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Art of the Story: An all-star tribute to Tomasz Stanko in Brooklyn

On a recent night at Roulette in Brooklyn, some of the biggest names in jazz - including Chris Potter, Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano, Ambrose Akinmusire and more - came together to celebrate and perform the music of the late trumpeter - composer Tomasz Stanko in a free concert. So, who was Tomasz Stanko and what brought all these people together in his honor?

In order to answer that question, I want to tell you this story.

When Tomasz Stanko first came to New York, he experienced it with the wide eyed enthusiasm of a young man. He knew right away that New York was one of the most important places in his life.

But in fact Stanko was not a young man when he first arrived in New York. He was already in his early 60s, having spent much of his life and career behind the Iron Curtain, living and working in his native Poland, and traveling around Europe under the strict control of the communist authorities.

Early on, Stańko had relied on the Voice of America radio network to connect him to the American jazz scene – and the sounds he heard fostered his dream to someday make it to New York City and experience that scene for himself.

Meanwhile developed his lyrical sound, with his tone of Slavic melancholy, and the noir atmosphere that he conjured in his music. Maybe because of those sensibilities and because his own personal story was so dramatic, he was often lauded as an ambassador of the European jazz scene.

But, as his daughter and latter day manager Ania explains, Stanko was not particularly interested in those kinds of categorizations.

“My dad was not very much into making the division,” she explains. “He didn’t feel a part of European jazz or Polish jazz. He was just feeling [like a] jazzman.”

Still, even Tomasz acknowledged that there was something unique about his experience that contributed to his sound. And rather than political, it was geographical.

Ania tells me, “He was born in this part of the world where the light is totally different than it is, for example, in New York. So he has a different mellow, more cloudy feeling because of the light he had.”

As Ania explained, some of that cloudy light may have been the byproduct of the lifestyle that Stanko and his contemporaries were living.

“Also there were stories that in the green rooms where they were playing you could touch the walls and the hashish…there was so much hashish that it was attached to the walls. He was a jazzman doing rock and roll [lifestyle],” she says.

How, one might wonder, did the jazz musicians under the Communist regime manage to live like rock stars, finding so much freedom in their music and their behavior? Part of it, according to Ania, was simply because the censors didn’t understand what was happening in the music.

“Jazz is a music with no words so the Polish censorship didn’t find it so dangerous. There was this freedom which was built in jazz [...] but it was not so obvious for the officers. Jazz musicians were able to sneak in through the system,” Ania says.

Stanko passed away in 2018, and since then Ania has been organizing free annual shows in Poland to honor his memory. On what would have been his 80th birthday, she helped to put together this special New York performance, bringing together some of his most cherished collaborators from around the world to celebrate her father.

Tomasz Stanko’s story is a reminder that jazz is not only a kind of music but also a way of traveling. What does Ania hope people remember about her father?

“I would love if they felt the freedom my dad had in music, no compromises, doing what you love, and making the connection with the universe through jazz,” she says.

Leo Sidran is a Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist musician, producer, arranger, composer, recording artist and podcast host based in Brooklyn, New York.