Jaroslaw Smietana: Keeping metaphysical on Krakow’s jazz scene
Jarosław Smietana is one of the premiere jazz musicians in Poland and one of the top guitar players in all of Europe. The Krakow native graduated from the Jazz School in neighboring Katowice. From 1975 until 1981, he was the leader of the legendary jazz group ?Extra Ball.? Since1982 he has led the jazz groups ?Sounds,? the big-ban Symphonic Sound Orchestra, and the Polish Jazz Stars Band, which features some of the top jazz musicans in Poland. He was also a co-leader of the famed Namysłowski-Smietana Quartet. Smietana has played at concerts, festivals and jazz workshops around the world, including the United States. He has played or recorded with such greats as David Gilmore, Eddie Henderson, Gary Bartz, Zbigniew Seifert, Greg Brandy, Dave Friedman, Steve Logan and Nigel Kennedy.
The Krakow Post: Krakow has a rich jazz tradition. Is there something about the city that is conducive to jazz?
Jarek Smietana: It is conducive to artists. Does that mean it is conducive to music in particular? It?s hard to say. It has always been more difficult for artists in Krakow to make a living than, say, Warsaw. But some metaphysic of this city makes artists feel good and they create outstanding things here. Many musicians have left, looking for a job in Warsaw, but many have stayed. I can?t imagine me emigrating from here. This city is very important for me. My musical and cultural education started in the clubs Pod Jaszczurami and Piwnica Pod Baranami (Cellar Under the Rams) during their golden ages. I feel better in Krakow; this city gives you a perspective. And although it isn?t a business-oriented place, its magic attracts people.
Q. Did Polish jazz start in Krakow, as opposed to Warsaw?
A. Many people think so. Although it is hard to say precisely where jazz started in Poland, Krakow was in on the dawning. The very first jazz sessions took place in cellars here. And it was here where the festival Zaduszki Jazzowe began. It can certainly be said that a crystallization of jazz, especially mainstream jazz, took place in Krakow in the 1950s and 1960s.
Q. What does contemporary Krakow jazz life look like?
A. One hallmark is that there is no big jazz club, one that would hold 200 or 300 people. There are many small clubs with nice atmospheres, including Muniak?s, Piwnica pod Baranami, Harris Piano Jazz Bar and U Luisa. But only about 100 people can get into each.
We could use a bigger club for concerts. But it?s hard to find a place where we could put a big venue in Krakow. Everything is in cellars.
Over-all, jazz in Krakow is flourishing, although some clubs are having financial troubles. They could use some rich sponsor. But I?m optimistic about the jazz situation in Krakow. Music is not only big concerts. It has a place in small clubs, where many times very interesting music is created — sometimes better than on a big stage or in a festival.
Futhermore, we have wonderful audiences here — not just Polish, either, because many tourists come to the sessions. The audiences are multi?generational, too. This is different from many other places, where it is rare that teenagers come to jazz sessions. This also makes me optimistic.
Q. As a young man you set up the the Extra Ball quintet in 1974. Were there a lot of student jazz groups then, and what?s the situation now?
A. Nowadays the situation has changed. First of all the Jazz School in Katowice is bigger. When I was studying there, it was in its infancy. Now it is one of the strengths of the Polish jazz scene. And, often, interesting young groups get their start there.
The difference between today and the 1970s is that, over all, more students then were interested in jazz ? not just music-school students. Today, few university students are jazz fans. The young audience now includes high school students, then jumps to people who have finished their university studies.
This is alarming. I remember when there were jazz clubs in every university dormitory. Now this interest has disappeared. It surprises me because jazz is a combination of all sorts of musical genres, so it is for everyone. One positive thing is that today there are fewer student jazz groups, but they are very good. So, one could ask the question: What is more importan –: quality or quantity? Of course, both quality and quantity would be perfect.
Q. Would you agree that in the 1960s and 1970s, jazz was partly a form of rebellion? With today?s freedom, and so many musical genres, wouldn?t it seem natural that jazz?s popularity would decline?
A. It does seems to me that in the 1960s and 1970s, jazz, in addition to being a genre that had a certain fascination, was indeed an expression of a rebellion. That was one reason why it was so popular ? nearly as popular as pop music. In fact, it was considered cool to go to jazz concerts. It was a sign that you didn?t accept the political system. Jazz created an image of you as a free man.
Today we have freedom so everything is different.
Those who have remained jazz fans are those who really like the music and want to listen to it. I think both situations have been good for jazz. On the one hand, the situation in the 1960s helped forge an audience. Some people who had not been fans, and showed up at concerts then, probably came skeptical the music. But some listened and liked it. It was a kind of education. Nowadays those who come to concerts really like it, are really interested in jazz.
Q. Two years ago, when you recorded your CD, ?The Story of Polish Jazz,? you had two rap singers perform the title song, extolling the key developments in Polish jazz. Were you thinking that it would help jazz?s popularity to connect it with a popular genre like hip hop?
A. My idea was not to connect jazz with hip hop. It was to present a short history of Polish jazz. I wanted it to be a regular song, but there were so many words in the lyrics (the composition lasts 10 minutes) that it had the feel of an operetta instead of a song.
In addition, I felt there wasn?t enough energy in the composition. What rappers do is interesting (in terms of energy).
The main problem I faced was not a clash of two musical genres, but finding suitable performers. I had prepared the text, the music, but I didn?t have a vocalist. At first I tried jazz singers, but that didn?t work.. I even tried actors from the Old Theater in Krakow, but that was no good, either. Then I found two rap singers ? Bzyk and Guzik from the WuHae group. They did a great job. They presented the lyrics with conviction, and more important, in a way that was not boring, despite the piece?s length. Because of that, the composition became well known and popular.
It was my first literary test. But I didn?t take it on alone. I was too nervous to do that. Jacek Pelc helped me.
It is telling that preparing the text took a year but I did the music in only four days. The greatest difficulty was choosing the most important historical facts about jazz. I had to omit a lot, and some of what I omitted upset people. I?m still get phone calls from jazz figures asking: ?Why didn?t you mention me?? or someone else. That?s why at the beginning of the song I apologized to all of those who might be upset that I failed to mention them.
Q. Many musicians view hip hop as a joke ? not a real music genre. How did musicians react to you using rappers in a jazz album?
A. Every one I talked with liked the idea. In addition, many musicians asked if they could take part in the project. Because it was a big project, I ended up using several dozen people.
The record not only won a jazz Oscar, but it also got noticed and put on general radio stations, which was a total surprise to me. I don?t know if hip hop is a bad musical genre. It speaks to a youth subculture that likes a beat. But the melody in hip hop is simple, is reduced to one dimension. But the genre has this amazing energy ? and that appears to be the future of music. Surely the musical scene in general will not gravitate toward hip hop, but it would be good if modern music had some of hip hop?s energy. At one time, jazz was a trend-setting music, a fresh breath away from traditional music, one that developed a rhythm. Nowadays we can?t imagine any band without a drummer ? and that?s because of jazz. Jazz did not take anything away from traditional music but added to it. That seems to be what hip hop is doing now.
Q. You have worked with such top jazz figures as Eddie Henderson, Brad Terry, David Gilmore and ? in your latest record ? Nigel Kennedy and Steven Logan. If there anyone else you?d like to collaborate with?
A. My lifelong dream, which unfortunately never came true, was to perform with Miles Davis. The closest I came to realizing the dream was that many years ago I spent a day at his house. We talked about jazz and other things all night. I see him as one of the greatest creative forces in contemporary music. Since his death I have not seen a jazz artist who could inspire young musicians to take creative risks.
I would like my music to reflect the present, but at the same time reflect my roots, musical traditions that have stuck with me. I don?t ever want to totally recreate music from the past, even if it?s done perfectly.
Q. What are your future plans?
A. My latest record, ?Autumn Suite,? which I recorded with a violin chamber orchestra, has elements of both jazz and classical music. It features Nigel Kennedy, Eddie Henderson, the great trumpeter David Liebman and the saxophonist and bass clarinest Bennie Maupin ? the last two of whom have played with Miles Davis. So my short-term plan is to help promote the record and hold concerts that feature its music. I also have another band where guitar is dominant, along with the organ that Wojciech Karolak plays and the drums that Adam Czerwienski plays. I?m working with them on an new album for next year. The title will be, ?Polish Standards.? There will be beautiful melodies from jazz styles created over the last 80 years.