Poland in the 1950s and 1960s boasted a jazz scene of remarkable vibrancy. State-sponsored festivals in Sopot and Warsaw gave audiences the chance to hear jazz performers from all over the world. Local groups crafted their own sound, releasing seminal recordings such as the Krzysztof Komeda Quintet's Astigmatic (1966). The sounds of jazz permeated the films of Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polański. An important part of Poland's cultural and social history during the post-Stalin Thaw, jazz remains a lively element in the country's contemporary musical life.
Igor Pietraszewski's Jazz in Poland: Improvised Freedom investigates Polish jazz as both a historical and present-day phenomenon. The second in the Jazz Under State Socialism Series edited by Gertrud Pickhan and Rüdiger Ritter, this book is part of an ongoing effort to understand the significance of jazz in the cultures and societies of East-Central Europe. Pietraszewski is ideally placed to carry out such a study. His experiences as a jazz saxophonist and board member of the Jazz on the Odra Festival in Wrocław give him an insider's insight into the musical world he describes. His training as a sociologist, on the other hand, enables him to approach his subject with an outsider's detachment.
Pietraszewski draws on survey responses, interviews, print and other media sources, and scholarship by sociologists and cultural historians in an analysis that proceeds systematically from theory to data. Pietraszewski's theoretical framework is indebted to Pierre Bourdieu's insights on prestige and the power dynamics of cultural production. Chapter One summarizes the concepts that form the basis of Pietraszewski's study; his explanations of "habitus," "capital," and "field" will be most useful to readers who are not already familiar with Bourdieu's work. Pietraszewski then applies these concepts in chapters that investigate the structural constraints that have shaped Polish jazz as well as the strategies of the individuals and groups that have acted within them. Chapter Two traces the history of jazz in Poland from the 1920s until the early 2000s, noting major figures as well as the effects of war, political upheaval, economic transformation, and technological change. Interviews constitute the basis of Chapter Three, which considers how jazz musicians view themselves and their art. The contemporary audience for jazz appears in Chapter Four, which presents the results of a survey Pietraszewski conducted at the 2009 Jazz on the Odra Festival.
The thread that ties these chapters together is the idea of freedom, which, Pietraszewski reveals, has been a constant throughout jazz's Polish history. Pietraszewski understands the link between jazz and freedom in two ways. Drawing on notions of autonomy that are typically ascribed to Western art music, and which have become associated in Poland with jazz, Pietraszewski discusses freedom as an internal property of the jazz field, by which he means that jazz musicians have the latitude to shape their art in the ways they see fit. Pietraszewski also describes the freedom of jazz as relative, emerging in the comparison between fields. He shows that, for its audiences and practitioners, jazz has been thought to offer experiences and possibilities that other forms of cultural production and social interaction do not. He locates the start of jazz's association with freedom in the "catacomb period" of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Polish party-state officials condemned jazz as part of socialist realist cultural policy. As a result, a taste for jazz became a sign of resistance, and, for artists, ties to this era became a source of prestige.
Pietraszewski is careful to point out that claims of Stalinist-era persecution may be overblown. But once the link between jazz and resistance was forged, it stuck—even as jazz musicians began to receive approbation and state support during the post-Stalin Thaw, and even as their training and subsequent career trajectories became increasingly professionalized. Comments by Pietraszewski's interviewees indicate that perceptions of jazz musicians as free-spirited non-conformists continue to be relevant in present-day Poland, where these musicians face the challenges of navigating a market economy. Pietraszewski's complex investigation of the relationship in Poland between jazz and freedom is one of the book's primary strengths.
Other aspects of the book would have benefited from similar nuance. Pietraszewski's reluctance to engage with questions of race is a missed opportunity. He explains this decision as motivated by his respondents: because they did not focus on issues of race, Pietraszewski concludes that race "had no effect on the development of jazz music in Poland" (15). Considering Pietraszewski's willingness to probe his informants' comments on jazz and freedom, it is surprising that he would accept their responses at face value here—not least because his historical evidence suggests that the story is considerably more complex than he makes it out to be. One of the reviews Pietraszewski cites uses racialized terms to condemn jazz interpretations of Chopin's music in 1922 (40-41), whereas an article he references from 1930 attributes jazz's appeal to its "wild," "Anglo-Saxon-Negro" character (42). If, in present-day Poland, jazz has indeed ceased to be understood according to racial categories, then this marks a shift from the ways this music was apparently understood during the interwar years. Pietraszewski's study would thus have benefited from a more thorough discussion of the ways in which jazz has become decoupled in Poland from connotations of blackness, and the extent to which this decoupling has facilitated perceptions of jazz as an elite art music.
The book would also have benefited from a more complex analysis of jazz as a genre. Pietraszewski convincingly demonstrates that, as far as its audiences are concerned, jazz in Poland has consistently been the province of social elites. It is not entirely clear, however, whether the earliest, interwar audiences viewed jazz itself according to the elite art music terms with which it is now associated. It would have been helpful to learn more about how jazz came to be understood as an art music in Poland, and whether certain styles of jazz were (or continue to be) viewed as more prestigious than others. Pietraszewski could also have done more to explain the criteria underlying his value judgments. For example, in his analysis of the audience survey data in Chapter Four, he claims that jazz is more difficult and complex than other genres of music, such as rock and pop. He also suggests that, within jazz as a genre, "older, traditional jazz styles, for instance New Orleans jazz, Dixieland, and swing . . . are easier to listen to" (134) and hence more likely to be favored by audience members whose engagement with jazz is more sporadic than sustained. The rationale for these evaluations is not sufficiently explained, nor is the presumed connection between prestige and musical complexity sufficiently interrogated.
Despite these shortcomings, Pietraszewski's compact volume makes a valuable contribution to the growing literature on the cultural politics of jazz in East-Central Europe. Sociologists, cultural historians, and musicologists will find much to interest them in this book; the vivid anecdotes from Pietraszewski's interviewees are especially compelling, and the survey data provides a snapshot of one segment of Polish cultural life circa 2009. Most importantly, Jazz in Poland makes trenchant observations about the complex, negotiated nature of cultural freedom in various political and economic circumstances, while raising vital questions for future research.
Dr. Lisa Jakelski: Review for: Igor Pietraszewski: Jazz in Poland. Improvised Freedom, 2014, in: https://www.pol-int.org/en/publications/jazz-poland-improvised-freedom#r3949.