A man with a huge heart heart passed through our lives. His name was Janusz Szprot. He passed from Ankara skies to Warsaw ones just like a shooting star in the morning that connected 1st of July to the 2nd. He was a musicologist, critic, jazz pianist, arrangement writer and orchestra conductor. But what is most important is that he was a fair, disciplined and endlessly hopeful educator who had enough knowledge accumulated to feed all the hungry souls in Turkey who wanted to learn about jazz. He lived here for 29 years. But his love for his country never faltered and he was a man motivated by this love in his work as an educator and in his stage career, infecting people with the love for jazz.
Janusz Szprot was born in 26th of September, 1946 in Warsaw. He was the oldest of three siblings. His father played the organ in a church and conducted the choir; his mother was a singer. He started to play the piano and accordion when he was 6-7 years old. He graduated with a master’s degree from the Musicology Department in Warsaw University after studying there for 5 years and handing in his thesis on George Russell. He got busy with his stage life and a career in magazine publishing right away. His first band was “726. S. Peter Street”, which played New Orleans music. He then toured with Washboard Hot Jazz Company, Sami Swoi, Amalgamat Sextet and Blues Duo Sz-Sz, which he founded with saxophonist Tomasz Szukalski, as a pianist and arrangement writer. He became known especially for his work with Sami Swoi and shared the same stage with prominent jazz musicians. He played at Pori and North Sea Festivals in 1982.
Szprot, who liked to play the keyboard with strength just like his father did with the church organ, had a strong pen as well. But he wasn’t satisfied with only writing academic articles as a musicology graduate. He was a talented content editor at the same time. He did more than just look for typos in prominent Polish jazz magazines, but also edited them through a deep academic sieve. Not only this, but he also conducted sensational interviews. Miles Davis and Pat Metheny were among those who were interviewed by him. Apparently Pat Metheny still remembers the tough questions Janusz asked him according to what his son Jarosław Szprot told me.
Jazz Magazine was the first publication he worked at (He showed me its building during my visit to Warsaw in 2017). He was promoted to editor-in-chief but turned this offer down, because he was expected to join the Communist Party in return. He then joined the team of Jazz Forum magazine, whose roots lay in Polish Jazz Federation. He was now a well-known critic in his country (Please see: https://culture.pl/en/article/polish-jazz-freedom-at-last). He prepared and presented radio (Polish Radio 3) and television (TVP) programs on music education in 1970s and 80s. He married his biggest supporter and partners Ania in 1980. They welcomed their son Jarosław in this marriage. He was presented with Krzysztof Komeda Medal by the Polish Ministry of Culture for his contribution in Polish music culture.
Then Janusz’s life came to a crossroads, one that we are intimately interested in. He was invited by the Polish Consulate to play at the 6th Ankara International Arts Festival in 1989. He came together with Bilkent’s rector İhsan Doğramacı and Ersin Onay, the head of the music department who was introduced to him by Doğramacı. He learnt that there was a lot of young people who wanted to learn more about jazz in Turkey during this conversation. He then organized a concert and continuous workshops with the encouragement of Bilkent managanent. The people who participated in these workshops Janusz organized with Polish musicians include well-known musicians such as Sibel Köse, Yahya Dai, Sarp Maden, Çağlayan Yıldız, Cengiz Baysal and Cenk Soyak.
These workshops gained momentum and the decision to open a jazz department in Bilkent was made with the help of İhsan Doğramacı. 100 students applied to entrance exams, with Tuna Ötenel on the piano, and 35 chosen started their studies in 1990. A big band was formed. The department was called “Rhythmic Music Department”, while the word “jazz” was censored with some concerns. Janusz, who shouldered the responsibility to form this department, planned everything out, wrote the backbone of the curriculum and gave the university management a list of teachers to hire.
However, things didn’t go according to plan. Janusz’s list was shelved while many musicians who came to join Bilkent Symphony Orchestra from Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakistan became members of the faculty. This resulted with students leaving one by one, leaving only 10 students to graduate. However, the school did not want to lose an esteemed researcher and educator like Janusz and renewed his 1-year contract for the next 24 years. This process lasted until 2014 and Janusz game music history and theory, as well as music appreciation classes at both the university and Bilkent College; taught many singers and instrumentalists of all kinds, formed orchestras, organized concerts, directed, played, wrote arrangements and infected many Turkish jazz musicians with the love of Polish jazz. He was awarded “Bene Merito” Medals by the Polish Ministry of External Affairs in 2008 for his work.
İhsan Doğramacı’s work at the university came to an end the same year and Rhythmic Music Department followed suit. But Janusz still was the first musician Doğramacı family would go to for their latest projects. He gave lessons in the school which opened in Erzurum for two years and formed an orchestra with his students, then conducted it.
he came to understand that it is crazy to open a jazz department in Turkey, because one needed to stand against the classical music education authorities like Don Quixote to fight for this cause. However, this wasn’t deterring for him. Because after all, real jazz education happened on the streets, club stages and jam sessions according to him. Janusz’s final attempt to open a jazz department happened in Alanya HEP University in 2016 but unfortunately this endeavour also didn’t see a happy ending; he paid the prize for this attempt by losing his pension. Luckily he still continued to support all those who wanted to learn about and perform jazz without discrimination.
He was always full of energy; always on stage. He founded Polish-Turkish Jazz Connection in 1993 and played in 3 festivals in Istanbul, Ankara and Bursa with 8 musicians from Poland and Turkey each. He made a television program with Tuna Ötenel; sat in the jury chair with names like Onno Tunç, Melih Kibar and Fahir Atakoğlu; he even was a member of the Eurovision Contest jury once. His path crossed with Merve Erdal’s Dolce Vokal Jazz group in 2011 and he played the piano for them as well as writing their arrangements. He became a part of the houseband of SAMM’s Bistro in Ankara Hotel SAMM with double bassist Murat Ulus and drummer Serkan Alagök, giving countless gigs with jazz musicians and singers. I worked with Janusz for the first time for this concert series.
His 2001 album Polonezköy (Na Tureckim Dywanie), which featured his own compositions, was released both in Turkey and Poland separately; he released a great retrospective compilation album called Janusz Szprot is Young@Heart to celebrate the 45th year of his music career when he became 70. It is possible to hear his old comrades Sami Swoi members, saxophonist friend Tomasz Szukalski and Sibel Köse. His discography indluced 15 albums in total.
Janusz’s hands continued to wander on his piano and harmonica with full strength and energy, writing compositions as well. And he played all his concerts—as he also stated in an interview—as if it was his last. He didn’t have a moment to lose. He was always working, always hanging onto leadsheets. These were mostly written or arranged by himself. He gave me hand-written note sheets from his file when I told him I want to sing a couple of songs in Poland. I felt incredibly lucky in that moment. My vocalist colleagues will remember the value of these sheets with a sheen in their eyes. However, despite all this, as he said in another interview, he saw himself as “a musician who plays jazz on the piano”, “a musician who is also an educator” or “a musician who is also a musicologist” instead of a jazz pianist or simply an educator.
He participated in symposiums and workshops in Germany, France, Russia, America, South Africa and Canada. He managed an international workshop in Chodzieży and a jazz workshop for children in Margonin. He was a guest teacher at Katowice Music Academy and Warsaw Conservatoire. But everybody usually remember his work in Puławy Jazz Workshop. Janusz become associated and one with Puławy. He was fist assigned as the coordinator of the vocal department and then the artistic director of this organization. Many important jazz musicians from Turkey such as Kamil Erdem and Sibel Köse attended this workshop thanks to him. Sibel Köse shared her love for jazz with young musicians every summer here just like her teacher Janusz did for many years.
The organization unfortunately got smaller and lost its international appeal due to economic reasons and parted ways with Janusz (I heard that similar disfortunes came upon Wojanów New York Jazz Masters Workshop that I attended to in 2017). This news made Janusz deeply unhappy because Puławy was the only warm connection he had for many years with his beloved home country. He would drive to Puławy every summer, direct the workshop and then go to rest in a forest and breathe the fresh air of his country. Then he would hop back in his car and go back to Ankara.
Yes, Janusz has always been loyal to his country, with a deep feeling of gratitude. He never forgot about his musician friends there. He visited them with every opportunity he got or brought them to Turkey for concerts. I personally witnessed what a loyal friend he was. I met with Janusz and his wife Ania in Warsaw before he fell ill. it was the last summer he directed the workshop in Puławy. He showed me the city center the first day and pointed out placed where he spent his childhood and youth. He told me: “I will take you to a meeting tomorrow. There will be my old musician friends there.” The next day he and his wife came to the student dorm I was staying in the next day. We practiced his own composition Marzenia Znikomka (its new name is “Deli Kız Dedi ki”) that I wrote the Turkish lyrics for on the piano in my room and got on our way in his car. I remember going to a church in Warsaw. I believe its name was Holy Virgin Mary Catholic Church. We went to the chapel that belonged to the church and found a small but surprising crowd was waiting for us there. Famous Polish jazz vocalist Aga Zaryan was among these people. It was a memorial gathering for Janusz’s saxophonist friend Tomasz Szukalski who passed away from cancer the year before. All the participants made speeches in Polish in the chapel; I didn’t understand a word of it but I was really moved by the fact that Janusz included me in his music family and invited me to this meeting. We performed Janusz’s piece together there. Then we had an intimate picnic at the vicar’s house and a jam session. Janusz’s harmonica suddenly stopped working during the session. It was bizarre and he couldn’t figure out the reason… But I saw that Janusz was still deeply connected to his country, its people and his musician friends during that gathering. I felt his fatherly side so intensely for the first time. As I viewed this as an observer (because one can pay attention to body language more closely when they don’t understand the language spoken), I saw what a beloved and respected friend he was!
Janusz told me “Don’t ever forget your essence. Music is your essence, live for it!” even in the moments I felt despair. I will never forget this advice. He was the man who taught me to sing my heart and emotions out. I learnt how to command the stage from him. He made me discover the beauty in the lyrics in a language I don’t know anything about, making me write new lyrics. He was the Polish Jazz Father of me and all of us.
I managed to witness 3 last years of Janusz’s life. 3 years exactly. Not a year more, not a year less. Our last meeting took place at SAMM’s Bistro during our brunch concert, I learnt from Saba Akman that it was his last performance on the SAMM’s Bistro stage. His health seemed to have improved. I felt really happy seeing him that energetic. And as Murat Ulus told me, his last stage performance was at the Polish Embassy on the 11th of April during a morale support evening.
A huge rock sinks in my chest as I think of the projects and dreams we wanted to achieve with Janusz (I know they would have come true), but especially when I think of his fatherly, full of life, fair, studious and supportive words, the endless energy in his voice and how he sounded during our last phone call. I wanted to show my gratitude I felt towards him—even though it will not be enough—by writing this article.
Yes, Janusz unfortunately was not able to breathe the air of Poland, where he loved more than anything, during the last days of his life. But fortunately his body was taken to his country. His funeral took place on the 17th of July and an orchestra of 12 musicians were brought over by the Polish Jazz Foundation. The orchestra played his favorite New Orleans classics during the funeral and as his ashes were lowered into the ground. Then a jam session at Klub Akwarium in the Hoover Square took place with the attendance of his wife Ania, their son Jarosław and his brother Lech, as well as all his musician friends. The good news is that Janusz’s soul will have its eternal rest not in just any cemetery but in the historic Powązki Military Cemetery in Wola area, the south of Warsaw, in Aleja Zasłużonych (Avenue of the Distinguished) with other heroes and esteemed people of his country. What an honor for him and his family!
Maybe next year his friends will commemorate him in that cute chapel in Warsaw. Maybe they will put his photo next to Tomasz’s in that lush green garden filled with Spanish olive trees…
Now I will leave the stage to some of Janusz’s old friends.
Father Janusz, may your soul rest in peace. I hope you will stroll down the streets of Warsaw forever…
“We shared music and friendship together. The loss of dear Janusz will be sad and hard. I share Ania’s pain with all my heart.”
“I am feeling the deep pain of losing my friend, brother, teacher, confidante and colleague of 30 years today. My only consolation is knowing he is no longer in pain. Dear Janusz, who has touched all the musicians who play and sing jazz in their hearts and souls, who was a master in building bridges between countries, has contributed to my life and perception greatly. My respect, gratitude and love for him will continue to grow. Goodbye Janusz Do widzenia…”
“After the loss of an esteemed jazz musician who made his mark in Ankara…
We have lost an educator, jazz master, composer and arrangement writer who has dedicated maybe the 30 most fruitful years of his life to Ankara. Losing dear Janusz Szprot, who came from Poland and has contributed to raising many musicians, has left a sad hole in our hearts, both for our country and for Ankara.
We are happy that we could collaborate with Janusz Szprot on many valuable projects and concerts since the formation of the Jazz Foundation. We will remember him through the memories of Ankara Palas Jazz Evenings, Ankara Jazz Festival, the first concerts of the Jazz in the Museum series, Janusz Szprot and Jazz Foundation Workshops and the support concert we organized at the Polish Embassy in April 2019 with many of his musician friends.
Janusz donated his books and CDs to the Jazz Foundation shortly before his passing. We are really lucky to be able to make a part for his collection in our achieves. He will always be among us with his music.”
Tuğçe Alpaslan ve Özlem Oktar Varoğlu – Ankara Jazz Deneği
“A jazz musician who has passed his knowledge to his listeners and the musician friends he has worked with for 30 years… We spent 12 years together… His discipline and special style will always be remembered…”
Murat Ulus – kontrbas sanatçısı
“I have known Janusz as a friend and a musician for about twenty years. We played together in the last 15 years as well. I used to play in his houseband when I visited Ankara. We would play his, Cem Aksel, Kâmil Erdem and Yahya Dai’s Young@Hearts project when he came to Istanbul. We also played together in Erzurum and Poland at the Jazz Jamboree Festival. We would play the pieces he liked, as well as his arrangements and compositions. He enjoyed playing a Polish piece called “Pod papugami” the most. It was fantastic with a Pet Metheny sound.
Not only Janusz’s musicianship but also his support for music is legendary as well. Thanks to him, many Nardis Young Jazz Vocal Competition finalists were able to attend that legendary workshop in Pulawy.
He also had a very strong touch on the piano. His playing would overpower even our speaking voice on the acoustic piano without being on the PA and I don’t think many can achieve that. I think his education had contributed to this. He was humorous and energetic. I will never forget him always saying “Do you kow? This was unfortunately another success story” after every concert.
He pushed aside all our suggestions of “Rest, come here but don’t play if you wish” saying “Music is my life” and now “Music is my cure”. He hung on until the last moment and played in pain. Because he was really happy there. Watching him was filled with conflicting feelings for me. Happiness within sadness!
The wind of life brought him to our country and made him one of us after 20 years… Janusz looked tough and disciplined. Rehearsals were sometimes tense. But hugs would come afterwards. We have been together since 2011 September. He touched many in educational institutions, private lessons, our customers at SAMM’s Bistro, musician-to-be artists and musicians. As a professional musician, with his music and attitude… Playing jazz in Ankara! I wouldn’t call it hard but wouldn’t call it easy either. He was always there and ready to help those who knew his value and wanted to learn from him. I wish he was able to touch many others for many more years…”
Saba Akman – Owner of Hotel SAMM and SAMM’s Bistro
“Janusz was a passionate pianist and a great educator as well as a real friend. He invited me along with a group of musicians that included Janusz Muniak to Turkey once. We went to Istanbul and Ankara together. It was a great trip.”
Paweł Brodowski – Current editor-in-chief of Jazz Forum
“I met Janusz while I was studying at METU in 1991. I attended his workshops at Bilkent University. We came across each other again in 2007. I started to sing at Tenedos Kafe with him and Murat Ulus. I attended his workshop in Puławy in 2009. He wrote arrangements for our Dolce Jazz Vocal Group, formed in 2011. We understood each other very well on the stage as an arrangement-heavy band because Janusz gave us such peace of mind. Janusz wrote leadsheets from scratch for many singers and taught us how to write legible leadsheets. This was such an important help.
He was like a mountain. A man which flowed loud like a river, so full of life… He was one of the most giving people I have ever met in my life. Especially in sharing his time and knowledge. He would always make rehearsals; he was incredibly studious and disciplined. He would always come prepared when I send him my music. He made our lives better and made us better people as well. I will always be thankful for this reason.”
Merve Erdal, Founding member of Dolce Jazz Vocal Group
“The first half of the 1990s in Ankara, when I felt this close to jazz… It was a time of renewal as far as jazz was concerned in the capital. The reason for this is Janusz. Because he started to academically teach jazz and to present this in venues with jazz musicians and his students. I was one of the lucky ones! He introduced me with jazz in the real sense of the word; he was my first mentor. Then he introduced Polish jazz to us, and I think this was a great step for Turkish jazz musicians. He opened the door to a close-by geography for musicians so that they could learn this music… Janusz Szprot has a very special place in Turkish Jazz Music History. Thank you so much, dziękuję Janusz.”
Demet Akıneri – 03.07.2019 İzmir
“Dwa Serduszka Cztery Oczy” was one of Janusz’s favorite Polish folk songs. The song was recorded with a jazz arrangement for the movie ”Cold War”, which Janusz listened to with great pleasure during his last days.
Note: I would like to thank Jarosław Szprot and Ania Szprot who has contributed greatly to this article and giving them my coundolescense…