Jazz, alternative music '
Tomasz Handzlik
Reading time: approx. 8 minutes

Jazz is all and all is jazz

Is Kraków the capital of Polish jazz? Without a shadow of a doubt! It was here that young musicians interested in jazz gathered after the Second World War, with such giants of the genre as Jerzy “Duduś” Matuszkiewicz, Zbigniew Seifert and Tomasz Stańko taking their first steps. Kraków’s clubs have hosted stars including Krzysztof Komeda, Adam Makowicz and Janusz Muniak. Today, the city boasts the greatest number of regular jazz clubs, festivals and competitions in Poland. So yes, Kraków definitely is a capital of jazz! And the city resounds with all styles of music, from early to 20th century classical, avantgarde and alternative. Join us for a tour of the royal city of music!

Club life

We started with legends of Polish jazz, so let’s continue in this vein. Our journey begins at Kraków’s most famous stage where the acclaimed saxophonist Janusz Muniak spent most of his professional life, performing and educating the next generation of musicians. The cellar club at Floriańska Street now bears his name. Many of his former acolytes have gone on to conquer stages all over the globe. Since the maestro’s passing, the Jazz Club u Muniaka has been one of the most important jazz venues in the city, and it is always bursting with young musicians. If you’re after traditional and mainstream jazz, funk and jazz rock, head to Harris Piano Jazz Bar, Piec Art Acoustic Jazz Club and Piwnica Pod Baranami hosting regular concerts as well as jam sessions. Lining the Main Market Square is also home to another club which has been hosting jazz for decades. The legendary Pod Jaszczurami Club, founded in 1960, has been especially active during the 1970s and 1980s with leading musicians performing at festivals, regular concerts and spontaneous jam sessions. In recent years the club has scaled back its activities, but we certainly hope that the historic venue will see better days again.

 

If you’re after something more thought-provoking, head to Alchemia in Kazimierz. The club hosts the legendary avantgarde festival Krakow Jazz Autumn and many other experimental gigs and projects.

Jazz through the seasons

Now that you’ve absorbed some of Kraków’s atmosphere, let’s base our next trip around a calendar of festivals held in the city. Once again, Kraków can boast the highest number of jazz events, festivals and competitions in Poland. Here is a selection of some of the most important ones.

 

Spring brings the Young and Old, or Jazz in Kraków International Festival, presenting some of the most important work being done in the genre in Poland, Europe and around the world since 1995.

 

It is followed by the Summer Jazz Festival Kraków. Running for around a month, it is a review of Polish jazz ensembles with regular guest stars from abroad, including Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Return to Forever. One of the most colourful elements of the festival is the New Orleans Sunday, with a parade taking to the streets of the Old Town and gardens of cafés lining the Main Market Square resounding with trad jazz by groups such as the Old Metropolitan Band, Boba Jazz Band and Poland’s longest-running ensemble of this kind: the Jazz Band Ball Orchestra. The Summer Jazz Festival Kraków coincides with the Jazz Night featuring dozens of concerts at venues all over the city.

 

At the height of summer, on alternate years Kraków hosts events commemorating the city’s late jazz maestros: the Jarek Śmietana International Jazz Guitar Competition and the Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition. The globally-acclaimed events draw veterans of jazz from all over the globe to sit on both juries and up-and-coming musicians who often go on to headline renowned festivals.

Autumn is the busiest time for Cracovian jazz. The season abounds with concerts showcasing all flavours of jazz, from classical and traditional all the way to avantgarde and experimental.

Speaking of tradition, the Kraków “All Souls” Zaduszki Jazz Festival is Poland’s longest-running event of its kind, and on the global scale second only to the Newport Jazz Festival in the US. The central point of jazz avantgarde is the Krakow Jazz Autumn. The festival presents countless unforgettable concerts and special projects such as artistic residences by the Chicagoan saxophonist Ken Vandermark and the British double-bassist and composer Barry Guy with myriad ensembles, and German saxophonist and clarinettist Peter Brötzmann’s explosive solo performances.

Our autumnal jazz exploration closes with the Jazz Juniors festival, of which the author is the director. Held every year since 1976 (coincidentally the author’s birth year!), it is one of Poland’s oldest jazz competitions. It launched the careers of musicians such as Leszek Możdżer, Krzysztof Ścierański, Zbigniew Wegehaupt, Marek Bałata, the Niedziela and Pospieszalski brothers and ensembles including New Presentation, Walk Away and the cult Miłość featuring Leszek Możdżer, Tymon Tymański, Mikołaj Trzaska and Jacek Olter. They have all been established acts for many years now, but Jazz Juniors continues to be a leading jazz competition whose winners go on to make their mark on stages all over the globe. More recent discoveries of the festival include High Definition, N.S.I., Bartosz Dworak, Stanisław Słowiński and Piotr “Pianohooligan” Orzechowski. In 2019, Adam Pierończyk – one of Poland’s leading jazzmen – took over as the festival’s artistic director, placing the event firmly on the global stage.

Avantgarde and alternative

Autumn also presents two festivals intertwining 20th century classical, club and electronic music. But looking to the past and the future, these attempts at categorisation may yet turn out to be far too simplistic!

 

The Sacrum Profanum festival has certainly seen its fair share of turbulence. Some of the early performances were lavish music spectacles in the post-industrial space of the Tadeusz Sendzimir Steelworks (now ArcelorMittal Poland), followed by ambitious presentations of classics of 20th-century avantgarde led by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Steve Reich. The festival also turns its attention to rock and electronica with Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, Sigur Rós, The Cinematic Orchestra and Jonny Greenwood, and showcases icons of Polish 20th-century music by Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki and Wojciech Kilar. The festival features leading performers of modern music, including Kronos Quartet, Klangforum Wien, Ensemble Modern and Ensemble intercontemporain. In recent years, Sacrum Profanum has turned its attention to brand-new music, commissioning operas from artists such as Paweł Mykietyn (“The Magic Mountain”) and Alek Nowak (“ahat ilī – Sister of Gods” to a libretto by Olga Tokarczuk), as well as hosting installations, meetings, discussions and an indie classical stream.

The Unsound Festival explores a different corner of the avantgarde world, with roots in club, techno and ambient music. It started off in cramped cellars, soon evolving into a major festival with concerts held at venues such as the Museum of Municipal Engineering and the Church of St. Catherine; more recently, the former Hotel Forum has been brought back to life by the organisers of Unsound and now serves as a space for meetings and events under the banner Forum Przestrzenie.

 

It would be difficult to outline the festival’s programme framework, but if we were to generalise, it could be said to showcase ambitious electronic music. Since its founders like to take their audiences by surprise, Unsound has often been described as a laboratory bringing together new media, visual arts and experimentation on all fronts. Some memorable events of recent years have been Ben Frost and Daniel Bjarnasson’s “Solaris” produced with Sinfonietta Cracovia with visualisations by Brian Eno and Nick Robertson, and the project “Ephemera” combining audio, visuals and smell. Unsound has no ties to a single concert venue in Kraków, and its restless spirit also reaches far beyond Poland. The organisers have already held satellite festivals as far afield as London, New York, Adelaide and Tbilisi.

 

This brings us to the end of our musical journey. After our busy autumn it’s time to take a rest, and join Kraków’s jazz and alternative circles in a spot of well-earned hibernation. Nourished with music we lay dormant awaiting spring and the launch of the next long concert season!

Tomasz Handzlik

Music journalist and event organiser and producer. He has published articles in the “Gazeta Wyborcza” daily, the “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly, “Ruch Muzyczny” and the magazines “Jazz Forum” and “Dwutygodnik.com”. He is the co-founder and producer of the Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition. Director of the Jazz Juniors Festival and Competition since 2015.

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