Fragments from the biography of the famous jazz musician Michal Urbaniak
“The Flaming Rooftops of Manhattan”
This guy comes to a ring master and says he can fly.
"Come tomorrow, mister,” the ring master goes, "I need to call the circus artistes’ committee."
The next day, the committee sits behind the table and the guy takes off his jacket, takes off from the floor, flies right up to the top and lands at the manager's feet.
"Got myself a job?" he asks.
"Come back in an hour, we gotta talk this through," goes the ring master.
After an hour, the guy is back and the ring master says, "You ain't got yourself a job, mister. You're just a bird impressionist."
I came into this beautiful world in Warsaw, the capital city of Poland. My father, Edmund Michalowski, was a Polish anti-Semite, my mother was a Polish philo-Semite and I was born an American. Prior to the World War II my father was a Ford agent for Central Europe and all his life he dreamed of seeing New York. After Poland was liberated by the Red Army hordes he saw this would never come true; he started to say that what he had been unable to accomplish will surely be accomplished by his son, that is me. And so it turned out. In the summer of 1962, as a teenage boy, I found myself in New York with the Wreckers. I had never been abroad, not even Bulgaria or across the Czech border, so seeing the flaming rooftops of Manhattan I thought I was in a dream.
In Poland we'd been told there was no such thing as Jesus Christ. Reading between the lines of the humbug sold us by the cowed Polish teachers you'd work out there was really no California, no San Francisco and New York was just a Wall (Street) of Tears where the wealthy rip the intestines out of the poor. And so I looked at the flaming rooftops of Manhattan and thought I was dreaming. I felt intoxicated, which incidentally I was: I drank in those days, taking after my father. I never shot up, never got hooked on hash or heroine and marihuana just
made me want to drink more. And so I drank time to time, not too hard, rather beer or wine than vodka, I looked at those flaming rooftops and thought to myself, "Dad, here I am. I'll be back. Not to become yet another rich Polish-American, but to play jazz."
Those rooftops were a joy for the eyes and for the heart the joy was in meeting at every step those magnificent guys beating the drums, blowing trumpets or saxes. One time, you'd bump into Max Roach, who would squeeze the blood out of your hand; another time it was Dizz Gillespie who would give you a paternal pat on the back way and then get your name wrong all the time.
Back then, at the corner of Fifty-Second Street and Broadway still stood "Birdland" – not a trace of it now: there's some "Novotel" hotel there and some "Art Café Restaurant." So they arranged a meeting for us at the "Birdland," back in '62, with the giants of jazz - for the Wreckers were the first-ever band from behind the Iron Curtain in the US and we were outrageously pampered. There's still a photo of that meeting with the Kai Winding Combo playing on the stage; seated with us at the table are Willis Conover, Ben Webster and John Coltrane.
Zbyszek Namyslowski looked just a kid and I was four or five years his junior, so when the pressmen found out the year of my birth they laughed and said it was impossible, that no one could have been born that year. We played jazz festivals at Washington, D.C. and at Newport, and then they set us off on a tour of the entire US. It was July-August, the world's most beautiful summer. At New Orleans I listened to Louis Armstrong on his side of this special glass. It was the kind of place where you could watch and listen for a dime, but if you wanted to get beyond the glass into the main room of the club you had to fork out forty bucks. I did fork out. There were no free seats so I sat at the very feet of Armstrong and looked the exhausted Pops into the eye. In the same way I listened to a gig by my favorite jazz singer, Dinah Washington, whom I would marry in my dreams before I went to sleep. Again I was looking from right below the stage so the image of her short stocky legs and the white triangle of her knickers. But my biggest shock came in Frisco, when I saw Miles Davis in the flesh for the first time. We could meet practically any musician at the time, but not Miles. Miles had turned his back on the world at that time, even though he could get any star or any woman with a mere
flick of the finger. Legends were doing the rounds of how he made Adderley do fifty sit-ups a day, or how he forbade Coltrane to go to the dentist, afraid that with a molar taken out, the genius of the sax would lose his magnificent sound. I didn't even dream I would one day play the violin with Davis. Actually, in those days, I wouldn't even admit I could play the violin. I was embarrassed about it. I was a sax-player and that was it! So when I came with the Wreckers to Frisco, because we were constantly in touch with the State Department and this guy who dealt with culture arranged for us to stay a week just to hear Davis, Miles was playing with his sextet at the Blackhawk club and, as ever, there were stars with him: Jay Jay Johnson, George Coleman, Jimmy Cobb Wynton Kell and Paul Chambers.
We were overjoyed, I mean the Wreckers, and the Wreckers were the pianist Andrzej Trzaskowski, the leader and the only Pole on the band who could speak English, and the really brilliant double-bass player Roman "Gucio" Dylag and the drummer Adam Jedrzejowski, alt-ax player Zbigniew Namyslowski and me, the tenor player, and sometimes running errands, as is the fate of the youngest one. The ever-reliable Willis Conover, a man of great heart and deep mind, was looking after us, but when we wanted to introduce ourselves to Davis, there were problems. I remember Conover talk things through at the Blackhawk with Ralph Gleason, a great white writer on jazz, a personal friend of Miles's. The verdict didn't go in our favor. His tact and sensitivity stopped Conover telling us in so many words, but Gleason is not one to waffle.
- Don't speak to the trumpet player, he's angry – he pronounced. – Don't approach him, don't talk to him; Miles is in a foul mood and isn't talking to whites.
For the Wreckers, all aspiring well-bred and mature young men, this was enough, but I was just a teenager and tried to hunt Davis down. At one point, the genius walked out of the Blackhawk for some fresh air and sat on the pavement dressed in gear the price of a Cadillac. He himself used to say he was elegant as a dog with a skewered dick. That's what he was – in a perfectly tailored alpaca suit of a bluish hue, a cream-colored shirt with a tie attached by a huge gold pin, a watch hanging out of his left pocket, black moccasins and dark silk socks, which revealed no flesh despite the rolled-up pant legs. The handkerchief sticking out of his breast pocket was the same color as the tie and when I got closer I saw that not only the color, but the pattern, too, matched. So he must have brought it from Paris and if he didn't then Juliette Greco did, he had a well-publicized affair with her. Seeing my maneuverings a black bouncer knit his brows and shook his head. - Hey, man, don't speak to him – he echoed Gleason's warning. - Leave him alone. English at that time we learnt from the titles of jazz compositions. I couldn't put a single decent sentence together, but pointing a thumb at my chest I said:
- Pollack, Warsaw, musician, saxophone.
He bowed his head to show the respect he had for this significant fact and with a highly dignified gesture showed me to get lost. Anyway he didn't hit me, a pleasant surprise for me, for zealous bouncers at the parties in Poland gave you a beating at the flimsiest of pretexts. I retreated into the bar, got myself a beer and watched Davis from behind the door. That summer, in May I think, his father had died. There had been besides some failed recording sessions with Gil Evans and there were no more Adderley or Coltrane on the band. He was playing in those days with tenor-sax player Wayne Shorter, but he was not there either; he kept changing the band, because he couldn't make the musicians fit. So he was really angry, probably. But the guy had so much class, I couldn't take my eyes off him. No musician in jazz history has had so much class. Even Ellington sometimes allowed himself a smile, others sucked up to the audience this way or that. Miles on the other hand was cut out of granite. This was no mere mortal. This was a sculpture with eyes fixed on the dust of the road. With crisscrossed fingers, elbows resting on his knees, he didn't stir: you could see the Indian blood dancing in him. He was black, he was even a black racist, but he would frequently own up to Cherokee parentage. I guess that's where his pride and overbearing manner came from. It's enough to study Davis's physiognomy, his narrow nose, elongated face, his sunk cheeks, to see that he was a mutt and mutts have different ways of seeing, different ways of hearing and always choose different sounds, as if they wanted to play in two keys at the same time. But I didn't get it at the time, maybe I was getting it by some animal instinct and wanted to touch him like that bloody Polish painter who went to the Louvre and, seeing that the Mona Lisa remained behind a glass screen, licked his finger and secretly scratched the works of other painters in the hope that some of their talent would rub off on him. So it was with me. I had come across some of the greatest but Davis remained behind a glass wall and didn't shake my hand. The last thing I can remember is that he got up and walked into the Blackhawk, with his finger pressed against his upper lip, roughed-up by the mouthpiece. Ever since, in life and in music, I've wanted to be like him: to steam ahead and to throw off the backpack of tradition. And that not on some well-worn Polish trail, but in America, which I was soon to leave with a pained heart and an iron resolve to return sooner or later.