Monday, 15 October 2012

He could have been a contender

He died a śmierć Polaka - 'a Pole's death', one that was futile, avoidable, and leaving the question 'what if?'. At the end of a drink-fuelled evening in Los Angeles in December 1968, Krzysztof Komeda was pushed off a two-metre high escarpment by writer Marek Hlasko. A scuffle? An angry exchange? Drunken horse-play? The ensuing head injury led to Komeda's death in a Warsaw hospital days short of his 38th birthday. And Hlasko never got over it either. He died two months after Komeda. Suicide?

Here was a man reaching the height of his creative powers; in one brilliant decade, Komeda had written over 70 movie soundtracks, including those to Roman Polański's Knife in the Water and Rosemary's Baby, and recorded several jazz albums.

Who knows what he would have achieved had he lived? This morning, I saw a huge billboard for a ballet set to the music of Philip Glass and Wojciech Kilar. These two composers, both contemporaries of Komeda's, give one an idea of how his career could have progressed after reaching he had Hollywood. He could have been another John Williams (another contemporary).

: Jazz from the score of Polański's 1962 film, Knife in the Water, and the haunting lullaby from Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), below.

Komeda's life and times have been brought to the big screen in a documentary film, Komeda, Komeda, written and directed by Natasza Ziółkowska-Kurczuk. His story is mainly told by his Polish contemporaries, guys who played jazz with Komeda from the 1950s, along with directors Roman Polański and Andrzej Wajda. They're very much alive - guys in their late 70s and early 80s, still playing, still enjoying life, with some great stories to tell.

Born Krzysztof Trzciński in April 1931, he came by his stage name, during the war. According to his sister, he was playing soldiers with school friends, he wrote the word for 'headquarters' (komenda) using an ę rather than an en. 

Komęda - without the Polish nasal diacritic mark - the name stuck.

The film gives an intriguing portrait of the communist authorities' confused attitude to jazz. Music of a decadent, commercial West? Or the music of the downtrodden Negro? Archive film of Polish jazz festivals from the 1950s show Trad rather than Be-bop, When the Saints go Marching In, rather than Scrapple from the Apple. Komeda was into the latter.

The film presents a portrait of a perfectionist - "He'd make us practice a piece a hundred times - the same few notes, over and over, for an hour," said one of his band members. This is one of the marks, according to Malcolm Gladwell, of an outlier. The other is being in the right place at the right time. Sadly for us all, Krzysztof Komeda was in the wrong place with the wrong people when he incurred the injury that would kill him, depriving jazz-lovers and film-goers of what could have been one of the 20th Century's greats.

This time last year:
What gets eaten, what gets thrown away

This time four years ago:
Rush hour in Białystok

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