Ryszard Wolanski

By Marek Zebrowski

Ryszard Wolański, one of the leading journalists and author of books on popular music in Poland, died in Warsaw on September 17. He was 77 years old.

An alumnus of the Music Academy in Warsaw, from the 1970s Ryszard Wolański was a longtime collaborator of the Polish Radio, where he began as a journalist in 1972 and moved to Polish TV six years later. His radio and TV broadcasts covered many music festivals, including Jazz Jamboree, Jazz nad Odrą, International Jazz Vocalists’ Festival in Zamość and the Opole and Sopot International Song Festivals. Overall, his catalogue of radio and television shows includes well over 2,000 broadcasts.

Polish cinema in the 1930s was another of Wolański’s lifelong passions and he authored a number of very successful books about actors and composers from that fabled era. One of them, Już nie zapomnisz mnie—opowieść o Henryku Warsie [You’ll never forget me—a tale of Henryk Wars] is the first biography of this remarkable composer, a Polish version of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Its title directly quotes one of Wars’s great 1938 hit songs. Similarly, the title of Wolański’s biography of Eugeniusz Bodo— a popular film and musical cabaret actor—Już taki jestem zimny drań [So I’m a cold-blooded thug], also quotes lyrics from another wildly popular 1934 film song composed by Henry Wars. Both books later served as source material for several TV serials and documentary films.

Two of Wolański’s monographs about Aleksander Żabczyński and Tola Mankiewiczówna, a beloved duo of actors who (like everybody else in the entertainment industry) sang Wars’s songs in a number of Polish 1930s musicals and stage reviews, also found much favor with the public in recent years. With time, recognition for Wolański’s books finally came from the official channels with a cascade of prizes given to him in recent years by Polish Radio and TV, ZAiKS, Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, and Institute of National Remembrance. Wolański’s exemplary journalistic achievements were recognized with the Golden Cross of Merit medal in 2004, Golden Gloria Artis medal in 2007 and Golden Award from the Polish Jazz Society in 2000, among others.

On a personal note, about 15 years ago I had a chance to meet Ryszard Wolański. Knowing of my close friendship with the Wars family in Los Angeles, he contacted me with a request for photos and an interview for a book about Henryk Wars he was planning to write. Naturally, I agreed; I was more than happy to share with him some of the photos and answer questions relating to Wars’s life story. Ryszard struck me as a quiet, personable and gentle presence. Modest in appearance and very well informed on the world of Polish film and music during the inter-war era, he met me in a downtown Warsaw hotel precisely at the appointed hour. Meticulous and thoroughly professional, he appeared with his laptop and an old-fashioned notebook; the multitude of pockets in his outdoorsy flak jacket (apparently a sartorial trademark) hid all kinds of his favorite instruments for recording yet another interview. We spent a few very pleasant hours exchanging stories and various biographical details. At the end of our meeting, he gratefully accepted over a dozen photos of Henryk Wars, showing the composer in the 1920s Warsaw and all the way through his wartime odyssey in Soviet Russia, Persia, Iraq, Palestine, and Italy before Wars finally settled in 1947 in California. I had no idea at that time that our paths would never converge again.

Ryszard Wolański was laid to rest at a Warsaw cemetery on September 25. Members of his family with a few journalists and friends attended a graveside service. Six retired musicians—also friends of Ryszard Wolański—provided a dignified big-band styled finale to the proceedings.

[Photo source: pl.wikipedia.org]