Obituary: Jan Jarczyk

The Blue Note Of Sorrow

By Marek Żebrowski

The music that filled Jan Jarczyk’s heart ever since the day he was born in Kraków in 1947 fell silent on August 3, 2014. Throughout his rich and eventful life, there was a lot of Jan’s music in places around the globe and it resonated deeply with his friends and fans. Just like the title of Jan’s recent CD, Full Circle, his music came Round, Round & Round—to quote another CD title, featuring a lovely string quartet introduction on its opening track, There Is Always Time.

Yes, there is always time—or so it seemed so many years ago when we first met in Boston. It may have been a cold and dreary evening, but the exact details escape me now; they didn’t matter at that brief moment at the end of the 1970s. It seemed like there was time, there will be time, and there was no hurry. Jan was finishing his studies at Berklee School of Music and began to teach there. One additional recital was required before Berklee would grant him a diploma. Besides being a brilliant pianist, Jan was also a great trombone player who needed a pianist to accompany him in that one final. I was still at the New England Conservatory and had rather limited contacts with jazz musicians or members of the Polish community in general. Jan, resourceful and thorough as always, somehow managed to reach my landlady on the phone and requested to be put through. In his rapid-staccato voice he went straight to the point. “I’ve got this recital coming up soon. Need a pianist for a few pieces, including Serocki’s Sonatina for Trombone and Piano. You’ve got to do it.” Jan always spoke hurriedly and—regardless of the language he used— his grammar resembled the telegraphic messages of long ago.

My visit to his Beacon Street high-rise flat in Boston’s Back Bay was the beginning of a long friendship and collaboration on several musical projects. The Serocki (and few other pieces we breezed through for the Berklee recital) was but an introduction to Jan-the-musician and Jan-the-host. His warm-heartedness and hospitality would henceforth be on ample display at least once or twice a week, before I would return home from the Conservatory or from M.I.T., where I had a part-time teaching gig. I was expected, even required, to stop by Jan’s place for a chat, interspersed with rounds of chilled vodka, herring, pickles, and dark rye. Many hours later Jan would insist on the courtesy of accompanying me downstairs and leaving me on the sidewalk, retreating to the lobby of his building only after making sure I departed his Beacon Street address in the approximate direction of my lodgings.

During the next few years, we collaborated on a variety of concerts, where each of us would share half of the program. Held in a variety of venues in and around Boston, some of them were summer outdoor affairs, and they attracted many Polish émigrés whom I befriended only because they were Jan’s sworn fans. Our paths diverged at some point in the late 1980s—Jan moved to Montreal to work and teach there, and I began to spend more and more time in Europe and on the West Coast.

To my great joy, Jan reached out to the Polish Music Center about four years ago. Invited to perform by the Polish Consulate, together with Andrzej Olejniczak, Janusz Stefański and Darek Oleszkiewicz, Jan appeared at the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood in a Chopin program arranged for jazz quartet. Once again, it was the same voice on the phone—the same grammar and articulation. Besides concertizing, Jan wanted to visit USC and study our archives, focusing on music by Bronisław Kaper and Henryk Wars—two composers whose collections are among our many treasures. Plans were eventually made for an extended stay and over a year later Jan drove across the continent with his wife, Danielle, arriving here in late winter. Immediately both of them settled to a lovely routine—Jan perused the scores, sketched out arrangements, checked out the recordings, and Danielle graciously joined us at lunchtime in the PMC reading room. A few weeks went by very quickly and, with his tasks completed, in his matter-of-fact way, Jan waved us goodbye and boarded his Mercedes on a long voyage back to Montreal in March of 2013.

As promised, Jan returned to USC exactly a year later for our March 29 concert, featuring his new arrangements of Kaper and Wars as well as his own compositions. His Newman Hall concert was a great success—the overflowing audience included the family of Henryk Wars, and Jan was mobbed at the reception afterwards (read a review of the concert in the April 2014 Newsletter). Many in the audience expected an encore. “I’m totally deflated,” Jan said as soon as he was backstage after an uninterrupted hour and a half of music. “I can’t go back tonight,” he added.

It took quite some time to wind things down that evening. In between trying to help with bringing all kinds of gear back to the Polish Music Center, Jan finally sat down at the table, munching on the few edibles left from the reception. It was almost midnight. He poured himself a glass of wine and wanted to talk. That’s when I heard that a few months earlier, just before Christmas, Jan was diagnosed with cancer. The experimental drugs were working miracles, he quickly assured me. Nothing has changed—it was still the same Jan, energetic, optimistic, making all kinds of plans for the future. The hospital and doctors at McGill were the best—and he was responding to therapy beyond the wildest expectations of his attending physician. Then there was a retirement party for Jan at McGill on May 15. Jan’s e-mail was laconic and inimitable, “Come and Join the Gang!” A few weeks later, on the phone, he told me matter-of-factly, “Oh. The party was fine. I’m enjoying myself now. Doing a few concerts this summer.”  The birds chirped in the background and city traffic hummed on the other end of the line. Finally, it was spring in Montreal—time to make plans. Jan was going places, just like his memorable CD had announced a decade ago. The music would continue to accompany his life. The harmony—Jan’s sonorous companion and source of inspiration—with its progressions of chords could be always embellished with a melodic flourish or two on the piano. It would round off the sensuous bass line and fit into the groove laid out by the drummer. If there was a sax player—or another soloist—Jan’s handiwork would neatly dovetail into it, just so, without exaggeration. Easy, man—he seemed to say as his hands instinctively covered the keys and conjured up all kinds of magical sounds. We’ve gone full circle now and Jan’s music may have stopped, but his body and soul continue to sing.

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