Take Twelve: Dave Brubeck’s Unforgettable 1958 Tour Of Poland
The communist regime had banned jazz music, a symbol of the West. So the arrival of the Dave Brubeck Quartet in Poland in 1958 was a very big deal. And one concert was not enough: local jazz fans, and even Poland’s top jazz musicians, followed the band from town to town. This made quite an impression on Brubeck…
You’ve probably heard about Dave Brubeck. Or at least heard his timeless jazz, on the radio, online, maybe even on a record-player! The California-born pianist, who helped create the style of elegant cool jazz, was one of the most popular jazz musicians of the 1950s and 60s. Dave Brubeck Quartet’s iconic tune Take Five from the 1959 album Time Out is said to be ‘the best-selling jazz single of all time’.
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In 1951, Brubeck formed a quartet with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, whose sweet, lyrical tone was the opposite of the frenetic bebop style everyone else was copying (…).With Eugene Wright and Joe Morello, they stayed together as the most popular jazz group in the world through 1967, when Brubeck left to spend more time composing.
From the 2008 WAPO article Ambassador of Cool by Matt Schudel
In 1996, Brubeck was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. He passed away in 2012 at the age of 91. 2018 marks the 60th anniversary of his first trip to Poland, when he came for a twelve-concert tour – a tour that proved to be nothing short of a sensation.
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The jazz band Melomani in concert, 1958, from the left: Andrzej Trzaskowski, Witold Sobociński, Andrzej ‘Idon’ Wojciechowski, Krzysztof Trzciński (Komeda) and Jerzy ‘Duduś’ Matuszkiewicz, photo: CAF/PAP
In 1958, Poland was still under the communist regime but was slowly shaking off the dreary feeling of the Stalinist era. From 1949 until the mid-1950s, public performances of jazz, a genre symbolic of the West, were banned. At the same time, jazz was the music of the rebellious youth and as such it thrived at underground concerts, showing that the forbidden fruit was tastiest of all.
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Brubeck came to Poland only three years after the ban on jazz had been lifted, when the genre was still very much associated with an anti-regime stance. His arrival was like a breath of fresh air to local music lovers and jazz aficionados, hungry for live performances of original American jazz. Roman Waschko, a journalist who befriended Brubeck while emceeing his Polish gigs, wrote in his 1962 book Jazz od Frontu i od Kuchni (editor’s translation: Jazz On Stage & Backstage):
The Dave Brubeck Quartet toured Poland from 6th to 18th March 1958. Without a doubt this was the biggest jazz event in post-war Poland.
An excerpt from the 2008 article Historyczna Wizyta w Polsce (Historical Visit To Poland) published in the influential Jazz Forum magazine explains why the tour was so important:
It was the first time an American band visited Poland after the war – and it was also one of the bands from the very top!
Talking with Dave about music
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1959, Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck poses for a portrait with the Dave Brubeck Quartet which included Paul Desmond on saxophone, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums in 1959, photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
The tour started in the town of Szczecin in north-western Poland and travelled through seven cities including Gdańsk, Warsaw, Kraków, Wrocław, Łódź and Poznań. It quickly became apparent that something special was happening:
As Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Polish tour was progressing the musicians dropped the bus that brought them to Szczecin and continued to travel by train. Already at the second stop, in Gdańsk, Iola Brubeck [Dave’s wife] noticed they were being accompanied by a group of mostly the same people. ‘One of these youngsters came up to us and started talking with Dave about music. It turned out they were Poland’s top jazz musicians as well as jazz fans that followed us from town to town to go to the upcoming concerts’.
From a lecture on Brubeck’s Polish tour given by Keith Hatschek at the 2008 Brubeck Jazz Festival
Some of these followers became so enchanted by the quartet that they attended all twelve concerts. Like Rosław Szaybo, a student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw who went on to become a noted graphic designer valued for, among other things, his album covers. Despite the cold of the late winter he followed the entire tour on a motor scooter.
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Krzystof Komeda, the an aspiring jazz pianist, remembered as a Polish jazz legend today, and his wife Zofia were also in the audience at all twelve shows. The singer Wanda Warska and multi-instrumentalist Andrzej Kurylewicz also attended a number of shows. Because of this undeniable Brubeck-craze that swept through the local jazz scene, it had a considerable impact on Polish jazz at the time.
The concerts influenced our musicians immensely: alto-saxophonists all started playing like [Paul] Desmond, pianists like Brubeck, double-bass players had never heard a bass player like Eugene Wright before (…)
2008 article Historyczna Wizyta w Polsce (Historical Visit To Poland) published in Jazz Forum magazine
A funny little anecdote illustrates how strongly the band resonated with Polish audiences. The drummer Andrzej Dąbrowski took such a liking for Joe Morello’s rhythmic style that his friends started calling him ‘Morelek’. Brubeck’s impact was a lasting one. In Waschko’s book, published four years after the tour ended, he wrote:
Even though much time has passed since Dave Brubeck and his band left, many Polish jazzmen are still discussing his music.
The purpose of jazz
Brubeck’s being from America, the birthplace of jazz, and leading a hugely popular band definitely were major factors in the Polish audience’s enthusiasm. But let’s not forget about the concerts themselves which are said to have been simply amazing.
One could think of a number of reasons behind the purely artistic success of the tour. Firstly, not long before the quartet came to Poland it was joined by Eugene Wright on double bass. So Poland witnessed performances by what is considered the classic line-up, the one that recorded Take Five and many other great tunes. Secondly, this line-up loved to improvise which made each of the twelve concerts different: the same tune never sounded exactly alike twice.
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During Brubeck’s stay in Poland, we yet again realised that recordings, even the best ones, don’t impact you even half as much as listening to a live performance at a concert hall. True jazz lovers went to almost all of this fabulous band’s concerts because they were indeed one-of-a-kind. Even the length of the concerts differed.
From Jazz od Frontu i od Kuchni (Jazz On Stage & Backstage)
Also, the Polish audience’s rapport with the band fuelled the live acts with energy. In a programme leaflet handed out before each of the Polish concerts Brubeck wrote how he perceived the role of the listener:
I see the audience as a co-creator, the fifth instrument in our quartet. The way in which the musicians and listeners meet is shaped by how the audience chooses to play its part, always a new one. The first duty of a jazz musician is to unite the audience so that it is one (…). Improvisers can then express the feelings of a whole group. That inspired moment of unity is the purpose of jazz.
An audience of such devoted listeners helped bring out the best in the band. Maybe that’s why Brubeck considered the short concert he gave at a night jam session in Kraków’s Polish Writers Union club one of the best in his entire career. The performance of Audrey is said to have been the highlight of that event.
Quite remarkably, even the press (state-controlled under the communist regime) had something nice to say about Brubeck. Here’s what the Głos Robotniczy (Labourer’s Voice) newspaper wrote about the quartet’s concert in Łódź in its issue from 18th March 1958:
We admired the skill and ease with which the band built the atmosphere and tension in the audience. We admired even more the very sincere and creative improvisation of the entire jazz performance. Never before did we hear such unrestrained improvisation in Poland…
I’ve ruined the whole tour
Toward the end of the tour Brubeck went to see Fryderyk Chopin’s birthplace, a picturesque manor nearby Warsaw that was turned into a museum devoted to the Polish composer in the 1930s. The visit prompted him to write a Chopinesque ballad entitled Dziękuję, meaning ‘thank you’ in Polish. He composed the piece on the train to Poznań, on his way to play the final concert of the tour. Interestingly, the quartet managed to perform the new tune before leaving Poland:
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The last of the twelve concerts, the encore. I played this, and we had never played it before because I wrote it on the train going to that town. And, Paul and Joe and Gene fell right in. Of course, I played a couple choruses so they'd hear the changes, the harmonic progression, but it was absolute silence when it was over. And I thought, ‘Oh man, I've ruined the whole tour. They don't approve of this,’ and then wild applause.
Dave Brubeck, in an interview given at the University of the Pacific in 2007
The audience liked it and so did its author. Brubeck recorded the composition – an expression of gratitude for the Polish fans’ enthusiasm, as the name would suggest – and put it on his 1958 album Jazz Impressions of Eurasia. He kept performing it throughout his entire career. After leaving Poland, the quartet stayed on tour visiting such countries as Turkey, India and Iraq, the whole affair being funded by the United States Department of State to promote America through cultural diplomacy. The Polish leg of the journey was definitely a milestone in the promotion of American music in the land by the Vistula.
The pianist returned to play in Poland a number of times: at the 1970 edition of the famous Jazz Jamboree Festival or to celebrate his 85th birthday with a concert at the Warsaw Philharmonic. On the other hand, the 2008 edition of the Brubeck Jazz Festival saw Poland’s Jagodziński Trio perform in Washington DC. The group led by pianist Andrzej Jagodziński played jazzy arrangements of compositions by Frederic Chopin.
The same year Dave Brubeck sent a message to Jazz Forum:
Together with Iola we went back to the memories of our first visit to Poland and we found the many dear friendships we made there over the years. We’ve always had a special kind of bond with Poles (…)
In early 2018, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1958 tour, Dave’s son Darius, a pianist and composer himself, gave two concerts in Szczecin. He performed, among other things, Take the A-Train, a tune he had played as an eleven-year old when he visited the city in 1958 – he and his brother had accompanied his parents on the tour.
They had never been onstage to play, and yet, here they come. And, my eldest, Darius, was a pianist. So, he sat next to me, and Michael could play drums. So, he took Joe Morello's place, and I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ Roman Waschko told us that the Polish people loved children, and that we should go play. (…) The public wanted it. So I said, ‘OK, what do you want to play.’ And, my son Darius was on this side of me on the treble clef side of the piano. And, he said he didn't know. I said, ‘Take the A Train.’ And he said, ‘OK.’
Dave Brubeck, in an interview given at the University of the Pacific in 2007
It goes without saying that the concerts given by Darius in Szczecin were met with much interest. A sign that Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1958 tour still has a special place in Poland’s heart.
Author: Marek Kępa, September 2018