This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.

Tomasz Ludwik Stańko was born on July 11, 1942, in Rzeszów, Poland. His first encounters with jazz were through Voice of America radio programs and tours initiated by the U.S. State Department. Growing up in Communist Poland, Stańko was impressed by the correlation that jazz music had with messages of freedom. In 1958, Stańko witnessed his first jazz concert given by Dave Brubeck.

While Miles Davis and Chet Baker were early influences, Stańko was soon drawn to the “free jazz” of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. As he told jazz writer Andrew Gilbert, speaking of jazz under communism, “I was interested in artistic freedom, because in person I didn’t really have a big problem living in a communist country in this time. Maybe earlier musicians had some problems, they don’t have the chance to play so often, but in 1963 it was beginning to be quite all right. I was much more interested in the freedom in Ornette’s music.”

In the early 1970s, Stańko established the Tomasz Stańko Quintet, and soon came to the forefront of the free-jazz scene. His stature was evident with projects such as working with Polish pianist Adam Makowicz and a quartet he co-led with Finnish drummer Edward Vesala.

In the 1990s, Stańko’s relationship with ECM was reignited (having worked with them in the mid-1970s). A new quartet, featuring pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Tony Oxley, was considered one of the “best jazz groups of the decade.” Released in 1997, Litania, a tribute to the music of Krzysztof Komeda, became their first global bestseller. Subsequent releases, Soul of Things and Suspended Night, brought Stańko to the attention of American jazz fans.

In 2005, the quartet recorded their last joint album Lontano, again for ECM. Having an established position on the world jazz stage, each album of the quartet has been celebrated across Europe and the United States. In the same year, the band also made its first tour around Asia and Australia. The second half of the 2000s saw a new resurgence in Stańko’s career: a chapter of experiments, creating projects, and searching for new sounds. As a result of these experiences, in 2007, a new Scandinavian quintet composed of Alexi TuomarilaJakob Bro, Anders Christensen and Olavi Louhivuori, was formed. With the group, Stańko recorded the 2009 album Dark Eyes for ECM. Stańko’s last studio album December Avenue was released on March 31, 2017. Reviewing the album The Guardian jazz critic John Fordham wrote: “Nobody holds a single, long-blown trumpet note like the Polish pioneer Tomasz Stańko – a wearily exhaled, soberly ironic, yet oddly awestruck sound that is unique in jazz.” On July 29, 2018, Stańko passed away in Warsaw, Poland.