The white man invented classical music to mirror his hopes for the universe – he wanted order, regularity, predictability, and a touch of the sublime if possible. It was a tyranny of the writer. Every performance should be as the writer intended – the performer could only stamp his or her personality onto a piece in the smallest ways by being allowed a few centimeters of slack over ‘interpretation’, ‘ornamentation’ and ‘accompaniment’. And then the black man turned up and got funky with the white man’s ordered universe. The result was jazz: impossible to define and yet instantly recognizable; a living, growing medium that sought to break the monopoly of the writer and slice up the rules of the ordered universe with improvisation, syncopation, swung notes, blue notes and polyrhythm. Those early jazz pioneers took the products of the powdered wigs of Austria and threw in some inspired leftfield monkey wrenches into the works.
This interpretation of the history of music struck me as a fitting analogy to travelling. There are those starchy travelers who want to be the sole authors of the events of their journeys by booking hotels and airport transfers and guided tours well in advance; they order the universe of their experience in foreign countries by planning the minutiae and fearing what can’t be pre-determined. And then there are those loose limbed jazz travelers who take the standard melodies of famous sightseeing spots and allow varying degrees of creative chaos to creep in with improvised itineraries, syncopated travel arrangements and free form attitudes to the moment.
My brother and I had our basic plan, our basic melody; but, we were open to improvising the nitty gritty details of how to get from A to B, what to eat, where to sleep and what to do. Perhaps real jazz never abandons the constant of wanting to make spontaneous music, and we never abandoned our core values of moving and having trippy times.
In Poland we got a good dose of jazz traveling. Indeed metaphor slipped over to reality when we made it to the fine medieval city of Krakow, renowned for having the largest medieval market square in Europe and being the Polish jazz central. However, now I’m getting ahead of myself, so please allow me to take a few chronological steps back in order to link up with the story so far. I left off the tale of my adventures in Europe in 1994 near the German border at the coal mining city of Katowice. Well, after changing a few pounds into millions of zloty we found a camp site outside of Hotel Krak. To our relief or disappointment (it’s hard to tell) we didn’t encounter meth heads or Irish youngsters out for a good time. Instead we happed upon a scene of German regimentation: middle-aged, white, non-jazz folk who stayed in bulky mobile homes and who rose early in the morning to mow the grass around their designated patches. My brother and I were the only campers and the only thing remotely approaching jazz in the entire camping area. We had no intention of falling in line with the prevailing monotony of the group beat so we caught a bus into the centre of Katowice and hopped on a train bound for Krakow.
And that’s where we encountered our first Polish bebop. We stood on the platform discussing where to find some cheap place to kip when out of the blue a solution presented itself in the form of a thin medium-height Pole who in passable English offered to rent us a room in his house. Such offers have to be treated with caution. However, he looked harmless, no less than harmless – he looked anonymous, as if he could only manage a walk on part in the movie of his own life. We quickly got down to brass tacks. He wanted a few dollars a night and we drove him down by 10% and got the promise of the use of his kitchen. He capitulated all too readily. As we followed him to the bus stop outside the station I began to have second thoughts about the wisdom of our improvised course. He seemed to walk perpetually under a cloud of harrowed fidgetiness. Such intuitions are always balanced by the realization that it could all be paranoia on my part.
The bus journey was under 20 minutes. We walked down a short garden path to the entrance of a small apartment block. Concrete, grey and monolithically ugly like only soul destroying communist housing could be. His flat was on the ground floor. He showed us straight to a small room looking onto the scrubby garden. It contained two beds with thin mattresses, a matching threadbare rug and a tiny table. The best feature of the room was that it had a lock and key. We plonked down our dirty packs and followed him to a small dark kitchen where Van Gough’s potato eaters would have been at home. In the shadows shuffled a little old lady. She wasn’t introduced but we assumed she was our host’s mother who was no doubt shy but quietly overjoyed by the prospect of a bit of extra household income.
We paid in advance for a night and quickly made ourselves at home. After a quick double skin in our Spartan room we set about preparing a meal of rice, unattractive Polish vegetables and lentils. Rather than being the archetypal old dear, the little sparrow of a woman started tutting over our use of their single gas stove. At one point when our backs were turned she darted from the shadows and turned off the gas. This was the dissonance of a polyrhythm, but we let it slide and hurried up our meal. After clearing up we locked our room and headed out to experience a city we had long been looking forward to seeing.
Although not as spectacular as Prague, Krakow had a lot of old world charm. We strolled around in a relaxed mood. There were few tourists. We saw Leonardo’s Rich Bird with the ermine in Muzeum Czartoryskich then we paid a few thousand zloty to check out the Royal Castle. After following the regular Baedeker beats of the tourist trail we took it upon ourselves to put a few swung notes into the arrangement, and by that I mean a few beers in a big café bar on the main market square.
It was a beautiful sunny day and we sat near the window and quaffed fine draught beer and gazed out at the long trading hall in the centre of the square. The only countermelody was a charge to use the toilets. The first couple of times we paid, but we figured that since beer seems to double in volume as it goes through the system it was going to be a comparatively costly venture to pay for every piss. So we started taking it in turns to nip out and around the corner to the gardens that encircled the square and make like dogs and spray our urine on convenient trees. Thus we passed the opening chord progression to our night out in Krakow.
Well after a few beers what do you think our joint minds turned to? That’s right. It’s jazz. We scoured the city centre for fifteen minutes before ducking down into a small crowded basement where a few old geezers were plodding through some 1950s style jazz numbers. They knew their stuff but neither of us nor the dozen or so other patrons were being transported off into Karouacian realms of rapture and incomprehensible grammar. We sunk a few pricier beers and enjoyed the mellow atmosphere and then headed off to find a bus back to our unlikely beds.
The next morning the jazz weirdness hit the fan. The old dear came from out of the shadows and signaled me over to the entrance hall. There she pointed at some pre-historic gardening tools. I foolishly picked up a couple of them and headed out to the garden with her. Through sign language she indicted that I should start working on the overgrown and dismal patch of nature. I made a few cursory chops with the blunt shears before my brother came out and asked what the fuck I was doing. I had no coherent answer to that question. He clearly pointed out that we had paid for a room and we were not obliged to do boy scouting good deeds. So I abandoned the effort and followed my brother back into the apartment. The geriatric got most agitated and started shouting Polish obscenities at us. Her Norman Bates style son had disappeared into the peeling wall paper. It got Chaplinesque as we attempted to cook breakfast while the old woman chased us around proffering the shears and turning off the gas. We took it in turns to distract her as we prepared eggs and bread and danced around the wobbly kitchen table. Eventually we managed to improvise a couple of chipped plates of nourishment and headed off to our room for some respite. We closed the door on the possessed mother. She forced it open and her hands quickly searched for the key in the lock. I grabbed her knobbly hand as my brother swiftly took the key from the lock. Then both of us pushed against the door until the hand finally retreated and we were able to lock her out. After that she kept up a steady stream of loud abuse while we ate our meager rations and discussed the oddity of our predicament.
The dissonance showed no signs of breaking into a calming melody. So we hastily packed up our things with the intention of making a break for freedom. As we exited the room, Psycho son appeared on the scene demanding that day’s rent. It became apparent at that point that he hadn’t informed his mum about the cash we were giving him and she was under some interesting illusions as to the purpose of our sojourn. My brother, who is a tough nut, towered over our host’s pathetic hunched frame and improvised some choice insults before telling him to go fuck himself and we were out of there and Norman was none the richer for the experience.
Back on the streets of suburbia it was apparent that a new progression to the jazz piece had been started. So we went with it. One night in the jazz city was all were apparently going to get. It was back to the rhythm of our thumbs and the syncopation of passing cars. We made it that day to a small holiday resort in the Tatra Mountains called Zakopane. It pretty much rained constantly. The following day we hiked up to Morskie Oko lake in the perpetual drizzle. We had on our rain kit and boots; the Poles who we encountered were uniformly ill-prepared. They wore tight jeans and insubstantial slip on shoes. We were torn between admiring their forbearance and laughing at their unsuitable attire. That evening we went into town to witness the spectacle of dozens of youths stumbling around clutching half empty bottles of vodka. They seemed to have no regard for the weather or their health. We joined in the self abuse and bought two ridiculously cheap bottles of cherry vodka and went back to the campsite. Needless to say it all ended in vomit.
The next morning we packed up the tent in the rain and sat under a gazebo waiting for the weather to change.
The tune of our travels in Europe could be extended with more solos and set pieces but I prefer to wind down the performance. We made it to Germany. On the way we got a lift from a country doctor who grew weed and got paid in eggs by the local farming community. In Germany we got frighteningly fast lifts down the autobahns and made it to a friend’s flat in Berlin. She wasn’t in. We cooked food in the nearby park and waited. Luckily, she eventually showed up. My brother stayed a few more days in Berlin before catching a National Express bus back home. I stayed on a few more weeks and got romantic with the German girl. She introduced me to the dubious pleasures of public nudism and the more obvious pleasures of Hamburg traveler sites. It was a fine and poignant note to end our jazz travels. By the time I was on the bus home I was missing the music and a little bit in love.