Jazz frenzy behind the Iron Curtain
- 16 November 2010
- From the section Europe
World War II and Soviet occupation smothered much of Poland's culture including its jazz scene, but one British musician helped spark a revival of Polish jazz culture that began at the height of the Cold War.
In 1956 I was invited to take my band to a jazz festival at the seaside resort of Sopot in Poland.
Some of my band were nervous at travelling to a Communist country and backed out.
But I was absolutely thrilled at the invitation and was determined to go, and so I reformed the band with musicians who were not afraid to travel behind the Iron Curtain.
The trip almost foundered when the British Foreign Office tried to prevent our departure. I was being telephoned constantly by officials who were trying to stop us from going.
Even on the night before we were due to fly off, I was bombarded with phone calls, "Do you realise what you are doing?", "Do you have a return ticket?", that sort of thing.
Eventually we were allowed to go, but only if we signed a form to say that we would not be able to receive any help in Poland from the British consular, and that we were aware of the risk that we may not be allowed to leave.
We all signed, and we went.
The band got to Warsaw where we then boarded a WWII Dakota, for a bumpy ride to Gdansk, for our first performance at the 1956 Sopot Jazz Festival.
We stepped forward on the stage, in to dazzling lights, banks of microphones, a sea of faces, and a throbbing buzz of expectancy.
I took a deep breath and stomped into the first number with my right foot. "One, two, one two three four."
It turned out we were playing ourselves into Polish Jazz history. If jazz was banned in Poland before, that all changed at Sopot.
At the time I knew that the festival was massively important for the Poles, but the event and its experience had long retreated to the back of my memory, until I discovered that a CD compilation of the music from the festival had been released to mark the event.
I got back in touch with my Polish contacts in Warsaw and reintroduced myself to them. To my surprise, many of them remembered me and I returned there to be reunited with them.
"To understand Sopot you have to understand the political context," Pawel Brodowski, editor of Poland's Jazz Forum magazine told me.
Jazz in Poland was wiped out during the Second World War, as the Nazi's considered it degenerate.
After the war ended in 1945, many of those Poles who had both fled and fought abroad in Western Europe brought with them a new-found love for jazz, and the jazz scene began to thrive again.
But the freedom did not last long. The Communists took power four years later and officially banned jazz as a "decadent Western art".
Even the saxophone itself was forbidden by the state. Those caught embracing jazz were suddenly put on a blacklist and found themselves struggling to get a job.
So the Poles simply went underground with their jazz, playing and listening behind closed doors, in private apartments and cellars.
"That era in our history went down as catacomb jazz," Pawel Brodowski said.
But by 1956, public discontent with the regime was growing, sparked by the promise of the 'Thaw' that followed the recent death of Josef Stalin and resentment at the killing of anti-government protesters in the town of Poznan.
Communist officials nervously assented to Poland's first ever jazz festival, one of the first ever in Europe, in Sopot.
Leopold Tyrmand, an intellectual and fierce anti-Communist, was the key driving force behind the festival and acted as its host.
Thousands of people travelled to the seaside town of Sopot on the Baltic coast to see us.
With Polish bands the crowd politely clapped, but with us they cheered and stomped because they had not before seen a foreign band playing live the music that they had only heard on the radio.
During the festival and the national tour, our band gave something like 27 performances, flying around Poland in our Dakota to various concerts in Warsaw, Gdansk, Sopot, Krakow, and Poznan.
"Thousands of people were standing behind the concert hall trying just to listen to what was happening inside," Jan Wroblewski, one of Poland's great jazz musicians, told me on my return. We first met at the Sopot festival where Jan was also playing.
"People were coming to that festival because they wanted to see what this forbidden fruit really is... it changed everything in all the cultural fields."
We may have been the first Westerners to play in post-war Poland but we were not the last. The 1956 festival broke down barriers.
The Polish jazz scene had escaped from the underground and would go from strength to strength.
In the following years, Louis Armstrong played in Poland. So did Dave Brubeck. The door was open!
But it all began at Sopot.