Music is the space between the notes - communication in the field of emotion
In an interview with the JP2Love editors
Develop and posted by Katarzyna Krupowicz
Michał Urbaniak - world famous composer, jazz violinist and saxophonist, he played with the greatest jazz musicians. He is the only violinist and the only Pole to have ever recorded with Miles Davis.
You're a highly respected jazz musician but I read that your beginnings weren't that easy. Was it your white skin that made it difficult to make a mark?
Michał Urbaniak: It actually discriminates in this business, just as whites discriminate against blacks. I'll be honest: it happens almost all the time. I was lucky that I went to New York after having achieved the so-called success in Poland, Sweden (later on Scandinavia was mine for five years), Germany, Switzerland and Austria. My dreams as a fifteen-year-old boy were simple: I love black music, I want to stay close and I want to pass the exam there, with these musicians. Maybe not so much as pass the exam, but to be with them, to play this music the way they do – at the roots, not as if I was imitating something. We began the book with the words: 'I was born American,' but today I would say 'I was born a black American.’ I wasn't interested in the simple European rhythm, or I should rather say non-rhythm, because I think that there is a lot of non-rhythm in the rhythmical European music. European jazz is very often, although not always, sad and monotonous. It's a bit like Euro 2012. Everybody is playing, there are stars, there's Lewandowski- so what? Nothing happens, they drop out. Similarly with sex, a woman pats her loved one on the back and says: 'Do something because nothing is happening.' You can't learn it from a book. Music isn't in the notes. It's between them, that's the communication - everything happens in the field of emotions. My emotions were classical by education and upbringing. Then it happened - click! - I heard the voice of America, black music, and black jazz. Not white jazz - it bored me. Anyway, the time of so-called white jazz was at its end then. It was the music of the white – there was such a period in the 50s. White people came out, they started playing, put on their glasses and wrote beautiful notes... There was a lot of beautiful music at that time - I'm not denying that. Charlie Parker came out and blew away everything that had existed - nobody has caught up to him yet. Miles came, all the great ones came - this music belongs to them... Jazz is simply black music. It's music of the people who came to the USA as slaves and very often met Jews there. Polish Jews came much later – and this is the fusion of European and African music in America. It caught on there, everything was innovative. Prohibition helped jazz a lot, because everything was prohibited - what to play, then? Prohibited songs... Just like Poles played jazz in Communist times because it was the only form of silent protest we could engage in. Then came rock'n'roll and long hair that you couldn't have. We all had them because it was prohibited. So the dream was obvious: New York and blacks... I was lucky to play with them. First with Anthony Jackson, then with the fifteen-year-old Marcus Miller and the whole of Jamaica, Queens. It's the district around JFK's airport – only blacks. Marcus Miller, Lenny White, Victor Bailey, Omar Hakim, Tom Brown... They all have played with me and still do. That's the gang of musicians that I play with and I will until the end of my life. I sometimes play with white musicians, but only with those who feel the black vibes.
Wasn't there black racism?
Urbaniak: There still is. I'm an honorary citizen of Jamaica, Queens, an honorary black, I have documents for that - only because I was invited to record with black rappers. I am one of the first jazzmen in history to have brought a rapper to a jazz band. I am certainly the first one to have brought one on a symphony orchestra stage. Racism; it's a simple matter in the USA, especially in the past - whites simply had the money, so blacks served them, also musically. What's more, there was a time when every black group wanted to have a so-called 'token white'.
One white musician?
Urbaniak: One symbolic white man, because then they could play in Alabama, in Texas, in Southem states, where there was segregation. Then the band wasn't black, but 'integrated'. That's why Miles usually had white guitar players. Often because he wanted the white rock'n'roll sound - that's another thing, but there have always been non-musical elements there, I can definitely say that.
But music unites?
Urbaniak: It unites when there's groove or feel, or whatever you call it, and you are accepted. But if there are any kind of jitters, we immediately have a problem.
You can see the differences instantly in stressful situations..
Urbaniak: I wanted to record an album 'Polacks and Niggers'. These are the two worst ethnic words in the US. We spoke like this and I could call my friend 'Nigger.' You can't normally say that, because it's offensive. The same when you call a Pole 'Polack' or 'Polaczek', it's a tragedy. I've played with many educated musicians, and I'm educated too, but I've learned illiteracy. It's one of the greatest achievements in my life. Musical illiteracy enables creation, feeling, and spontaneity - that's what it is. it doesn't matter if you know the notes or not. What's important is whether you convey emotions with the sound, and whether people sit and listen, don't leave, don't get bored, and don't yawn... Instead they spend 2.5 hours at the concert and then applaud three times so that you have to play an encore even though you are absolutely tired out. I've had it most of my life, but it's because of the love for blacks and cooperating with them. Piotr Trzaskalski, a jazz buff, knows every album maybe better than me, asked me if I'd heard the last album of Miles Miller. Of course, it's a brilliant album - what he did was the height of bass guitar. He says: 'Yes, but he plays Urbaniak's music!' It's written at the top that my music influenced him and indeed, I said: 'I agree.' But what happened was this: at the age of 17 he was so talented that in New York they used him in all recordings. He was making a fortune. and we were supported by Columbia Records - a huge deal, but we were working our way up, sales weren't high enough to be able to go on a tour without Columbia's help - the rates were low. We were in Detroit for about 2 weeks, playing in a club for $250 a week. Marcus was making $1000 a day in New York. I'm walking with the late Kenny Kirkland - a pianist as brilliant as George Duke or Herbie Hancock... but he had burnt himself out, big loss, a genius! Anyway, I ask 'Where's Marcus?' - 'In New York.' - 'But we are playing in a couple of hours!' - 'He'll be back, he travels every day.' He had been going to these sessions without telling me. I ask him: 'Marcus, why do you play with me?' and he says: 'Because you are the only producer who writes music for me. and I'm learning.' I was writing everything for him, note for note. Now when I play or dream about playing, I hear Marcus at that time. I've learned more from him than from anybody else, as far as electronic music is concerned, and I'm proud of this fact. Of course everything has existed and will because of Miles Davis, who was the bravest of all. He was and he always will be the greatest god of the rhythmical music called jazz.
About being valued in the world, you are a kind of ambassador of Poland thanks to that. You promote our country.
Urbaniak: I've never felt like an ambassador of Poland; I've always felt like a citizen of the world - that's how I was raised. I dreamed only that the idiots would eliminate borders, so that you could get in a plane and be in New York, or wherever you want to be. Another person wants to be in Mongolia - there you go... it was all stupid, that is why I wanted to leave, but to do this I had to have a say. I was working day and night with the violin... When I fell in love with the saxophone – I worked day and night with the saxophone. It went very quickly because at that time there was a turning point of white music and I was inter-generational. I came in with the black saxophone - a revelation, a star in Poland. But I've never been a celebrity, don't want to be, don't have to and won't. I was an ambassador of wonderful, rhythmical music. I felt like a traitor, because at that time everybody who played rock and roll or boogie woogie was persecuted... Classical music was sacred and one couldn't desecrate it. I was dreaming about it, I was telling my professors in high school and at the academy. I still think it can be combined, but I couldn't combine classical music and jazz and I felt a little as if I was cheating on my wife.
Didn't your professors treat it as a whim?
Urbaniak: No, they treated it as deviation. It was offensive; it was alcohol, bars, and other things... You couldn't, we were supposed to be playing in a concert hall in a moment Going back to Polishness; I've never denied being Polish. I was very often proud that as a Pole I was able to find my way in the world, as a citizen of the world. I still feel that way. I sometimes paid for being Polish.
Urbaniak: No, musically I've benefited from that, because once I left the record company and was strolling along Broadway, I said: 'I play very restrictive black music, and I have so much to add to it.' and I took the liberty of adding my whole being and my Polishness. Later, I had a period when I added hip-hop, but Urbanator and Urbaniak... two different people. Nobody could imagine that Urbaniak, the 'Polish fiddler', could play black music with hip-hop musicians. They wouldn't give me a contract for this project.. I was going there for three years with ready-made records with jazz and hip-hop stars such as Herbie Hancock, rapper Solid or Apocalypse. I changed the name, I woke up and said: 'Urbanator!' and there it went, success. But why did I say I paid for being Polish... It's because of the systems, our history. We have lots of trouble and fears in our genes. Fake or true excess of self-confidence. Usually it's streaked with an undertone of lack of something, what do you think? But I was always true and I didn't have space and time for fears, etc. Because passion, love and self-fulfillment make miracles and you can beat everything.
Urbaniak: Here’s a simple example that often happened to me: my lawyer told me that the whole album business is all about down payments. If you take $100,000, it means you are successful. You take the down payment, record an album, and then live on royalties and concerts. Such a system still works. I come to Columbia Records; sign the contract, the Vice President of Columbia International says, 'So you probably need money?' and we were broke, had spent all our savings. He says, 'How much?' I wanted to say 10, but the Polishness... I wouldn't swallow it... and I said 5. He says: 'OK, Betty, write a check for $5000. What are you doing in the evening? Wanna go eat something after work?' So we're sitting, talking about it and he says: 'How come you didn't say so?' and I say, 'Because you see, I haven't actually done anything yet.' He says, 'Listen, the worst thing that could happen was me saying no. Come tomorrow, we'll give you another five grand.' It hampered things a lot. It's unbelievable, yet it still happens...
Is it lack of faith in oneself?
Urbaniak: Oh no, it's not lack of faith. It's just that there is this something... Most Poles are now more about looking how to make a gain, wrest something out, and so on. Whereas I think about the record company - what it has to do. I would like them to risk as little as possible. But in my case it's not lack of faith in myself, because I've never stopped believing in my music. I have faith - in fact, I manage to do everything I dream of or want. I believed then too, and I quickly realized that the devil's not so black. I often said: 'I can't stop. I might not live to see at most.' Now I know that most of free space is at the top. When we go to see a movie with Dosia, and she is driving, she parks the car hundreds of meters from the cinema, because that's where everybody parks. And I drive up to the very front of the cinema - there's space there because everybody thinks the way she does.. That’s what I learned there. But Americans have the humility for this. It's one of the most humble nations in the world. Polish people don't know this word.
I think that Polish people are even too modest, but humility...
Urbaniak: It's a different concept. Americans are less modest, but they are humble. They can reach high, but they also give a lot and do what they say. That's what life taught me there and showed me how to communicate without taking offense, even in difficult situations. You can't stop communicating with another person, even if that person is rude or even offensive..
That's also typical of Poles.
Urbaniak: Yes.. 'Don't call him. If you go to him, I won't, because I don't talk to him', etc. You can't do so. You don't have to be friends, acceptation is enough..
It's probably connected to our brooding over history...
Urbaniak: Americans can live for today and tomorrow. History is beautiful, but unfortunately Polish history is too long. American history is shorter and it's optional. That's good. Unfortunately, I also have such thoughts, when I get entangled in history, even my own... But you live now and tomorrow. We don't play for the same audience as 30 years ago, with the same people and we don't play the same music. For God's sake! Most of those people are gone or they are preparing themselves to leave.
What other people can you add to the list of famous Poles who mean a lot in the world? The French and Americans, for example, associate John Paul II and Walesa with Poland.
Urbaniak: and Polański?
For Frenchmen he is French, just like Chopin.
Urbaniak: I'm also not seen as Polish person in the USA, even though I've never been hiding it, on the contrary! I've also had friends who came there and after two years would say in Polish 'I not speak Polish any more.' Rubbish, I would never say that! But I did spend all my time with blacks, or Jewish businessmen, or sportsmen, because I was playing tennis every day.
And were there moments of pride of being Polish?
Urbaniak: Not too many, unfortunately. If we're looking for something positive, there was a moment of pride that I was Polish and still managed to play... We aren't the most valued nation... We didn't used to be. Now it's changing because young people are building the image of Poles in the world. Those who travel, for example, to England. The young generations, who speak languages, have open minds, thoughts, and a clear sight. As far as I remember, it wasn't an honor to be Polish. There were Polish names that meant something and distinguished themselves: Brzezinski, for example, and many others. They were Polish and yet they managed to achieve something.
I think that we, Poles, have this attitude that when one of us achieves international success, it's amazing for us that he managed to do it, despite everything.
Urbaniak: But then let it go on for two years and there's a moment of silence. Everybody says 'Didn't I tell you! It's all rubbish, it was chance that it happened.' But life is a spinning wheel; there are ups and downs. Here everybody is making things more difficult to other people, even to oneself... I'm thinking about addictions that are not the way to live your life.
I think it would be hard to avoid when you deal with music.
Urbaniak: it was hard. You know, you've read the book... and I haven't read it.
Urbaniak: That's what I'm talking about. I haven't read it because there are too many memories and going back to the past. It's always dangerous, especially for sensitive people, and it's unnecessary! What's more, as an Aquarius I know that only today and tomorrow matter.
I would read it to check if everything is right..
Urbaniak: What for? There are no lies there, just emotions reinforced by Andrzej's flamboyance. It's wonderful for the book - it's real. He would explain to me all the time that writing is the art of elimination. The book is not a biography of a musician or artist. The basic thing: it's based on the life, and it was Andrzej who was making choices, not me. I actually had no say. I told him everything that happened and he was recording. I'm infinitely grateful for the publication. My real father, Edmund Michalowski - he just drifted away, and I'm still attached to him, I still think about him. My mother left him - didn't want to be with him because she was afraid of the genes. They showed themselves – couldn’t help themselves, that's how they are. As for my stepfather, I was the bone of contention in the relationship, I didn't have a father. At one point I was playing for Andrzej Makowiecki as a fifteen-year-old boy and he was bringing me up. I sometimes think he was my father... He showed me everything that was forbidden. He's very important in my life.
I wanted to ask you about religion. I've read that you used to be a Buddhist...
Urbaniak: It was like this… I wasn't a Buddhist, but most of my black friends, if they were anything, they were Buddhist. As a reassurance of their black adversity or some privation. We would, for example, say the mantra during breaks. I've learned about this religion and I liked it a lot. The basic thing that I think is brilliant is that there are no imperatives or prohibitions, which is ideal for an Aquarius. Most philosophies and psychological movements took their teachings from Buddhism, for example Scientology... I respect Scientologists. In Poland they are seen as a sect, but I respect them. I think that they answer the needs of common people, who would be scared of the very word 'Buddhism.' They wouldn't choose that direction. I've studied Scientology in depth, but I left it at some point because I stopped liking it... I've benefited a lot, because it teaches you to think whether a problem is a logical or emotional thing. Simple example: we're going on a tennis court, but during the weekend it's impossible to get on there. You ask: 'Excuse me, are you going to play long?' - 'Yes, we are'. and Scientology teaches you this: 'Excuse me, could you tell us how long, because we would like to play too.' They answer: 'Yes, wait 10 more minutes please.' Effective? And it works for everything...
And you’ve managed to get it done.
Urbaniak: But it's not manipulation, it really is building communication between people. and it's not that I leave saying 'I've made a fool of him, haven't I?'
And what is it like with your faith now?
Urbaniak: I've been a Catholic since I was born and it will surely stay like this. But I'm not a bigot, I fully respect many religions, Buddhism among others. The same is true with Judaism. I was in a synagogue yesterday; I was invited to an amazing concert. I think they are an interesting, amazing nation, and just like other nations, they have their virtues and vices. But this religion also makes sense. I was brought up in Catholicism, I'm a Catholic, but let me repeat, I'm not a bigot. I don't go to church regularly, but I do celebrate traditional Catholic holidays and family celebrations.
And did John Paul II have any impact on you?
Urbaniak: For me the Pope is someone extremely important - that man was the first to fix the nation (including me) and the image of Poland in the world. He is pure goodness: a man who could have been a Buddhist as well..
He held great respect for other religions.
Urbaniak: To everybody indeed, and he was tolerant. He dealt with people, not with masks that people themselves create; he was interested in the human being, because he was a great human being himself. Now, yet another person I consider a great Pole is Lech Walesa - he will always remain great. I will never allow anyone to say anything bad about him. People have been criticizing him, and they still do it, but I cannot listen to it - and I don't want to. Once it happened to me that when I was in Dortmund, had a concert in Aachen. Then I went to an exhibition, which Lech Walesa was supposed to attend as well, and somebody was going to introduce me to him. While the exhibition was being opened, I stepped out of the crowd, jumped, put my hands up and said: 'Don't shoot, gentlemen, please'. Lech Walesa took the scissors, cut the ribbon and I took him by the hand and I said (I swear to God I said so): ‘Mr. Walesa, how did it happen that you caught your trouser leg on the shipyard's gate and weren’t able to come down and people proclaimed you the leader of the entire movement and you became one of the most famous people of the past century?’ I swear to God, I said so, and he didn't know what to say, it was a shock..
Together with Solid, an American rapper, you played a poem written by John Paul II … What made you choose it?
Urbaniak: Marcin Pospieszalski, a very active Catholic himself who prays before meals and does other things like that, chose it. Some people made fun of it, I didn't even think of making any comments. He wrote the music, found the English version, and Solid rapped it very emotionally during the concert.
He made a great impact.
Urbaniak: Absolutly so, absolutly.
The fact that we can be proud of famous Poles is surely a great wealth for us, but do Poles appreciate it?
Urbaniak: I'm not sure. Some of them do. And there are lots of great people in our country. I can really be proud of it. I think we acted to improve the image of Poland in the world too, each of us in his or her own way. There was a time when there was plenty of us out there, each of us worked the best they could in their field. They mattered, but as Polish Americans. Polish people abroad are happy with a Pole's success - especially if that success concerns the American market - that's for sure.
Music reduces the differences, it connects. What else could be done to integrate and to eliminate the differences between us?
Urbaniak: As many international projects as possible, supporting culture. Culture is the easiest way to promote a country, because it generates less conflict, there is always a lot going on and there are (or there should be) cultural people involved. In politics that is hard to achieve… What else could be done? Surely, living the day, accepting what we have here and now. We should not brood over the past - it won't do us any good. We should see what we have and what we can do. Live every moment.
September 30, 2012
Photos: Judyta Papp