Jazz University - Interview with Kuba Stankiewicz

Kuba Stankiewicz – an eminent jazz pianist and composer, he studied at Berklee College of Music and collaborated with such musicians as Art Farmer, Scott Hamilton, Harvie Swartz and Peter Erskine. Kuba is fascinated by music makers who are forgotten yet important for Polish culture. His album “The Music of Victor Young” contains unique interpretations of Young’s pieces. Kuba Stankiewicz is an assistant professor at the Academy of Music in Wrocław and the University of Zielona Góra. (photo by Michał Siergiejewicz)

An interview with Kuba Stankiewicz, an eminent jazz pianist, composer and author of the album “The Music of Victor Young”.

Ireneusz Białek: How come you feel this need to discover sounds long forgotten, musicians’ interesting roots and their fascinating family histories?

Kuba Stankiewicz: You know, when you are young,  you only see things here and now, and when you get slightly mature (laughs), a time horizon comes into play and you see more what used to be or what can happen in the future. When I play various jazz standards now, I like to know who made them, what their inspiration was, and who that person was. And so histories of Victor Young or Bronisław Kaper truly interested me.

I.B.: What music did you listen to in your youth, was it jazz since the very beginning?

K.S.: When I was in secondary school, half of us listened to the Beatles, and the other half to the Stones. I belonged rather to the former group and to this very day I find melodies by the Beatles to be very interesting. And few people listed to jazz back then. My father was an amateur jazz pianist, he had some musical scores and would play this and that. As a young man, I did not like it back then, yet jazz was heard in the house.

I.B.: When did you come to like it?

K.S.: I guess for the first time when I met a few boys with similar interests and we started a band in Wrocław. These were obviously pre-YouTube and pre-Facebook times, so we were learning jazz noting down solo pieces. One had to first get a recording, not so easy to do, then copy it, most frequently by means of the cult ZK140 tape recorder, and only then write it down. Today, however, things are easily accessible, which is very good on the one hand, but on the other it makes musicians slightly lazy. My students say that they intend to download a solo piece from the Internet, and I tell them to note it down themselves, as satisfaction comes when you note down solo pieces of your masters yourself, not when you use those written down by someone else.

I.B.: Did you learn everything by yourself or with your band mates?

K.S.: Back then, musical education in Poland was based on classical music, which is largely true still today. For instance, we were not taught improvisation or jazz harmonies, which in my view should not exactly replace musical education based on classical music but complement it. And so I was moving in the dark to a large extent. In 1983, I went to jazz workshops held in Chodzież, led by the Krakow-based pianist Wojtek Groborz and he actually told me all about those chords that fascinated me. I sensed many of those things well yet could not name them. I filled in an entire notebook then, it was a sort of jazz university for me. I call it so because the moment when a musician starts his or her independent explorations and opens successive doors driven by his/her fascinations is extremely important. Then we start to surround ourselves with people who look for something similar, teams are built, it is a highly engaging process.

I.B.: Do you mean the process in music generally, or also in jazz?

K.S.: It seems to me that it is important in music generally. Time of exploration, improvisation used to be very important. After all Bach, Chopin and Liszt improvised too and then when it comes to classical music that skill began to die out.

I.B.: It has always been there in jazz.

K.S.: Indeed, it is the essence of jazz, but in classical music it is disappearing and I guess the point is that the time of the musical education of people like Young or Kaper was, despite the absence of Facebook, somehow better for musicians because that education cherished exploration and musicians’ independence. They were able to not just play sheet music but improvise, write down orchestration, they had vast musical knowledge. That is why Young, educated by Roman Statkowski here in Warsaw, had no trouble in composing more music and improvising when he went to the US and found jazz there. He made active use of those fantastic foundations, that extensive knowledge and he composed pieces of extraordinary beauty.

I.B.: And you save them from oblivion for us very beautifully. Your interpretation of Young’s music is extraordinary. You get the spirit of Young, indeed, don’t you?

K.S.: Young, but also Kaper, they all have made their contribution to Polish culture, and are still hardly known here. I do not really understand how we can name streets after Winnie the Pooh or some other imaginary characters, and not after such eminent musicians. And so it may not be surprising when one hears that Jan A.P. Kaczmarek has been the first Pole to win a prize for film music and no-one remembers Kaper, Young or Leopold Stokowski.

Yet regardless of my fascination with their music, I like to discover various details. John Gardner from California, who is writing Young’s biography, has asked me to search for various details which helped me find a lot of fascinating non-musical information.

I.B.: Do you feel Young and Kaper more through music or as a result of such non-musical discoveries?

K.S.: Decidedly in music. “Stella by Starlight” or “Beautiful Love” were just some standards we played and one could feel in the musical score that the guy was from here and that the music could not have been born in the US only. Janusz Muniak has put it nicely saying that a Russian folk tune, his term for “Beautiful Love”, could not have been created in America.

I.B.: And so it all got mixed in this cultural melting pot, got covered with patina, we had already forgotten about it and here you are recalling all this for us. Thanks to your interpretations those melodies sound fresh and contemporary yet without losing their old charm.

K.S.: Yes, because it is universal and good music. It often happens that we know the sound but know nothing about the composer, and I am fascinated by this knowledge which I want to bring closer to the listener. Imagine, for instance that if Young had not gone to the States with classical musical education acquired here, and in the US jazz was being born back then, there would not have been the Young I interpret now, sounding like a Russian folk melody. There would have been a Young, but entirely different, and so what goes on in a musician’s life, all the context is very important and interesting.

In 1920, Vladimir Dukelsky emigrated from Russia to America where, as Vernon Duke, he composed, among others, the jazz standard “April in Paris” we all know. Still, for Russian ballet he continued to compose as Dukelsky, clipping his name short for jazz as it was considered too long. So if we looked at those American standards more closely, it would turn out that maybe a half of their composers come from Europe, and consequently the music is not that American, but the US melting pot simply makes them sound in a unique way and be commonly known as American standards.

I.B.: What is the American reception of Young in concert?

K.S.: His music is well known to them, after all it is part of their cultural heritage, yet for an average American that Polish aspect of Young is a complete surprise. And I find that aspect to be essential, because as I have already said, Young’s classical education coupled with his gift for composing beautiful melodies result in his inimitable sound.

I.B.: How do your students take such explorations and discoveries?

K.S.: I try to somehow make them aware that it is worthwhile to play a composer’s pieces having some knowledge about him/her, as this makes them richer, and there is an added value to their interpretation of the music. Yet we live too fast, there is not always time for the process, deeper reflection on music or even listening to a record in full and often a student  will come up with a MP3 player saying that he/she has downloaded something to listen to and he/she likes it, but does not know who the composer is. We, in turn, used to know it all, there were no single pieces to download, records were enjoyed in their entirety, we would almost devour them.

I.B.: And there are some records that just must be heard in their entirety, like those of Pink Floyd, for instance.

K.S.: Certainly, Pink Floyd records should be listened to in their entirety, but some jazz records too (laughs).

I.B.: Indeed, Young’s music interpreted by you should be enjoyed in its entirety, best on high-quality equipment as it is a very nicely executed record. Thank you for this interview and I wish you further fascinating explorations, discoveries and new records.

K.S.: Thank you.

Look at the fragments of the concert given by Kuba Stankiewicz during the event "To Touch the culture".

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