“Dave Brubeck—listening to Jazz at Oberlin. It’s the CD version of the old vinyl album by the same name, which was recorded, as the notes scrupulously inform us, in 1953. Listening to Brubeck’s and Paul Desmond’s insane improvisations, I relive a great shiver of joy and liberation from years past—this was one of my finest jazz albums, a gem in my little collection back in my high school days—that is to say, I felt this shiver some ten years after the concert was recorded at Oberlin College in Ohio.”
The jazz lover is Adam Zagajewski in Slight Exaggeration (trans. Clare Cavanagh, 2017). Born in Lwów in 1945, the future poet in 1963 would have been living in Gliwice in Upper Silesia, Poland, after his family was expelled from Ukraine. With pleasing synchronicity, Jazz at Oberlin was recorded in March 1953, the month Stalin died. Jazz in Poland, as in the rest of the Soviet Bloc, was officially condemned as Western and decadent, and banned from the radio. Musicians and fans could hear the music thanks to Willis Conover’s Voice of America Jazz Hour and records smuggled in from the West. In 1958, Brubeck and his classic quartet (Desmond on alto, Eugene Wright on bass, Joe Morello on drums) performed in Poland as part of a U.S. Department of State tour of Europe and Asia. Zagajewski continues:
“Those improvisations, those wild blocks of sound, blocks Brubeck created, so it seems, by scaling piano chords up the highest mountain, haven’t aged a bit. The audience, the students’ emotional reaction. Today those students must be comfortably retired, bored, living in Florida.”
Describing the recording of “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” on the album, Doug Ramsey writes in Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond (Parkside Publications, 2005): “Desmond sets the bar high for himself and the group. His flow of ideas through faultlessly executed double-time passages is fueled by rhythm that jets from somewhere inside him to contrast with the stately accompaniment of the rhythm section. His energy sets up Brubeck to glide into a solo of extraordinary melodic and rhythmic invention.”
How that must have sounded to a kid in post-Stalinist Poland, hungry for lyricism, energy and freedom, the very antithesis of drab, dull, dead life under communism.
In an earlier prose collection, Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the Imagination (trans. Lillian Vallee, 1995), Zagajewski recounts saving money to buy two records, by Brubeck and Charlie Parker:
“To me, jazz was a paean to spontaneity, even to freedom. Meanwhile, the city in which I happened to live was full of conventions, endured by dint of convention. I rebelled against it and looked for support to jazz saxophone players, usually no longer living American Negroes.”