When most people think of jazz, stylized images of smoky clubs and underground cellars in New Orleans and New York come to mind. Almost no one would think of Eastern Europe. But virtuoso jazz pianist Leszek Możdżer, the top-selling jazz musician in Poland, is helping overturn those preconceived notions.
Możdżer was just 4 years old when his father brought home a piano. Fascinated, he began taking lessons.
"Any melody which I was able to catch, I was very excited to be able to create it on the keyboard," Możdżer says. "You know, it really excited me — any melody that I could bring back to life just by pressing keys on the piano. That was very hip."
As a child, Możdżer was mostly preoccupied with bands like Pink Floyd and Republica. School exposed him to hundreds of classical composers, where, like many pianists, he fostered an appreciation for Fryderyk Chopin.
It wasn't until his late teens that Możdżer stumbled across jazz. Throughout the 20th century, the popular music form had loosely doubled as a barometer of social and political change in the embattled European country. Jazz came to Poland following World War I, whetting everyone's appetites before the oppressive Stalinist dictatorship drove jazz underground until the '50s. But suppression only served to make jazz the forbidden fruit, becoming synonymous with rebellion and freedom in Poland — or classical music's evil twin in the eyes of some of Możdżer's stuffy instructors.
"I found out there was this stupid border between classical and jazz ... even some kind of hate," Możdżer says. "At school among professors, jazz music was always seen as something dirty, bad, not safe, lower than classical music, and very dangerous because it was associated with alcohol and drugs and tobacco. That's what they thought, and I always dreamed to connect those worlds because they are both beautiful, and there are some things they share, and there are some things that are better developed in jazz, and some things that are better developed in classical music. You have to respect both of them."
At 39, Możdżer has recorded more than 100 albums, including his infamous Chopin improvisations, reinvintions of jazz standards, and covers (check out his brilliant take on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"). Ultimately, he has built a career on a teenage dream: bringing classical and jazz together.
"It was kind of risky, but I've tried to pick up the best of both worlds, so the beauty of sound and respect for articulation, which is classical music, and the excitement and feeling that you don't know what will be next, which is so fantastic in jazz," Możdżer says. "I was a little afraid, but at the end, it was really okay."