Just north of Zakopane and around one hour south of Krakow, nestled deep in the rolling foothills of the Tatra Mountains, the quaint little town of Bialy Dunajec has none of the swing and soul that one would normally associate with jazz. But, in his philosophical treatise of the late 20th century, the Polish chronicler Jozef Tischenr was unequivocal in his findings. He claimed the town was once a mecca for would-be folk musicians, who flocked the world over to master the stringed basses of the Polish Gorale (mountain men). One group of students who arrived from Africa were quick to master the style and, as the suspiciously fateful story goes, after suffering storms at sea while returning home, were left ‘with just their bows and no fiddles of basses’. It was from this demiurgic musical despair, Tischenr claims, that jazz came; ‘they used the bows to strike any kind of objects, creating the rhythms from which jazz was born’.
This Homer-esque odyssey of Bialy Dunajec’s black musicians, apocryphal or no, can fairly be seen as one of the more imaginative episodes in a 20th century musical tradition that has seen jazz music and Poland interlaced in more ways than one. Not only did jazz music sit happily in Krakow’s and Warsaw’s culture of subterranean ‘artsy’ bars, but it has been something of a defiant national identity card, syncopating Poland’s resistance that through the 20th century like the very jazz beats themselves, challenging the imperial conquests of the historical totalitarian foes on both borders, east and west.
Today, despite years of artistic repression during communist rule, Krakow remains a defiant hub for Jazz music. The mellow alto-sax ditties that issue from the smoky jazz bars in Kazimierz and the twinkling rhythms of the Old Town’s piano bars are now quite reminiscent of New York’s bohemian music villages, and stand as a symbolic manifestation of the Polish jazz renaissance that has unashamedly crowned Krakow as its capital.
Whatever the night, you’ll never be short of live music in Krakow and jazz is always on the menu. You only have to know where to look. The most famous joint in the city is right in its heart, on the Rynek Główny itself. Harris Piano bar is a small beatnik dive on the west side of the square, where punters sit nose-to-nose with musicians who pluck and blow every night of the week. The music varies, from big band to Dixieland, and it’s always a good idea to reserve tickets in advance and arrive early. (That is, if you don’t want to stand cramped at the back with the swathes of other jazz-hungry opportunists that have drifted in from the street, wooed by the ups-and-downs of the blues that issues from the unassuming entrance opposite the Sukkience.)
Just around the corner, on Szewska Street, under a blue neon sign that glows ‘Jazz’ onto the passing crowds below all night long, you’ll find another of Krakow’s legendary jazz joints. Piec’art specialises in acoustic jazz and hosts gigs 3 or 4 times a week. Like most places in Krakow, all the action happens in the basement, where the acoustics make for a rich sounding echo that’s just perfect for live jazz. It’s usually less busy than Harris’ and definitely worth a shot during the week when there are fewer crowds.
Back on the Main Square, the Piano Rouge Jazz Club boasts the best cocktails in town, and is a great option if you want to eat too. While the restaurant and concert room are separate, the jazz rhythms can still be heard echoing around the whole building, so you’re never too far from the band. Close by you can also find u Muniaka Club on the corner of Florianska Street. The entrance fee is a flat 10zl, but this place has become famous for its sax-fronted jazz bands that will often play very late into the night, and always enjoy a chat with punters at the underground bar.
With both a Summer Jazz Festival in Krakow and the upcoming Autumn Krakow Jazz Festival 2013, you can be sure there is plenty of great music around!
Krakow therefore is a wonderful city to visit and explore Jazz music. Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below and let our readers know if we’ve missed anywhere special!