Every decent jazz man knows how to play "Stella by Starlight" or "Johnny Guitar". The majority of them hardly realise that their author, Victor Young, came from Poland, studied in Warsaw, and later became a success story in Hollywood. The Wroclaw pianist Kuba Stankiewicz has recorded a tribute to Young together with Darek Oleszkiewicz and Peter Erskine.
Kuba Stankiewicz has also discovered unknown facts from Victor Young's biography.
Victor Young, or 22 Academy nominations
"Kuba Stankiewicz. The Music of Victor Young", released by Warner Classics, is now gaining in popularity. There is a chance the album will be released in the US, where Young made a brilliant career in the 1940s and 1950s. He set music to around 300 Hollywood movies, including such box office hits as "Rio Grande" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls". Although he received 22 Academy nominations, he was awarded only posthumously for the music to "Around the World in 80 Days" in 1956.
Victor Young. Photo courtesy of Bobbie Hill Fromberg
Young on a par with Gershwin
The record serves as a great opportunity to remind Americans that Victor Young, who was born in Chicago in 1899, came from a Jewish family of Polish extraction. Interestingly enough, the boy received his musical training not in the US, but in Warsaw, where he was sent by his grandparents after the death of his parents. The decision was just right, since the Warsaw Conservatory was known for its academic excellence (Young studied the violin under Stanisław Barcewicz and composition under Roman Statkowski). This gave him the skills to compose a number of unique works, including Piano Concerto, which was written in the 1940s. "The work is on a par with Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue'," asserts Kuba Stankiewicz.
In his teens, Victor Young played the violin for Nikolai II, the last Tsar of Russia. Photo courtesy of Bobbie Hill Fromberg
Renowned in Hollywood, unknown in Poland
The Wroclaw pianist got to know Victor Young through his music. He knew nothing about his origins at the time. "I knew the name from the credits in the westerns I saw, and I thought he was American. Later it turned out that he was Polish," recounts the musician. The Krakow saxophonist Janusz Muniak gave him a clue after one of the gigs they gave together. "We couldn't believe that "Beautiful Love" was written in America," admits Kuba Stankiewicz. Muniak's intuition did not fail him, as there was an extremely interesting story about Young, a story that was also completely forgotten in Poland. "All of a sudden it turned out that we jazzmen don't know our own heritage," regrets the Wroclaw pianist. "This refers not only to Victor Young, but also to Bronisław Kaper, who composed such evergreens as "On Green Dolphin Street" or "Invitations", which were later performed by Miles Davis himself" says Stankiewicz.
On Victor Young's trail (also on the Internet)
The Wroclaw artist was relentless in his quest. As he was browsing the Internet for information about Young, he found the contact details of his niece, Bobbie Hill Fromberg, who has numerous family memorabilia left by her uncle and knows quite a few anecdotes from the time when he was a Hollywood celebrity. Kuba Stankiewicz met the elderly lady in June this year in L.A. while completing his recording session with Darek Oleszkiewicz and Peter Erskine. "She invited Darek and me to visit her at her home, and she prepared a piano that her parents had received from Victor Young as their wedding present in 1934," says the pianist. There were more surprises in store. Kuba Stankiewicz decided to include the scan of Young's Warsaw Conservatory School Leaving Certificate from 1918 in the artwork. The original belonged to Bobbie Hill Fromberg, who gave it to Kuba Stankiewicz as a token of trust . "I'm thinking of presenting the document to the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews," says the musician.
Kuba Stankiewicz, Peter Erskine and Darek Oleszkiewicz at Tritone Studio in L.A. during their session. Photograph: Linda Oleszkiewicz
Kuba Stankiwicz, who is considered a leading Polish jazz pianist, has been contemplating to record a tribute to Young for years. And he has finally succeeded with a Polish-American line-up. Apart from Kuba Stankiewicz, the session at Tritone Studio in L.A. was attended by Darek Oleszkiewicz, an excellent bassist who has lived in the States for years, and Peter Erskine, a renowned American drummer. "We've been saying, tongue in cheek, that Victor Young was born in the US and was educated in Poland, and for Darek and me it was the other way round," says Kuba Stankiewicz, who graduated from Berklee College of Music, Boston. The CD features such evergreens as "Everything I Do", "Stella by Starlight", "Johnny Guitar" and "Beautiful Love", but it also a beautiful Prelude by Roman Statkowski, Young's professor in Warsaw, and "It's Christmas Time Again", the song arranged by Victor Young and performed by Peggy Lee (best known for her "Fever"). The end result will delight both jazzmen and those who are sensitive to beautiful and well performed music.
For the time being, Kuba Stankiewicz is not intending to use the record for commercial purposes. "I would like to raise awareness in our jazz milieu of where such a renowned artist as Victor Young came from and where he was educated," he asserts.
PSAt the end of November, Larry Appelbaum played "Beautiful Love" from Kuba Stankiewicz's new album in his radio broadcast "Sound of Surprise", aired by WPFW-FM in Washington DC. As he chose a tune by Keith Jarret several minutes earlier, the Wroclaw pianist may now be safely considered one of the select company.