Trumpeter Tomasz Stańko Dies at 76

Lung cancer strikes down a fixture of the European and American avant garde

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Tomasz Stańko (photo: Roberto Masotti/courtesy of ECM)

Tomasz Stańko, a Polish jazz trumpeter whose plangent (if sometimes chapped) sound and knobbly lyricism made him a leading light in both the Polish and larger European avant garde, died Sunday, July 29, at a hospital in Warsaw, Poland, of lung cancer complicated by pneumonia. He was less than three weeks past his 76th birthday.

His death was confirmed by multiple outlets, including Reuters and the Associated Press, as well as by his longtime record label, ECM Records.

Although associated with free and avant-garde jazz for most of his nearly 60-year career, Stańko did not make the shrieking, ferocious music that those terms often bring to mind. Rather, he developed a moody, meditative, and lyrical version of free improvisation, one that used space generously and employed a deceptively thin trumpet tone for expressive purposes. At the same time, his music had a relentless, often funky sense of rhythm.

Stańko worked heavily in the United States and with American musicians, including Chico Freeman and Jack DeJohnette. In his final years he led a quartet entirely comprising young, forward-thinking musicians based in New York. Nevertheless, his career was primarily centered in Europe, and Poland in particular. Pianist Marcin Wasilewski, a protégé and longtime associate of Stańko’s, told JazzTimes in 2002, “He is our country’s greatest jazz musician.”

Tomasz Stańko was born July 11, 1942 in the city of Rzeszów in Nazi-occupied Poland, and grew up under the country’s Soviet communist hegemony. However, despite that chain of oppressive regimes, the youthful Stańko was able to discover jazz through the Voice of America broadcasts of jazz advocate Willis Conover. In 1958, while a student at the Chopin Conservatory of Music in Krakow, Stańko saw his first jazz concert, a Dave Brubeck Quartet performance sponsored by the U.S. State Department. “The message was freedom,” he told the New York Times. “Jazz was [a] synonym of Western culture, of freedom, of this different style of life.”

Shortly thereafter, he made his debut in Krakow. Stańko co-led, with pianist Adam Makowicz, a band called the Jazz Darings that took as its inspiration the new “free” sounds of the Ornette Coleman Quartet. Stańko would display the influence of that quartet’s trumpeter, Don Cherry, throughout his career. (Stańko worked with Cherry at a German jazz festival in 1971, the results of which can be heard on Cherry’s LP Actions.)

In about 1961, he moved to Warsaw and joined a quintet led by another pianist, Krzysztof Komeda, with whom he worked through most of the ’60s. Stanko was thus a part of Komeda’s 1965 recording Astigmatic, often cited as the most important album in the history of European free jazz. The trumpeter showed the influence of Cherry in his spontaneity, lyricism and fast-and-loose relationship with tonality; however, he also evoked Miles Davis, Stańko’s first hero, in his languorous tone and use of space and atmosphere.

While Stańko had begun recording under his own name in 1970 for several small European labels (frequently, the Warsaw-based Muza Records), the relationship he began in 1975 with Germany’s ECM Records would prove his most prolific and fruitful. It provided avenues for collaboration with other European jazz greats, such as British saxophonist John Surman and bassist Dave Holland, Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson, and Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, as well as with Americans like DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock.

Although he worked steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Stańko’s greatest success came in the last 20 years, beginning with the surprise success of his 1997 ECM album Litania (a tribute to Komeda, who had passed away in 1969). His success continued in the new century when he formed an enduring partnership with the Warsaw trio of pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and drummer Michal Miskiewicz. He also maintained a second residence in New York, where he worked regularly in clubs with musicians based in the city. In 2012 he formed his New York Quartet, featuring pianist David Virelles, drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan (replaced by Reuben Rogers in 2016). Last April, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, developing pneumonia in June.

Stańko’s death was met by widespread mourning and tributes from his peers. “He was a unique musician with deep feelings and a gentle soul,” Holland tweeted.

“Very saddened about this,” bassist Michael Formanek added. “He was a beautiful man and a beautiful musician.”

Stańko is survived by his sister, Jaga Stańko Ekelund, and his daughter, Anna Stańko.