As always with Polish books let me start with rough translation of the title: Komeda. Personal Life of Jazz. It is difficult for me to judge how popular Komeda actually is outside of Poland, so just in case I sent you to Wikipedia. In Poland he is regarded as one of the key figures of the Polish school of jazz. He was a jazz pianist and film music composer.
I got this book as a gift from my mum, who clearly decided it is time I expanded my musical horizons. It had to wait for its time for few months, because its sheer size (500 pages hardcover), as well as the topic. Finally when I was about to fly to US for the first time in my life I decided such a big book may actually be an asset on a long flight.
There are few reasons why the topic felt a bit intimidating.
I have been to numerous jazz concerts, some of them really good ones and by really world-class artists and every time it ends the same way: I fall asleep. I think jazz music just puts my brain into the state of deep relaxation, it usually happens within the first fifteen minutes of the concert. I do enjoy it, only subconsciously.
My Bigger Half is a musician, and I am musically deaf like a stump. I cannot make a single in-tune sound, I do not hear when something is out of rhythm, you could say I am musically disabled and I would not take offence.
I perceive the world with my eyes not my ears. This is something I discovered over the years if being with my Bigger Half. We both enjoy going to big and small concerts and festivals, but where he remembers music I remember what was happening on stage, where exactly we stood, all visual. When he hears our annoying neighbor playing music, I am not one bit bothered, able to completely tune it out. When he practices and asks me if I like a riff, I am not able to honestly answer because I did not hear it. Which probably makes us such a good couple 😉
With all this you can appreciate that a biography of a jazz musician was not my reading of choice. But I did it! The beginning was a bit difficult, because we jump right in the middle of the story in 1956, as the 1st Sopot Jazz Festival takes place. Grzebałkowska throws us into the middle of things, describing the frenzy, throwing multiple names around (that sounded somehow vaguely familiar, like I should know more about them, which I do now that I finished the book).
Then she goes back and forth through Komeda’s life, piecing together his life story, but also giving the wider context of political situation in Poland and how it affected jazz musicians. Some of the stories and anecdotes had me laughing out loud, as they are the typical absurdities of living in a communist country. Other were a lot more serious. Through all that she paints the vivid picture of Polish jazz scene as it formed and developed over the years.
She also delves into Komeda’s personal life, but she treats all three strands (Komeda’s past, his adult life and the wider context) of her story really well. One thing I didn’t know about Komeda is that his real last name was Trzciński, I challenge any non-Polish person to try to say Krzysztof ‘Komeda’ Trzciński and keep their speech organ intact 😉 Another thing I did not know was that Komeda was a doctor. For years he practiced medicine alongside playing jazz, but at some point he decided to risk everything for music.
Grzebałkowska also touches on his premature death, but tries to avoid the sensationalist approach. Instead this is when she writes most about her research and how she collected materials for the book. Trying to also show how personal it is to dive into someone’s life like this. It really was a great book, worth the time I spent with it and the experience definitely improved by the ongoing discussions about it with my Bigger Half, having the first-hand musician’s experience to compare was priceless.
What is your primary sense? What is your favorite book about music?
I’ll leave you with Komeda’s most famous film song and jazz album, take your pick: