Interview with jazz singer and pianist Małgorzata “Margo” Staniszewska

“Jazz is like life”

Interview with jazz singer and pianist Małgorzata “Margo” Staniszewska

Did your adventure with music start very early?
That’s true. Apparently, when I was a dozen or so months old, I sang on the way to the nursery. At least that’s what my mother said. However, I always knew I would sing. This is my earliest dream and also my childhood memory. When I was a bit older, I even forced my parents to enroll me in a music school because they didn’t really want me to. There was simply no musical tradition in our house, hence their resistance. I graduated from primary music school in my hometown of Jarosław, and then I went to the vocal department of the secondary music school in Rzeszów. The next important stage was my studies in Poznań, where my teacher was the amazing professor Jadwiga Gałęska-Tritt. Working with this teacher developed me a lot vocally, opened me up and actually prepared me for later stage performances.

However, your musical education so far has focused on classical music. When did you gravitate towards jazz?
Yes. Both in high school and later, I was involved in classical and opera music. We had concerts every month. I sang solo or with a choir, such as Feliks Nowowiejski’s Missa pro Pace at the National Philharmonic. I also recorded a lot. Among other things, solo parts for the album with the famous German soprano Ingrid Kremling, who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala. I also participated in the opera choir in Poznań, where we performed the opera Boris Godunow by Modest Mussorgsky and in Luxembourg. So I was classically educated, but classical music never really appealed to me. Even my professor jokingly called me a big-beat girl because I supposedly went beyond the patterns associated with classical music. At that time, however, I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go. The breakthrough was the biography of Miles Davis, which fell into my hands quite by accident.

Was this a musical turning point in your life?
Undoubtedly yes. I could say that after reading this, my whole brain somehow switched to a different track, to a jazz one. And it influenced my entire life, what I do and where I am today. Quite quickly I decided that I wanted to sing jazz in America, where it was born. When I went to get a visa at the US consulate in Krakow and the consul asked about the reason for my trip, I said that I was going to visit jazz clubs. So the consul asked what jazz saxophonist I knew. I replied that it was John Coltrane, but my favorite jazzman is the creator of cool jazz, Miles Davis. I received the visa immediately and in April 2002 I found myself in New York.

However, in Polonia you are known primarily as an organist.
I am aware of this. When I came to the United States, I first had to fight for a living. I only had $200 in my pocket and no family on site. My friend got me a room in Bay Ridge, where I lived for the first month. Before I made contacts in the world of opera, another Polish friend told me that the parish of St. Joseph in Hackensack is looking for an organist. I’ve never played the organ, but the piano has always been my second instrument, so I decided to try it. I was accepted and that’s how my adventure with playing in churches began. Later I played for Catherine of Alexandria in Brooklyn, at St. Aloysius on Ridgewood, at St. Stanisław Kostka in Greenpoint, and finally I came to Saint Rose of Lima in Lower Brooklyn, where I am to this day.

Eventually, however, you also took up opera singing in the United States.
Yes. It was a natural path for me because I already knew this music. I sang with the New York Lyric Opera for several years. Thanks to this, I had the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Symphony Space. I sang in such operas as L’incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi, Sister Angelica by Puccini, and Valkyrie by Wagner. However, I was thinking about jazz all the time. That’s why I came to New York, to sing jazz. That was what was in my heart and nothing else was that important.

When did this opportunity arise?
Despite my connections with the opera, I visited jazz clubs all the time and met many jazz musicians. One of the most important figures for me was the pianist and composer Dario Boente, winner of a Latin Grammy. Dario started teaching me typical jazz playing. I play the piano fluently, so I started my real adventure with jazz by learning the jazz style on this instrument. In 2012, I moved into a building in East Harlem, where, as it turns out, many great musicians resided and still reside. This also helped me a lot. I started taking vocal lessons with the great Theo Blackmann. He is a great jazz vocalist and a renowned teacher at the Manhattan School of Music. At that time, I also regularly took part in Jim Caruso’s Cast Party, jam sessions organized every Monday at the legendary Birdland club, where I soon started performing as a vocalist. I became quite famous there. At some point, there was an opportunity to perform live in clubs and restaurants. This made me start looking for musicians to collaborate with. And that’s how my band, Margo’s Ensemble, was finally created. Within this group, I usually play with the same musicians, but the line-up is not permanent because not everyone is always available. Last year, as Margo’s Ensemble, we played in many places. We performed practically every week and musically it was the busiest year of my life.

What does jazz mean to you and which jazz singers are your favorites?
Jazz is like life, like air. It’s a bit like mathematics, because jazz has to be real. You have to be good at jazz to really prove yourself. Jazz, when it is sung or played, is constantly changing, just like our lives. I must admit that jazz stimulates me intellectually and forces me to constantly act. My favorite jazz singers include: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and currently Diana Krall. There are many other inspiring figures in the world of jazz, but I have listed the most important ones for me.

Turning to jazz, you also focused on your compositions. You were never only interested in imitative playing.
Yes. I think it started very early. In the first years of music school, when I was almost 10 years old, I played music by ear on the piano that I heard in fairy tales. I quickly started adding something of my own and arranging my own sounds. I actually spent 4-5 hours a day at the piano, mostly playing by ear and composing. I still have the desire to practice for many hours, and jazz requires constant self-improvement. So I practice for hours on my own and with teachers, but I also find fulfillment as a teacher, because I started teaching both vocals and piano to others. When performing as Margo’s Ensemble, we obviously play many jazz standards, but we also perform my compositions. It will be similar during the festival in the Center.

You already had the opportunity to perform at the Polish-Slavic Center this year.
Yes. In January, we played at the opening of Bogdan Kujawski’s art exhibition with an excellent line-up: David Kikoski, Stacy Dillard, Curtis McPhatter Jr, Alex Apollo Ayala and Daniel Sky. Then, among other things, we performed a jazz arrangement titled: “You’re becoming like a splinter of tar.” For years, this song, written to Norwid’s text, was sung by the legendary singer Stan Borys, who was also present in the hall that evening. After this successful concert, the principal authorities of the Polish and Slavic Center came up with an idea to create a separate, strictly jazz festival. The Executive Director of the Center, Agnieszka Granatowska, asked me for help in finding musicians. The assumption was that a Pole would be the leader of each team. And we managed to gather such musicians. Me, Daniel Sky and Marcin Steczkowski will perform with their bands. By the way, I came up with the name Greenpoint Jazz Festival, which somehow suggests itself. I will also add that during the festival Margo’s Ensemble will feature: Małgorzata Staniszewska (vocals), Stacy Dillard (saxophone), Willerm Delisfort (piano), Stefano Battaglia (double bass/bass) and David Hawkins (drums).

What are your expectations for this performance?
I hope that the audience will be good, people will come and the Greenpoint Jazz Festival will become a permanent fixture in the calendar of events organized by the Center. In my opinion, such an event has great potential, because there are many people who love jazz in New York, including a large group of Poles. The hall itself also impresses with its appearance and excellent sound system. In my opinion, this is a place created for jazz. I think that the Center’s board of directors have been doing a great job for some time now, opening up to many different environments and artists.

We wish you good luck at the festival and thank you for the interview.

Interviewed by Marcin Żurawicz.