The Early Days of Polish Jazz
default, The Early Days of Polish Jazz, Composers Szymon Kataszek and Zygmunt Karasiński (right) while composing at the piano., 1930-1935, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC), center, szymon_kataszek_i_zygmunt_karasinski_nac.jpg
As new, modern styles began to take hold in Interwar Poland, so too did jazz, which began to infect the most famous dance floors and inspire the leading musicians of the age.
But the development of the jazz craze in Poland in the 1920s and 1930s was slow and erratic – and never fully established in Polish Interwar musical history. Many believe that the creation of a jazz artistic movement did not occur until after World War II. Culture.pl looks at the influence of the Polish Interwar jazz scene.
The ‘assimilation of the jazz phenomenon’
According to Krzysztof Karpiński – whose book Był Jazz: Krzyk Jazz-Bandu w Międzywojennej Polsce (There Was Jazz: The Scream of the Jazz Band in Interwar Poland) explores the oft-forgotten history of Interwar-era jazz – the development of the genre in the 1920s and 1930s took four stages. He begins by defining an ‘assimilation of the jazz phenomenon’, which began as the very first bands were established. He goes on to explore more renowned jazz performances, then the impact of film, and finally the development of Polish swing.
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As Igor Pietraszewski, the author of Jazz w Polsce (Jazz in Poland), notes, jazz researchers covering Interwar jazz often seek to deconstruct and periodise the era into key events. But in fact, the first stage Karpiński suggests could even stand for the whole era: though jazz did mature throughout the Interwar period, becoming increasingly popular, it never seemed to become a genre of its own. It remained instead blurred between ‘jazz [and] only jazzy light music’, according to Beata Śniecikowska.
At first, jazz was played in jam sessions, where musicians practiced new musical styles for pleasure – and to feed into the growing demand for popular music. However, it slowly began to take on a more organised and professional feel.
In the mid-1920s, the situation changed, with a rising awareness of jazz thanks to talented musicians. The fashion for international cultural styles led many musicians to travel across Europe for inspiration or opportunity – like Zygmunt Karasiński, who was the son of the ‘King of Polish Waltz’, Adam Józef Karasiński. Zygmunt Karasiński left Warsaw for Berlin in 1921 and initially played in the Harry Spieler orchestra (the first American Dixieland band in Europe), as well as polishing his own technique.
After returning to Warsaw, Karasiński soon joined forces with another equally gifted musician, Szymon Kataszek, whom he had known from his studies, and who had been contracted to play at the sparkling Ziemiańska café in Warsaw. Though the bright, lively styles of modern music were beginning to catch on, grumbles from some journalists were not uncommon:
Unfortunately, the music criticism of the time was not enthusiastic about jazz: after the first official jazz concert (Warsaw, 1921) one of the reviewers titled his article: ‘The Profanity of Art: A Jazz Band Recasts Chopin.’
Dionizy Piątkowski, trans. JB
The article in question by referred to a foxtrot adaptation of Chopin, which the writer deemed ‘sacrilege’, and classed as ‘negro music’. Tomasz Szachowski also suggests that one unique Polish jazz tendency was the adaptation of Chopin’s works for this context.
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Piątkowski also points out that there was, to a certain extent, a haphazard assimilation of jazz elements in interwar music, which contributed to its slow development – though this, he says, is a generalisation which could be applied to jazz across Europe as a whole at the time.
Such a negative attitude towards jazz in Interwar Poland was certainly not an opinion shared by all. From 1922, Karasiński and Kataszek played in a jazz quintet under the name ‘Zygmunt Karasiński Salon Orchestra’, mainly in the newly-opened Oaza restaurant. Two years later, the band made their first recordings for Syrena Record, as well as playing hot, polyphonic Dixieland in Warsaw’s revue stages, such as Morskie Oko. In early 1925, test broadcasts for Polish Radio also featured jazz concerts from Oaza and the famed Qui Pro Quo cabaret.
The same year, Karasiński and Kataszek left for Kraków – which was where their names appeared together for the first time.
How motorcycles kick-started the jazz trend
When the mighty Karasiński and Kataszek Orchestra was established in 1925, the band were quickly engaged to perform variety entertainment. One new venture became the first travelling exhibition for Indian-brand motorcycles, the first American motorcycles, to advertise themselves – and the bikes. The tour was directed by the cabaret titan Konrad Tom, and served to normalise the sounds of jazz in the Polish musical canon.
At the same time, as Karpiński points out, the era beginning from 1926 marked a change in instrumentation, with string instruments slowly being replaced by saxophonists. The Jazz Association was also established in Kraków in 1926, which suggests the beginnings of an institutionalisation of the genre.
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Indeed, in the following year, a new magazine called Jazz was published as a supplement to Muzyka (Music) magazine. Though it only was only issued once, an editorial by the pianist and musicologist Zbigniew Drzewiecki provides an illuminating perspective on the rise of jazz – despite unwavering criticism from certain corners:
Opinions of musicians about the value of jazz music are contradictory. The most widespread negative opinion […] qualifies jazz as one of the symptoms of the general post-war decrease in artistic level and taste […]. On the other hand, in the jazz band, they want to see the announcement of the emergence of a new musical style.
The success of jazz band is, to a large extent, a triumph of rhythm, and rhythm lies at the root of the existence of human life in general.
A key moment for that triumphing rhythm occurred in 1929, when the Karasiński and Kataszek Orchestra were one of the headline acts at the General National Exhibition in Poznań, an event organised to celebrate 10 years of regained independence in Poland.
With a glittering array of exhibitions and activities, from restaurants to an amusement park, around 4.5 million people are said to have visited the fair. The Orchestra, interestingly, played concerts rather than dance sets – which, as Śniecikowska suggests, ‘proved the new music was being appreciated “formally” as well.’
The Hussies & Gentlemen of Interwar Poland
Still, there was persistent criticism in the press, with comments deeming jazz a ‘wild negro weed’. One review in Rzeczpospolita (Republic) in 1929 even singled out Sam Salvano, one of the musicians in the Karasiński and Kataszek Orchestra, and the ‘“imported” black goods’ he played:
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.
Jazz & the popular musical scene
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Artur Gold & Jerzy Saint Petersburg Orchestra (around 1930, photo: from '1000 Years of the History of Polish Jews' by B. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett & A. Polonsky, Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews (Warsaw 2014) / wikimedia.org
By this time, jazz was really beginning to establish a foothold in Polish music. There were reports that Karasiński and Kataszek, by then the standout jazz acts of the era, were paid 150 zloty for a single concert, a vast sum of money at the time.
The band was admired mostly because it was the first professional band in Poland to use improvisation.
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However, Pietraszewski also notes that the popularity of jazz was driven by its upper-middle class admirers – this was why the haunts of interwar jazz were mostly entertainment venues like cabarets and cafés.
With a boom in spending, jazz sought to plug a cultural niche in the musical market, prompting conscious stylistic choices. Underlying this was a rapid growth of popular song and imported material, reinforced by the introduction of recorded technology. By 1937, Pietraszewski notes, nearly 13% of the music programmes on the radio consisted of jazz music. Recorded sound permitted a greater focus on executive decisions for all musical genres – if the sound was flawed, it could be edited, or simply re-recorded.
Jazz was also growing thanks to its presence on stage, mainly at cabaret shows. Jazz was featured during the famous 1929 revue Warszawa w Kwiatach (Warsaw in Bloom). The show also happened to host the debut of Tango Milonga, a tango which later captivated the world, when translated to Oh Donna Clara!
According to Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, jazz was one of the signs that Poland had arrived at the dawn of a new and exciting cultural age:
The old cabaret consisted solely of verbal joke, it was gray; today it plays with all colours, sparkles with light, roars with jazz.
Pre-war jazz took a distinctly popular form too, away from its highbrow reputation. In his Dancing Retro, Andrzej Jóźwiak suggests pre-war jazz of that period was styled like dance music, with syncopated rhythm and arrangements modelled on the repertoire of American and English jazz orchestras, as well as some improvisation. Though European phrasing predominated, there was also a fascination with African American rhythm and emotional musical texture.
By this stage, the leading lights in Polish jazz were popular musicians – Kataszek and Karasiński were two, but the market was mostly directed by Henryk and Artur Gold, Fred Melodysta, and Henryk Wars – who, notes Beth Holmgren, first came across the genre whilst listening to records in the Syrena Record store.
Karpiński suggests their output was mainly popular songs based on jazz, like foxtrots and slowfoxes. What’s more, the style was considered such a fashion statement that artists and bands would often attach the word ‘jazz’ to their names – but the reality was a dearth in the number of songs specifically referred to as jazz numbers. Indeed, according to the saxophonist Jan Ptaszyn Wróblewski:
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For me, there is no doubt that the first seeds of Polish jazz should be sought before the war. The dance music of pre-war Poland was not terra incognita, and in it we can easily find traces of the confusion that jazz has already caused all over the world. It was as if there were two parallel streams – dance music very similar to jazz [...] and pure jazz, the more valuable for us. The first line was represented by Fred Melodyst, Artur Gold, Jerzy Petersburski, and finally, the most ambitious Franciszek Witkowski. The second category included Zygmunt Karasiński and Szymon Kataszek, Ada Rosner and, just before the war, Aleksander Tumel and Leonard Ilgowski.
As Wróblewski does note, in some cases, jazz was appreciated as a genre in its own right. In 1929, cabaret actor Eugeniusz Bodo attended a concert by the Karasiński and Kataszek Orchestra, and described it to his friend Henryk Wars as follows:
And you know what they were playing? Your beloved jazz. But what’s most astounding, the people didn’t dance. Well, maybe just a few couples – they sat in concentration and listened. They just listened. And then they got up and applauded as it was something extraordinary.
Trans. Artur Szarecki
Into the Interwar jazz heyday
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Ady Rosner & his swing orchestra, photo: CC
According to Karpiński’s classification, jazz was truly established in Polish interwar music with the onset of sound film, with the jazz king Henryk Wars composing music for a third of Polish films in the period.
In 1933, the first department of jazz music in Poland was established, and in 1934, the National Opera staged Jazzband: Murzyn i Kobiety (Jazzband: Negro and Women), which proved to be a great success at the time. The next year, the Karasiński and Kataszek Orchestra set off on a series of concerts across Eastern Europe and the Middle East – which all took place on a specially prepared train.
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But in Europe, the deteriorating political situation in Germany meant many talented Jewish jazz musicians decided to seek employment and safety elsewhere – and some came to Poland. One was Ady Rosner, the ‘Polish Armstrong’ who rapidly became the darling of the interwar jazz scene, with his bands achieving both national and international renown. It is also important to mention the vast impact Jewish musicians had on Polish interwar jazz, with the songs of many such key players, like Kataszek, Karasiński and the Gold brothers, containing whispers of klezmer and Jewish musical motifs.
Rosner’s arrival also kickstarted, as Karpiński suggests, the dawn of Polish swing. According to Pietraszewski, jazz and swing were seen as disparate categories in the Interwar period, with reviewers noting an evolution of jazz to swing in the latter half of the 1930s, rather than swing as simply a popular music subcategory of jazz.
Reluctance dissipated and orchestras fattened, transforming into American-style big bands – though combos continued to retain their prevalence, even post-war. Meanwhile, jazz became a regular feature at cabarets and clubs, propped up by the increasing import of American records. It was proving such a lucrative genre that even the literati were getting in on the act: the Polish poet and wordsmith Julian Tuwim mentioned jazz music in his poems, where it acquired a fantastical yet fiendish character. Aleksander Nawarecki notes that Tuwim refers to the method of consumption of jazz, whilst also maintaining a sense of its exotic and even alien nature, as in Stop, as well as its intoxicating eroticism, in Cocktail.
As Pietrazewski describes:
The reasons for the attractiveness and popularity of jazz in the Interwar period, despite the aforementioned resistance in the aesthetic and musical layers, were sought in its accessibility, emotionality and the power of influence on the senses.
Śniecikowska also mentions that jazz appears in Tuwim’s dystopian 1936 Bal w Operze (A Ball at the Opera), which is structured like a piece of jazz music. The jazz described in the text linked to diabolical, cataclysmic suffering – functioning, she says, as ‘the best music to accompany the fascist march to hell.’
But it was the rise of fascism which would eventually destroy the Interwar jazz fever, with the onset of war in 1939. Amongst the many brilliant musicians to be killed in the war was jazz pioneer Szymon Kataszek, and popular musical titan Artur Gold. Henryk Wars, meanwhile, established a Tea-Jazz Orchestra in Lviv during the early years of the war, engaging leading names of stage and screen to perform the classic hits of the era on tour across the Soviet Union, and continuing – for a short time at least – the bright output of interwar song.
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Archival photography by Michal Karski from the film 'Henryk Wars: A songster of Warsaw' directed by Wiesław Dąbrowski, photo: www.polishdocs.pl; Henryk Wars, photo: Michal Karski
And still the influence of Interwar jazz on the history of Polish music remains to this day, with revival bands like Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki inspired by their work in the contemporary renditions of interwar jazz hits.
Written by Juliette Bretan, Apr 2020
Sources: ‘Northern Sun, Southern Moon: Europe's Reinvention of Jazz’ by Mike Heffley (Yale University Press 2005); ‘Regarding the Popular: Modernism, the Avant-Garde and High and Low Culture’ edited by Sascha Bru, Laurence Nuijs, Benedikt Hjartarson, Peter Nicholls, Tania Ørum, Hubert Berg (De Gruyter 2012); ‘International Jazz Archives Journal’ Volume 2, Issues 1-2; ‘Powróćmy Jak za Dawnych Lat… Historia Polskiej Muzyki Rozrywkowej 1900-1939’ by D Michalski (Iskry 2007); ‘Parafernalia: O Rzeczach i Marzeniach’ by Aleksander Nawarecki (Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego 2014); ‘The Presence of Jewish Music in the Musical life of Interwar Prague’ by Michał Jaczyński (Kwartalnik Młodych Muzykologów UJ 2017); ‘Jazz w Polsce’ by Igor Pietraszewski (NOMOS, 2012); ‘Był Jazz: Krzyk Jazz-Bandu w Międzywojennej Polsce’ by Krzysztof Karpiński (Wydawnictwo Literackie 2014); gazetamuranowska.muranow.waw.pl; jazz.pl