Interview with Jarek Kowal of Jazz Jantar Festival

One of the longest-running and famous European jazz festivals, Jazz Jantar in the Polish city of Gdansk is kicking off this week with a line up that includes Nils Petter Molvær, Nu Jazz and David Murray.

To mark the occasion, we caught up with festival programmer Jarek Kowal.

Stay tuned to hear more about the inner workings of this festival, as well as Jarek’s insight into how artists can build their touring capabilities and reach European festivals.

Thanks again to Jarek, and do check out the line up here.

Could you share a bit about your journey into the world of jazz and what led you to your current role?

For someone who grew up at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, jazz was never completely unknown, because it could be heard in cartoons – “Tom and Jerry”, “Looney Tunes” or “Jonny Quest”.

During those first years of my life, jazz was primarily just that for me – background music, or Sinatra’s Christmas songs.

As a teenager, I had several moments of short-term fascination with music that I knew was called jazz, but for me, it was simply part of this one big world of sounds where genres haven’t meant much.

These moments were, for example, a Cecil Taylor concert broadcast by Polish television; the album “Visible World” by Jan Garbarek, which I heard through my audiophile uncle; the band Miłość, which came from Gdańsk – my hometown; soundtrack from the anime “Cowboy Bebop”; it was discovering John Zorn because he interacted with metal and punk musicians, and at that time metal and punk was the most important to me.

The awareness of what jazz is was gradually growing in me the closer I was to the age of twenty – out of curiosity I was checking out all these monumental titans, from Coltrane through Davis to Monk. Mingus was my favorite back then, but the real breakthrough was when I heard jazz live for the first time.

The Israeli Kruzenshtern & Parohod’s show made such a big impression on me, that it completely changed my assessment. It was then that I realized jazz is live music, and the emotions that emanate from it during performances exist only in this one moment and are difficult to capture in the studio.

Immediately I was so hungry for jazz, so eager to make up for the previous years of not listening to it carefully enough, that I became absorbed as a listener, promoter, and journalist. It so happened that in 2012 I was covering concerts booked as part of the Jazz Jantar Festival and the director of the Klub Żak – Magdalena Renk-Grabowska – thought that my passion would be useful, in 2014 she invited me to work at Żak and I’m still there.

Can you explain a little about how the Jazz Jantar festival and Klub Zak are connected? 

Jazz Jantar is one of the oldest Polish jazz festivals, but its history is very convoluted.

We assume that it was established in 1973 as one of the activities of the Żak Coastal Students’ Club, which later changed into the Klub Żak. Over the years, the places where concerts were held were changing, but all the greats of Polish jazz played at Jazz Jantar – from Krzysztof Komeda to Tomasz Stańko.

From time to time also foreign artists performed here (such as Phil Woods) but during the communist era, jazz was not well perceived by the authorities, and inviting artists from America was risky. Funnily enough, when communism in Poland was ending, thanks to the Solidarity Movement which also started in our city, Gdańsk, the festival was suspended and resumed only in 1997, with concerts again held in various venues throughout the city.

In 2001, Klub Żak gained a new headquarters, and since then almost all concerts organized as a part of the Jazz Jantar Festival are held here.

The Jazz Jantar Festival is a highlight of the jazz calendar in Poland. What makes it stand out, and how do you curate such a diverse lineup of artists?

It comes down to two issues – equality and balance. Fortunately, there’s much more equality at music festivals nowadays, but after talking with Angel Bat Dawid and many other women, I have no doubts that there is still much more to do.

There are many amazing women playing jazz now – and always were, just to mention Melba Liston, Clora Bryant, or Mary Osborne, but none of them got enough chances to show their talents – so it’s easy to find a strong representation, and it’s not about parity just for the sake of parity. It’s not about inviting anyone just because of their gender, it’s about not ignoring someone because of their gender.

I am also convinced that there needs to be an African American representation at the jazz festivals since jazz is simply African American folk music.

Some promoters say it’s too costly to fly over artists from the US, but many of them are touring Europe all the time, some even live here, so there are no excuses. But the community that has the least representation in jazz is LGBTQ+ and it goes down not only to the festivals but the perception of jazz in general. For example, there is a band called Nu Jazz from New York (which has nothing to do with Norwegian nu jazz sound), and their vocalist, Danny Orlowski is openly queer. When I spoke with him, even he couldn’t name any other LGBTQ+ artist in the jazz community.

Of course, there are some, like Michael Foster who is also from New York, but it’s still a taboo. Music is always the most important matter for us in terms of booking, so it’s not like we are forcing ourselves to book someone of a certain gender or race, but at this point in history it is so simple to have a great, wide representation that it takes a bad will not to do it.

On top of that, in building the festival’s line-up it’s important to create a good balance between new and old which means there should be more of the new than the old.

Looking for new artists and new music is a daily activity for me. It’s the most important part of what I do and right now there is so much going on in jazz that everyone can find something interesting for him or her. For example, I’ve mentioned Nu Jazz – they are part of this very young New York scene (one of its many scenes) that makes a sort of “extreme jazz” music. Danny is screaming in a very emo fashion to quiet, gentle jazz music, there’s also a band called The Beak Trio which focuses on a banjo sound, an instrument which after replacing it with the guitar in Duke Ellington’s band wasn’t used very often in jazz, but here it’s not just banjo, it’s a distorted banjo.

Another band from that scene is CGI Jesus, which combines jazz with punk or thrash metal. With such intense and loud music, it would be a bad idea to build a whole line-up around this scene, but one or two bands are like a jump scare in a horror movie.

The other fascinating scene is in France – directly inspired by the young British scene but with a strong club culture vibes and techno or drum’n’bass beats played on acoustic drums.

There’s also darkjazz which is completely invisible at jazz festivals – we are one of the very few to invite bands of that kind and Jason Kohnen – who created the term “darkjazz” decided to give the first show of his latest project, The Lovecraft Sextet, right here, at Jazz Jantar.

There are many more small sub-genres where people with very different visions of what jazz can be can surprise with something amazing and fresh, but the festivals with more conservative views reject them. We’re always open to brave, unique ideas, but it has to be done with respect for the past and tradition.

How do you engage with your audience to keep them returning and attract new jazz fans, especially younger audiences?

On social media, we meet the necessary minimum. We don’t follow what is frequently recommended and certainly the most effective. Not out of ignorance, but because we know that TikTok videos or standard marketing content won’t resonate with our audience.

Sometimes I even have the impression that we are functioning in an alternative reality, because, for example, we print extensive catalogs which we fill not with copied press information, but with interviews with artists, articles about jazz history, and photos. It’s almost like a jazz magazine, and even though the press is in retreat, people are eager to read these publications and learn about our idea.

However, despite everything we do regarding marketing and promotion – although it may sound romantic – the music defends itself. When young people from the audience see their peers on stage coming to us from all over the world (in 2023, artists from Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, England, Peru, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Hungary, France, the United States, Australia, Japan, and Ukraine performed here), they simply feel that they are among their people.

What criteria do you use when selecting artists to perform at Klub Żak and the Jazz Jantar Festival?

The criteria are not rigid, and mine differ to some extent from the criteria used by Magda, who is not only the director of Klub Żak but also the second curator of the festival.

Magda often deals with the booking of the most recognizable figures – Nils Petter Molvær, Ambrose Akinmusire, Vijay Iyer, Dave Holland, Myra Melford, Branford Marsalis, Jack DeJohnette, and the list goes on and on. Moreover, she deals with young Polish artists and prioritizes new, fresh music.

We often give up certain offers that would probably sell well, because we don’t want to repeat the same well-known and liked shows. We want to create something for the future. It takes risk, but the engagement and reactions of the audience keep us convinced that this is the right direction.

I deal mainly with foreign, less-known bands and try to avoid the beaten path – relying on the offers sent by the agencies or showcase festival programs only.

Some of my colleagues at Żak probably think that I don’t do anything at work because I sit in front of the computer and listen to music, but once I pick up a lead, I follow it relentlessly, link after link, track after track. The artists I contact often do not have agents yet, sometimes they do not even have albums released, many of them have never played in Poland before, and there have even been cases where they have not played outside their hometown.

This approach would probably not work if we did not systematically accustom the audience that it is worth coming to the Jazz Jantar Festival, not for a specific band or show.

It is difficult to plan any marketing activities around bands that have, for example, five songs available on the Internet and fifteen concerts played in London alone, so it can be safely said that this festival would not exist in this form if it were not for the trusting and curious audience. It’s a dream come true for each curator, but just a few are ready to risk everything to develop a similar formula.

I understand how important finances are and that because of them jazz festivals invite artists like John Legend, Björk, Black Pumas, or Girl in Red, but for me organizing a jazz festival is not a pleasure, fun and work only, it’s also a great responsibility. We deal with music that was created out of a cry of pain and an expression of hope for people who have been systemically oppressed for decades.

Even if we invite such unusual acts like Kuhn Fu with musicians coming up from Germany, Turkey, Israel, Argentina, the United States, Poland, and Great Britain in the line-up and inspired by Frank Zappa, metal music, Bertolt Brecht and Monty Python, there have to be the jazz core in what they do.

We always look for bands that strongly stretch the jazz framework, but always with respect.

What should international musicians know about trying to establish a profile in Poland? 

They should probably do the complete opposite of everything I mentioned earlier.

In May, Kuhn Fu will perform here, in Gdansk and although Berlin, where they reside, is very close, Christian Kühn, said that until I replied to his message, he had the impression that every e-mail regarding the show in Poland went into a black hole.

He didn’t even get refusals, there was just silence. The easiest way is still working with big agencies, getting as many awards as possible, and having impressive streaming stats. That’s unfortunate, but fortunately, we have several passionate journalists here who can help increase the recognition of these lesser-known bands, for example, Jazzkultura radio or the ImproSpot and Soundrive websites.

Could you discuss any significant partnerships or collaborations that have been pivotal for Klub Żak’s success?

Klub Żak is a cultural center with many functions – apart from Jazz Jantar, we also organize Dni Muzyki Nowej festival with contemporary classical music, we organize the dance festival, we run a small cinema and film education program, we have a gallery and a cafe – all this exists primarily thanks to the support of the city of Gdańsk, but also the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, as well as several private partners.

Thanks to the budget this support gives us, we can continue our mission of presenting new, often surprising music without calculating whether the ticket sales will be high or not.

Looking forward, what are you most looking forward to with the Spring festival?

The May edition of Jazz Jantar will last five days and will show our idea in a nutshell.

It will open with a concert of the David Murray Quartet, a distinguished saxophonist and clarinetist whom we hosted over a decade ago together with the World Saxophone Quartet, but this time he will play with younger musicians, including Luke Stewart, who returns to us regularly – both with Irreversible Entanglements, Black’s Myths, or with James Brandon Lewis – and the excellent pianist Marta Sánchez.

There will also be the sixth Nils Petter Molvær concert here, but this time again with music from “Khmer”, which has special meaning for us, because when Nils performed it at Klub Żak in 2001, he encouraged us to begin this now inherent to what we do search for new.

Norway will also be represented by Joe Derek Bishop and Inge Weatherhead Breistein, we’re going to have Nu Jazz and Kuhn Fu, which I have already praised, and young, promising artists from Poland – Tercet Kamili Drabek, Kosmonauci, and Tytus & The Left-Handers.

Jazz Jantar Festival 8-12 May 2024 – Line up

Here’s the full line up for 2024; more info via jazzjantar.pl

David Murray Quartet

David Murray – saxophones, clarinet; Marta Sanchez – piano, Luke Stewart – double-bass, Chris Beck – percussion

9.05.2024

Tercet Kamili Drabek 

Marcin Konieczkowicz – saxophone, Kamila Drabek – double-bass, Kacper Kaźmierski – percussion

Kosmonauci

Miłosz Pieczonka – saxophone, Tymon Kosma – vibraphone, Bartłomiej Lucjan – bass guitar, Jan Pieniążek – percussion

10.05.2024

Bishop, Breistein

Joe Derek Bishop – electronics, Inge Weatherhead Breistein – saxophone

Kuhn Fu

Christian Achim Kühn – electric guitar; Frank Gratkowski – saxophone, clarinet, flute;, Mateusz Rybicki – saxophone, clarinet; Sofia Salvo – saxophone; Ziv Taubenfeld – clarinet; Esat Ekincioglu – bass guitar; George Hadow – percussion

11.05.2024

Nils Petter Molvær

Nils Petter Molvær – trumpet, Eivind Aarset – electric guitar, Rune Arnesen – percussion, Audun Erlien – bass guitar, DJ Strangefruit – turntables, Darknorse – special effects

12.05.2024

Tytus & The Left-Handers

Tytus Długołęcki – bass guitar, Jan Okoński – electric guitar, Wojciech Dramiński – percussion

Nu Jazz

Danny Orlowski – vocal, John Bemis – percussion, Kevin Eichenburger – double-bass, Ben Shirken – electronics, Ryan Easter – trumpet, Adam Turay – electric guitar

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