Marcin Wasilewski Remembers Tomasz Stanko

The Polish jazz pianist recalls the late composer, trumpeter, and improviser (7/11/42 – 7/29/18)

Tomasz Stanko (photo by Jacek Poremba/Universal Music Polska)
Tomasz Stanko (photo by Jacek Poremba/Universal Music Polska)

I was a teenager in Warsaw, working in a jazz band with [drummer] Michal Miskiewicz and [bassist] Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and Tomasz Stanko heard about us and invited us to play. We were very nervous: Slawomir and I were 18, and Michal was just 16! But we did our best, and the first concert—the eighth of March, 1994, which I remember exactly—was really promising, so we just waited for the next call. It came soon, and then again, and again and again for 20 years.

Tomasz was like a musical father. We learned from him how to play free music. We had learned jazz through the basics, standards and conventional harmony. Tomasz was on a different level: Not only was he very avant-garde, but even within that he had a unique view of how music should be, and it was a big challenge, a totally new thing for us, to play open with him and to learn his way of playing. But it was the best school we could ever have, being onstage with him and having these practical lessons.

He didn’t give us a whole lot of specific direction. If we had technical questions, he would answer them, but he believed that music should be as free as possible, and that it was not his place to tell us how or what we should be playing. He composed very simple melodies that by themselves encouraged us to create something new and different with them. He was also a charismatic musician and leader, which made it natural for us to follow him on the bandstand.

When I was a teenager, Tomasz was in his fifties, and we thought he was so old. But the truth was, he was young until the end. He was a very energetic man who spread that energy all around: Every person who met him, whether a taxi driver or a manager, as soon as he was around he seemed to bring them to life. He himself seemed to cherish every moment. Living life, really living it, was very important to him.

That energy crossed over into his performing life: His stamina was surprising. I think the first time we toured in the United States, he was about 65 years old. In 24 days, we did 22 shows—not counting the two sets we did at most of those shows, which made considerably more than 22. We in the band were all more than 30 years younger than he was, and we were exhausted. But he just kept going, and I would sit wondering how he could do this. The answer was really just that he loved it.

He was also a very original man: funny, smart, full of wisdom about life. It was a big adventure to spend time playing music all around the world and talking with him. He was a mentor. Even now, every day, there are things small and large that I want to be able to ask him for advice about.

On that first tour of the States, he had this winter coat that he wore, and one day he asked me to see how it fit me. It fit well, so he told me to keep it. Later he told a story about how Kryzstof Komeda, who had been his own mentor, had once given him a jacket. When I heard that, I understood that his giving me his own coat was a kind of blessing. I still have that coat.

I miss him very much, but his energy is still with us.

[as told to Michael J. West]