Tokyo and it reaches Warsaw tomorrow. But there’s still the brand of Polish jazz, and it’s a really good brand. For example, the Warner Brothers recording label started re-realising old Polish recordings, but it also produces the albums of young Polish musicians.
DS: And how does the Polish jazz circle look? Did you recently record an album in Poland?
MU: There’s a lot of musicians who could just step off the plane in New York and immediately start playing and recording. But they need to know the right address to go. Among young musicians there’s, for example, Marcin Pospieszalski and Michał Wróblewski. And the likes of Leszek Możdżer and Marcin Wasilewski.
DS: For the last 12 years, you’ve organised the Urbanator Days workshops in Poland.
MU: Workshops and anti-training, because nobody learns anything there. It’s just that they can play with genius musicians, who currently tour the world. The only expectation is that everybody is passionate about music. The workshops usually welcome people who would not have gone to a music school, because they feel uncomfortable, or they don’t read sheet music. They just show up to play – and that’s the most important. Because when they play together with genius musicians, they think: I can play too!
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DS: You sometimes post on Facebook that ‘jazz is back’.
MU: It’s a provocation. It functions as a saying among New York musicians. Every once in a while, record labels release a compilation of best tracks or a collection of albums under the name ‘Jazz is Back’. The musicians then reply: ‘We never went anywhere’. I think that by focussing on jazz, I keep up the good work. The point is to signal to people that they should take a look at this music, at authentic jazz. Because there’s a lot of ‘inauthentic’ jazz. And that’s a tragedy.
DS: What kind of music do you mean?
MU: There are many promoters who love avant-garde improvised music. And then people leave the concert and say that they don’t understand jazz. This really gets to me. Jazz needs to have something in it, not even rebellion… it has to be hot! There’s nothing to be understood about jazz: twelve notes and eight or sixteen bars of beat. The rest is a journey, the subconscious, the imagination. And, obviously, this swinging that Miles Davis called ‘a kind of blue’.
DS: You said that jazz developed from swing and Dixieland and turned into soul, R&B and hip-hop. So where will jazz music go from here?
MU: I’m not a fortune teller, but the authentic jazz will stay close to its roots and continue growing. It all depends on the young generation of African American musicians from around New York. They will show us the way forward. Right now, it leads through a lot of electronic music, and very good electronic music at that.
Constantly deprived of sleep
DS: I would like to return to the beginning of your journey. How did jazz enter your life?
MU: Through ‘American propaganda’, the so-called ‘imperialists’. The imperialists broadcasted the same Willis Conover programme on Voice of America two times every night. My friends told me about it. I lived in Łódź at the time – I was 13 or 14. I started to listen and fell in love with it. I started to record broadcasts, then my mom bought me a saxophone, and I started to play what I heard on the saxophone.
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DS: As I understand, you learned to play the saxophone on your own?
MU: On my known, thanks to my passion. I played alongside albums and tapes.
DS: But the violin was first.
MU: Yes, since I was six years old. When I was nine, I played with a symphonic orchestra while wearing a suit. And when I was 15, I was wearing jeans and playing the saxophone. I already made money playing music. Mom would give me cash and I always said to her: ‘No need, I’ve got my own. If you need some, I can give it to you.’ I made my first money on proms – I got 150 złoty for three nights. I was a violin virtuoso until I was 21. I tried to practice on both of my instruments, but I started to travel more and couldn’t find the time for the violin.
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DS: Who made you love jazz?
MU: As for musicians, it was above all Louis Armstrong. Then Miles Davis. It’s a great story. When I was a schoolboy, people in Poland earned 1,500 złoty per month, but an American vinyl album cost 3,500. Mom bought me a Louis Armstrong album. And when I, unsurprisingly, bragged at about the record at school, a friend told me: ‘Look, my brother sent me this thing from England, but I don’t like it. I’ve no idea what it is.’ I borrowed it from him – it was the album Jazz Track by Miles Davis. How I loved it! I made a trade with him, I gave him Armstrong and took Davis.
DS: There was not much jazz in Poland at the time?
MU: There was a lot already, but underground, because it was not allowed to listen to and play jazz. There was a ban. We bought albums on the black market or in second-hand stores. Of course, there were no records in official distribution. I also recorded Willis Conover’s programme on tape, day after day. I had a tape recorder from East Germany – it made some weird noises but I kept on recording. I listened and practiced during the day.
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DS: Do you remember the moment when you thought: I will play jazz?
MU: I understood that I’m going to play jazz when I was 15. It’s just that I wanted to do everything. The first half of the day – classical music. The second – jazz. I went to school in the morning and then to the 77 Club on Piotrkowska Street in Łódź. It still exists today, although everything is different inside. I used to leave my violin in the cloakroom, grab the saxophone and go on stage. I was a jazzman the whole evening. Afterwards, I would return home and go to school in the morning. It was like that almost every day.
DS: How did you find time for everything?
MU: I don’t know. I guess I was constantly deprived of sleep. My whole life.
DS: How do you feel about those days?
MU: They were wonderful! So creative and intense. There was the passion, and nothing else mattered.
DS: Which people had the most impact at the beginning of your jazz career?
MU: Most importantly, Zbyszek Namysłowski. He heard me in Łódź and said: ‘If you were in Warsaw, we would play together.’ I had just graduated from high school and decided to study at the music academy in Łódź. But I took all my documents and transferred to Warsaw. Immediately. The very next day. Obviously, I had to pass an exam to get in to the academy, and I decided to go to one of the most famous professors – Tadeusz Wroński, who later taught in the US. I played an hour-long violin recital, passed the exam and then grabbed my saxophone to play with Namysłowski at the Hybrydy club.
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DS: During one of the interviews you mentioned Namysłowski’s famous sandals. What’s that story about?
MU: Those sandals were later seen in the White House. We were in the States for two months in 1962 – we went there as the best jazz band ‘from behind the Iron Curtain’ and were invited to a party organised by President Kennedy. And we of course dressed casually: shorts, sandals and bottles of Johnny Walker in our pockets. At a party where everybody was wearing tuxedos. More than that, I made a faux-pas. I didn’t know English and only remembered the names of the songs in English. When the Secretary of State introduced himself to us and asked ‘How do you do?’, I got it all mixed up and replied ‘High fly’. The situation was later described by the New York Times, because it was an important event: ‘the communists’ from behind the Iron Curtain played jazz.
DS: You received the Grand-Prix during a festival in Switzerland in 1971 and were able to go to Boston. But you didn’t. Why? This was two years before you moved to the United States.
MU: The only reason I didn’t go was because the whole band travelled and played with me. I wanted them to benefit from their work as well. The Americans even wanted to revoke my visa, because I didn’t go there to study. I waited for two years and later left for New York. A year later, when I had recorded a an album for Columbia, I got an offer to teach at Berkeley. Afterwards, PAGART [Polish Art Agency, a communist-era institution in charge of promoting and managing Polish artists] even took away my Polish passport – because Columbia Records, for which I worked in the US, didn’t agree to pay a percentage of profits to them. They put it straight: if PAGART donated $100,000 to promote the album, they would share.
A man with a giant heart
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DS: How did you meet Krzysztof Komeda?
MU: In Piwnica pod Hybrydami in Warsaw, at 36 Mokotowska Street. There were concerts there during the evening. We played with Zbyszek Namysłowski and our band Jazz Rockers. Many musicians played there: Trzaskowski, Komeda, Stańko. We met some day, and Komeda suggested I should play with him and Tomek [Stańko]. We started with short rehearsals in SPAM [the acronym for the Association of Polish Artists and Musicians], which organised jam sessions. I remember how we prepared for tours: Copenhagen in December, Stockholm in January – and I was in trouble, because I was supposed to be doing my military service. So I pretended to be epileptic. I managed to avoid going to the army and to continue working with Komeda. We played together for two and a half years.
DS: But your name is not on the ‘Astigmatic’ album, even though it could have been. How did that happen?
MU: Towards the end of the tour with Komeda’s quintet in Stockholm, I bought a car with all the money I had made in the West. It was a fortune in Poland at the time. But my car was stolen, and I had to stay in Stockholm. Komeda returned and recorded Astigmatic, which was supposed to feature me, but I ended up staying in Sweden for five years. And kept Karolak there too.
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DS: How do you remember Komeda?
MU: He was a wonderful man, very sensitive, with a giant heart. He was obsessed with music to the extreme. The last time I saw him was in Stockholm. I wrote him a letter after my car was stolen: ‘Dear Krzyś! I am terribly sorry. My car was stolen. I cannot come. I hope that I will find it soon and that we will be able to continue to play together’.
Don’t play the music, let the music play
DS: Let’s get back to you. How did you manage to combine violin with jazz?
MU: It’s only thanks to the saxophone. I don’t like violin in jazz. I hate it! Really. There are a few violinists who made a breakthrough in jazz, like Stuff Smith – for me he’s the greatest violinist – or Stephane Grappelli. I obviously have much admiration for Didier Lockwood, Jean-Luc Ponty and some younger musicians. But a lot of this stuff is just too sweet for me.
DS: But Michał Urbaniak…
MU: Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of my records – the more traditional ones – from the record I released recently, Jazz Legend. There will be seven albums in this series. I must say that back then, in the 1980s, I played authentic jazz on the violin really well. And today, with the benefit of hindsight, I can honestly say that I’m not ashamed of a single note. I understand the words of Stephane Grappelli now, who told me once that he recorded with me because he liked how I played the violin – I didn’t play to conform to him, like everybody else.
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DS: What’s that story about?
MU: I recorded an album with him in 1992. He was 84 years old and very ill, he didn’t want to play. He made some conditions. The very next day, I arranged the studio he wanted and invited his musicians. The manager told me to pay Grapelli before the recording, because – as he put it – he played better when he was paid upfront. I did all that and waited in the studio. Stephane entered, he was helped by some people. He walked very slowly and sat down. He asked me: ‘What are we playing?’ I said: ‘Whatever you want.’ And he started to play Summertime. I was in tears. I’ve still got this recording, I’ll release it someday.
DS: When did you start to play jazz violin for the first time?
MU: In Copenhagen, when I heard Stuff Smith. I understood then that you could play jazz on violin. In the years 1969-1970, I understood that I wouldn’t reach the United States through Sweden, so I came back to Poland. I had a lot of health issues: I played too much, I partied too much, and I had troubles with playing my saxophone. I couldn’t play as much as usual, and I took a six month break. I sobered up completely and decided to start fresh. I began to write music and reached for the violin. My saxophone experience translates to me playing the violin: I construct phrases similarly, just on a different instrument.
DS: You played the violin during the Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw in 1972.
MU: From the Constellation album. Yes.
DS: I love this record.
MU: So do I. It was so authentic and so natural. It played itself. I have a saying since then: ‘Don’t play the music. Let the music play’. I had a very well-oiled band, so I introduced a rule that really helped us: everyone can play whatever they want, whenever they want. So if somebody felt they had an idea, they were able to interrupt whatever we were playing and start their own thing.
DS: It all could have turned out differently. Back in high school, you were preparing to move to Moscow, to study under the virtuoso David Oistrakh. Why didn’t you go?
MU: Because I wanted to go to New York. Back then, when I was 15, I told my mom: ‘Saxophone and New York’.
DS: Did classical training help you in your jazz career?
MU: I forgot most of it already. But I can’t say it didn’t help. Because when I start writing music, I remember some things. Nothing’s pointless. It’s just that this wasn’t the most important thing for me. When I came to New York and met those genius musical illiterates, I also wanted to become illiterate so that I could be like them. At first, I wrote scores for them. A few years later, when I saw how fast they were, I stopped writing scores and started learning groove and rhythm from them – that is, simplicity.
Get me this Polish fuckin’ fiddler
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DS: What were the most important meetings in your life?
MU: Three meetings with Miles Davis. The first one was in 1962, at the Black Hawk [a legendary jazz club] in San Francisco. He was my god, and I was unable to speak a single word in English. We were at the club every day, and I followed him every day. We were always accompanied by Willis Conover, who said: ‘Don’t try to talk to him. He doesn’t talk with anybody, especially with whites’. And I remember that when he came outside, he sat down on the curb near a telephone booth, and I was sitting on the other side. He was wearing an elegant, shiny suit. They played splendidly then.
The second meeting was better. It took place in 1971 during a festival in Switzerland, where I got the Grand Prix for Best Soloist. One day, I met him near Montreux Palace – the luxury hotel where he lived. The concert hall was right across the street. He left, gave the keys to the doorman, got inside a Maserati and drove to the other side of the street. I watched him like an idiot, but with passion and love. I had a little more strength after the concert, a feeling of success, so I walked up to him backstage and told him: ‘Miles, I love you.’ And he replied: ‘Yeah!’. This was the second meeting.
The third meeting. I was in California. I called the producer Tommy LiPuma and learned from his secretary that he was in New York, looking for me. It turned out that he was recording Miles Davis’s album and that Miles invited me to take part in the recording. I asked: ‘Wait, what did he say?’. And he replied: ‘Get me this Polish fuckin’ fiddler. He’s got a sound.’ It turned out he heard me on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show where I played my electric violin. He liked my sound and wanted it on his album. The record was produced by Marcus Miller, who had been my bass player for the last seven years. So I packed my bags immediately and came back to New York.
DS: You didn’t get to know each other better before that?
MU: No. I met him only after the recording that took place with my entire band: Marcus Miller, Bernard Wright, Lenny White. I recorded three solos and was invited to come the next day, when Miles was going to record. I entered the studio, Miles was behind the glass – he saw me and pointed his finger: ‘Who is this?’. When he found out that I was the violinist, he came to me. ‘How did you play?’ I responded: ‘I think the way you want it.’ He walked behind me and put his hands on my shoulders: ‘How does it feel?’ I was so touched! I started to cry. I remember it as if it happened today.
He invited me to his concert the next day at Beacon Theatre on Broadway. When I came, he asked where my violin was. I told him that it was at home. ‘Go and get it.’ That’s how I played three concerts with him. Crazy.
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DS: When you moved to the United States, you were already famous in Europe. Did it help further your career in the US?
MU: No. It doesn’t mean anything there. In New York, nobody knows European musicians until they become New Yorkers. Europe listens to New York, but New York doesn’t listen to Europe. Unless somebody comes there and shows them something, or is big on Spotify.
DS: When I look at your first albums recorded in the US – Atma, Urbaniak, Body English – I see a lot of Polish influences there.
MU: I’ll put it this way: Karolak and I, we accepted only black music. But one day I was walking on Broadway and into Times Square and said to myself: ‘You idiot, people come here from all across the world and bring something to add, to complement what’s here.’ And that’s when I became more open. I still have fifteen songs with folk influences that I will release someday.
DS: You didn’t only play with Miles Davis though, right?
MU: Oh yeah! For example, George Benson played as a guitarist during my Extravaganza concerts at Studio 54 in 1985. It was a cool coincidence. A couple months earlier, I popped into Blue Note, where he played, and he proposed that we play something together. I agreed. After the concert, he suggested that I come the next day as well. This way, I played for three consecutive days with him. It was a charity gig for Africa. I had no idea what was going on. Two weeks later, my sponsor said: ‘We are doing an Extravaganza concert in Studio 54, invite anybody you want’. I, of course, suggested playing with my band – Marcus Miller, Bernard, Wright, Lenny White and Kenny Kirkland, and I thought to invite George Benson. I called him to ask how much it would cost. He said: ‘You played during my shows, I’ll play during yours’. And he played for free.
The most important thing is to be yourself
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DS: Willis Conover called you one of the leading jazz musicians in the world. What do you think made you successful in the US?
MU: It’s simple. Definitely my talent. Other than that it was work, work, work and work. I’ve been travelling for 60 years, and I did everything myself. I have roadies now, but before that, I even carried equipment. One day, I was at the airport with 19 boxes of instruments. My band was on the same flight, but it was overbooked, so I had to carry all those boxes myself. I was never afraid of working.
DS: Do you listen to your own albums?
MU: Yes. I’ve recently been listening to my old records and checking. And some of them really stand the test of time. I’m happy I recorded those albums and that I had a period in my life like that.
DS: What music do you listen to other than your own?
MU: For my own pleasure I listen to R&B and soul, everything made by Quincy Jones and my favourite rappers, Curtis Mayfield and The Isley Brothers. I even made some remixes and will keep on doing that, because that is music coming from the heart.
DS: How does American audience differ from that in Europe?
MU: In Europe, people think about music too much. They think by listening. In the US, people do not think, but have fun with the music. And that’s the most important difference. I think that jazz should be approached the same way. That doesn’t mean you should ignore the development of music, or the difficulty and the level of great arrangements and compositions. But the most important thing is how you feel the music.
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DS: Being in contact with the audience. The screams, the applause during the performance – does it help or annoy?
MU: It’s cool. But I remember how Larry Coyell reacted to that, we played together for 3 and a half years. When there was no applause after his solo, he would turn to me and say: ‘They don’t like us here.’ And I always responded: ‘Fuck you.’ It’s idiotic. You can’t expect applause after every solo. It’s not a circus.
DS: Do you think about the listeners when you write the music? Will they like it? Will they understand it?
MU: It’s impossible. It’s only possible only ‘before’ or ‘after’. But usually there’s no ‘before’. Unless there’s a commission. When somebody commissions music for a movie, then there is a kind of thinking. But usually it goes like this: the idea is there and it makes itself, nothing else matters. My wife is the most important person in my jury.
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DS: Do you dream about music?
MU: Oh yes. I wake up at 4 am, run to the computer to write down an idea, a little while passes, I look at the clock and it’s already ten and I have to go to a meeting. Music is in my life twenty-four hours a day. It’s an obsession. Like with everything in my life – I overdo it and obsess.
DS: And lastly: what is the most important thing in jazz?
MU: The truth. Just like in life. The most important thing is to be yourself. To be authentic. People can enjoy listening only when I enjoy playing. There’s no other way.