Henryk Wars was a prolific Polish musician known as the King of Jazz. He was a forerunner of Polish jazz, who helped shape musical circles in Poland and abroad, seen as one of the great composers of the era, alongside Jerzy Petersburski and the Gold brothers. Born on 29th December 1902 in Warsaw, died 1st September 1977 in Los Angeles.
Kompozytor; urodzony w 1902 roku Warszawie, zmarł w 1977 roku w Stanach Zjednoczonych.
Wars was born Henryk Warszawski in Warsaw to a Jewish family, and spent his early years living in France along with his musically talented sisters – Józefina was a soloist of the Warsaw Opera, and Paulina was being educated as a pianist. The family returned to Poland in 1914, where Wars enrolled at the Mazovia Land School at 16 Klonowa Street, graduating in 1920. He then volunteered for the Polish army in the Polish-Soviet war, before joining the Faculty of Law at Warsaw University. Alongside his legal education, Wars satisfied his ambitions in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts.
Despite his love of painting, Wars remained interested in music, particularly after his sister Józefina achieved success at the Opera House. Ryszard Wolański’s Już nie zapomnisz mnie (Biography of Henryk Wars) records two separate stories regarding the recognition of Wars’s own talent by Emil Młynarski. The first suggests that it was Wars’s sister, Józefina, who arranged the audition; though Wars’s wife, Elżbieta, maintained that Wars had organised an amateur concert with the students he was conducting at the Academy. Młynarski, visiting from Russia to search for music students, heard the concert and handed Wars a card, inviting him to visit his hotel the following day to practice compositions, and subsequently gifted him a scholarship to the conservatory.
Wars’s education under Młynarski was not to last for long – in 1922, Młynarski transferred to the Warsaw Opera, and instruction in the Conservatory was passed to Henryk Melcer, who preferred experimental approaches. Nonetheless, in later life Wars would recall the depth of knowledge Melcer passed on to him. In the Conservatory, Wars was also taught by his hero, Szymanowski.
It is recorded that whilst still a student, Wars began to accompany acts in cabarets and theatres. He graduated in 1925, though then enrolled again in the army for a brief time with the Artillery Reserves Officer Cadet School in Włodzimierz Wołyński, where allegedly he studied military music. Wars was able to demobilise a couple of years following his graduation, and then set his heart on a musical career, establishing himself as a composer and conductor.
The developing dream
In the late 1920s, Wars began visiting one of Warsaw’s best-known cabarets, Qui Pro Quo, where he quickly established a friendship with Andrzej Włast, a writer and admirer of American jazz. They collaborated together on Wars’s first professional composition, New York Times, supposedly recorded by his vocal trio Jazz Singers (Eugeniusz Bodo, Tadeusz Olsza and Tadeusz Roland) in the revue show Może Tak (editor’s translation: Maybe Yes) at the Karuzela theatre. Though this song was not overwhelmingly successful, Wars continued his work as a pianist, accompanying acts at theatres; from 1928, he worked at Nowym Perskim Oku, Morskie Oko and Cyrulik Warszawski, alongside Józef Kamin and Leon Boruński, whilst composing with Włast.
It was in 1929 when Wars finally had a musical breakthrough with his and Włast’s Zatańczmy Tango (Let’s Dance the Tango), which premiered in the Cała Warszawa show at Morskie Oko sung by Stanisława Nowicka, who would become the first performer of Petersburski’s Tango Milonga. The success of Zatańczmy Tango, down in part to the popularity of the novel tango sound in the era, promoted Wars onto the most popular stages of interwar music – in the late 1920s, Juliusz Feigenbaum chose him to be the musical director for Syrena Electro, following a friendship which had begun when Wars was still a student.
Wars’s successes came thick and fast from then on in – in 1929, he composed Zapomnisz o Mnie, sung by Tadeusz Faliszewski, as well as performing jazz in a duet with Boruński, and working alongside leading lyricists like Marian Hemar. To compete with the rising popularity of revellers groups like Chór Dana, in 1930 Wars established Chór Warsa, offering positions to new stars like Adam Aston, Faliszewski, Stefan Sas-Jaworski and Alexander Puchalski/ Bolesław Reiff. Over three years, the group produced 42 dance pieces for Syrena Electro; and later performed under the name ‘Weseli Chłopcy z Columbii’ (‘Merry Boys from Columbia’) to facilitate a record deal with Columbia.
Chór Warsa also kick-started Wars’s film successes: his rising popularity was cemented with newspaper celebrations of his harmonious organisation of the choir and piano accompaniment – which was why, when sound began to creep into the film industry, it was he who was able to capitalise on its potential. In 1929 and 1930, Henryk Szaro began directing Na Sybir (Exile to Siberia); a film initially created without sound, which was later added in a Berlin studio, under Wars’s direction. For the film, Wars used folk motifs and traditional rhythms as opposed to jazz sounds in order to demonstrate his comprehensive talents. The sound version premiered on 31st October 1930 at the Royal Castle, an event attended by the then President Ignacy Mościcki. Later, Mościcki established a meeting to congratulate the film crew, particularly the composer, and learnt that technical inadequacies were preventing quality sound recording in Poland – and so he arranged financial support for modern sound recording equipment for Syrena Record. A photograph of this meeting shows he and Wars standing close together among the other members of the film.
From 1930, Wars’s popularity with film producers became increasingly evident – he was promoted in the press as the Polish King of Jazz and composer for Na Sybir, and his catchy pieces were seen as an integral element of any film’s success, performed by Hanka Ordonówna, Tola Mankiewiczówna, Eugeniusz Bodo, Mieczysław Fogg, among many others. It is alleged that Wars composed songs for 52 films across the 1930s – almost one third of all films produced at the time. In the beginning, Chór Warsa produced songs for some films, including Szyb L-23, and others shown in Kino Apollo, which were advertised in the press – but, by the mid-1930s, Wars was working on the biggest pictures of the era, including Manewry Miłosne (1933), Romeo i Julcia (1933), Pieśniarz Warszawy (1934), ABC Miłości (1935), Czarna Perła (1935), Antek Policmajster (1936), Czy Lucyna to Dziewczyna (1936), Robert i Bertrand (1937), Paweł i Gaweł (1938), and Włóczęgi (1939). Some of his best-loved compositions from this period include Umówiłem się z nią na dziewiątą (I Have a Date With Her at Nine) and Sex Appeal sung by Bodo in Piętro Wyżej – a film which also demonstrated Wars’s ability to unite jazz and classical harmonies; Miłość ci wszystko wybaczy (Love Will Forgive Everything) sung by Ordonówna in Szpieg w masce (Spy in the Mask); and Panie Janie, sung by Helena Grossówna in Zapomniana melodia (Forgotten Melody), and later performed by Adam Aston.
During the mid-1930s, Wars also wrote under the pseudonym ‘Fraska’ and performed in Britain, before returning to Poland to record piano recitals for European radios. In 1938-39, he conducted symphony concerts organised by the Symphonic Music Association.
Following the outbreak of war, Wars fought in the September campaign, but was later taken prisoner by the Germans, though he managed to escape from the train during a rest stop and made his way by foot to Lviv, where he founded a Tea-Jazz Orchestra along with several other eminent pre-war stars, like Bodo, Aston, Albert Harris and Gwidon Borucki. The Orchestra toured across Russia and performed hundreds of times, even producing some records in Moscow. Around the same time, Wars composed his first symphony.
In the early 1940s, fearing persecution due to his Jewish roots, Wars also organised Russian passports for his family and children in Poland, ensuring they could join him in Lviv in 1941. Later that year, his orchestra was incorporated into the Polish army along with other theatre groups, and moved to Persia for reorganisation – with the exception of Bodo, who had been arrested by the Russians on trumped up espionage charges and eventually perished in a gulag. Wars’s other performers were combined with those under Feliks Konarski to create Polish Parade, a group under the management of Wars with Konarski as literary manager.
Polish Parade travelled with the Anders Army across the Middle East, living in lice-infested quarters and often suffering from hunger, though continuously performing folk songs, marches and patriotic melodies to troops, in dress uniform. Wars was recorded as living in a hotel with his family in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, before making his way to Egypt. His Polish Parade rapidly became a favourite of international audiences, held in high esteem by British and Indian soldiers who admired the sophistication of their routines, which were often performed under fire; the troupe allegedly won an award for best Allied musical ensemble during the 1940s. Taking the MS Batory to Italy, artists in Polish Parade were responsible for one of the best-known Polish military songs: The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino, written by Konarski in 1944.
20th century composers
After the war had ended, Wars remained in Italy but was increasingly attracted by Hollywood, and continued composing symphonies and music, including for the 1946 Polish-Italian film Wielka Droga (Great Way), directed by Michał Waszyński.
Wars and his family eventually left for New York and then Los Angeles in 1947, though he was met with little opportunities: musicians were on strike in the city due to the demise of the film industry for television, Wars had limited contacts, and no producer trusted him enough to allow him to compose any pieces and develop a western repertoire. For seven years, Wars struggled to make ends meet, debating whether to abandon his musical career to become a clerk – a decision his wife warned him against. In 1950 Vars joined the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), with Ira Gershwin his sponsor.
In 1952, after working as a copyist, Wars scored his first break at Universal, but despised the organisation of production – the Musical Director was unprofessional, employing two composers for a single film. Two years later, however, he became friendly with John Wayne, who hired him to compose for westerns and cowboy films, the first being the 1954 Seven Men from Now. For his American work, Wars anglicised his name to Henry Vars – but often went uncredited in production details, with music attributed instead to the picture’s Musical Director, as was the American custom at the time.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Wars wrote music for productions under Columbia, Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox and MGM, working on around 60 films and TV shows, and his songs were performed by Bing Crosby and Doris Day, with Over and Over and Over, sung by Margaret Whiting, selling half a million copies and also gaining popularity in Poland with a performance by Anna German. He also established contact with Polish composer Bronisław Kaper and actress Pola Negri, who were also in Los Angeles.
Wars’s greatest success in Hollywood was his music for Flipper and Flipper’s New Adventure in the 1960s, followed by the television series Flipper, produced from 1964-67. In 1967, Wars made his first and last visit to Warsaw after the end of WWII, allegedly recording jazz suites for Polish Radio and conducting at the Warsaw Philharmonic, whilst also performing at the Polish Television and the Polish Film Chronicle.
His last credited work came with the 1971 film Fools’ Parade, starring James Stewart and George Kennedy. Wars also attended cultural events at the Jasna Góra Catholic Church in Los Angeles, and drew caricatures.
Wars died on 1st September 1977, whilst listening to his beloved Szymanowski. In the early 2000s, a documentary about his life – Henryk Wars: Songster of Warsaw – was produced; his wife explained that two years before the film’s production, she had found hidden scores of music in a cabinet in their garage. And indeed, his music continues to be rediscovered in perpetuity by modern-day enthusiasts, who credit Wars with a dedication to Polish sound, alongside innovation and sophistication.
Originally written in English by Juliette Bretan, August 2018