The bluesy life of Irek Dudek

Andrzej Matysik

Irek Dudek
Irek Dudek

Irek Dudek was born on May 7, 1951 in Katowice; a Silesian for generations. When he was six, his parents sent him to take violin lessons, and were taking him to philharmonic concerts. Already towards the end of elementary school, he enjoyed the company of friends listening to LPs and tapes played by musicians and bands with strange sounding names like Alexis Korner, John Mayall, or The Artwoods, who were never mentioned in official radio and press. No signs could tell then that music would become his way of life. He was training swimming and skiing and that was his utmost interest, but his family objective was to make him obtain a decent profession and a respectable social position. However, music was entering his life more and more. He managed to pass the exams to a prestigious school (Śląskie Techniczne Zakłady Naukowe), from which he graduated five years later. It was there that he found soul mates gathered around the school band Skarabeusze. They were playing songs by the Polish pop groups Czerwone Gitary and the likes, but when I came, we started playing The Rolling Stones and The Animals songs – music that was my fascination. There was a line-up with Jurek Piotrowski playing as Kolorowi, and I managed to push them towards rhythm'n'blues, too. Fascination with the music that came to Poland from England, but was rooted in the Mississippi Delta was growing fast to dominate his musical sensitivity. Other pals from that circle, apart from already mentioned Jurek Piotrowski, were: Maciej Radziejewski, Wojciech Konwiński, Andrzej Bartoszek, Janusz Hryniewicz, Stefan Płaza, Wojciech Taboł. Some of them were already playing in a popular student club Ciapek. I remember that Maciek Radziejewski and I had not enough courage to enter, so we used to stand for four or five hours in front of the doors and listen to their playing. Wojtek saw us once 'You would like to play?' he asked. 'I play a little violin, but I would like to play guitar.' And he said – 'And maybe harmonica?'. 'That too' I answered. 'So, here you are' he said and gave me a harmonica. A real blues harmonica.

Towards the end of the 60's Irek, the harmonica player and also a beginning vocalist and blues lover, started his studies at the technical department of the Silesian University. His growing involvement with music and conviction that it will be his career made him abandon the studies half way. Soon he became a member of a quartet which, although didn't last too long, became locally quite popular - Silesian Blues Band. The remaining members were: Jerzy Piotrowski, Józef Skrzek and Apostolis Anthymos. Even now I recall their show in Pyrlik Club in Bytom as an extraordinary event which lingers in my memory: never before had I heard such sounds played by Polish musicians. Soon the three musicians were to start a new band, the legendary SBB, and Dudek joined the Kraków blues band named Hall led by Jarosław Śmietana. Then there was a short period of Dudek's cooperation with Wiślanie, another Kraków based group, and in 1974 Tadeusz Nalepa offered him to tour with his Breakout on receiving a Gold Record Award for their Karate album. Afterwards Dudek spent two years as a member of Jerzy Grunwald's band En Face.  He was very active playing, but always in somebody else's band.

In the end of 1975 he became an independent artist. I reached the moment when playing behind another leader's back was no longer satisfying, recalls Irek. Very popular then, the Mahavishnu Orchestra LP Apocalypse inspired him to name his band Apokalipsa. It was to become an incubator of blues-rock talents. The co-founder of the band was Maciek Radziejewski who played in it for two years. The most popular line-up of the band was: Ireneusz Dudek – voc., hc, violin, Jan Borysewicz – guitar, Krystian Wilczek – bass, Marek Surzyn – drums, Andrzej Dybul – percussion and Rafał Rękosiewicz – organ. In the following years Dudek pointed out in many interviews how he regrets the wasted artistic chances of the band, We played blues and hard rock. It took us a year and a half to build our own way of rendering our favorite styles, creating the Silesian Sound. We had a few good recordings, but no smash hit. If we had played a few years later, when the movement called the Young Generation Music appeared we could have been one of the first bands in Poland. But in those days there was no way to keep on the surface with that kind of music.

Dudek created a duo called Irjan with a friend who lived a few blocks away, Jan Janowski, who was then studying at the Department of Fine Arts of the Toruń University. They played songs by Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Alexis Korner, John Mayall and John Lee Hooker, and original compositions for which they used poems of Jerzy Harasymowicz, Maciej Zembaty and Józef Andrzej Grochowina, as lyrics. In 1977 -78 they performed at Pop Session in Sopot, Jesień z Bluesem in Białystok, Muzyczny Camping in Lubań Śląski and toured Poland with British groups Mungo Jerry and The Rubettes. They made a few radio recordings in Bydgoszcz and Białystok. In time the duo developed into a trio, and later into a quartet.

In 1980 Dudek went to the USA with the last line-up of Irjan. They were accompanying the ex-vocalist of the No To Co band, Piotr Janczerski, with a program called Wieczerza wigilijna na dworze księcia Radziwiłła. Musically it was a nightmare, but the trip was memorable. You've got to see America, at least once. What counted most, was visiting the blues clubs in Chicago, and even jamming in some of them.

The year of 1981 brought to light Dudek's another face of a visionary and a manager. When I was putting together the first Rawa Blues Festival, everybody thought I was out of my mind: ‘Where are you heading with those blues? What games are you playing? It's a lost cause!’. Not many believed blues can gain popularity here. I did. Rooted in the student community, The Rawa Blues Festival soon became the most important event where the blues was played in Poland. Each year it attracted more and more crowds of blues lovers pilgrimaging to the capital of Silesia. After the political changes in 1989, the future of the festival was in danger due to the dissolving of the student organisations supporting the festival financially. In 1992 Dudek took the risk of running the festival on his own. The festival developed into an international event presenting outstanding blues artists: Luther Allison, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, Magic Slim, Carey Bell, Harry „Cuby” Muskee, The Blues Band, Joanna Connor. Nowadays, concerts of world famous artists are not unusual on our stages, but twenty years ago each show of that kind was a sensation awaited with a flush of excitement. 

Coming back to the first Rawa Blues Festival, Dudek did not give up his artistic activities, but since he did not have his own band then, he performed with a jazz-rock group Kwadrat. In the following year he formed the Dudek Blues Band including Adam Banach – guitar, Jacek Gazda – bass, Krzysztof Głuch – piano, Jerzy Węglewski – drums, and a four piece saxophone section from Jerzy Milian Orchestra. Dudek sang in Polish Gdzie jest to miejsce and Przebierka, the latter becoming the highlight of his shows for years to come. It has also become an established habit that each year the Festival was a showcase presenting Dudek's new ideas. In 1983 he started Ireneusz Dudek's Blues Session – a powerful, high octane big band – something so far not heard on the Polish blues scene. The line-up was not firmly set, as many musicians were doing longer or shorter stints with the band: Apostolis Anthymos, Andrzej Urny, Grzegorz Kapołka - guitars, Andrzej Rusek – bass, Rafał Rękosiewicz – Hammond, Krzysztof Głuch – piano, Jerzy Piotrowski – drums, Jan Błędowski, Henryk Gembalski - violin, Krzysztof Popek – flute, Aleksander Korecki – alto saxophone, Bronisław Duży - trombone and arrangements. Occasionally, the band was joined by the Wodziński brothers from the Easy Rider and top jazz musicians, for example Tomasz Stańko and Janusz Muniak. The band at first played blues standards (Hoochie Coochie Man, I Feel So Good, Rollin' And Tumblin’, Trouble In Mind), but later the repertoire was augmented by Dudek's originals (Something Must Have Changed, The Blues, Straight Blues, One Day Hero). The band was compared to famous Korner's CCS or to Gil Evans Orchestra.

In 1984 Dudek creates („a little accidentally” – as he later put it) the rebellious and mocking Shakin' Dudi band. They play 60's-styled rock and roll. That was it. At last Dudek had hits he was waiting for so long. They were composed to the lyrics by Darek Dusza, a punk guitar player: Och, Ziuta, Au sza la la la, Za dziesięć minut trzynasta, Zastanów się, co robisz, To ty, słodka. They won immediate popularity all over Poland, being in a way a comment on the life under the hardships of the martial law when all goods were sold in exchange for coupons. 

His stage image was now distinctly different: dressed in a tight black suit, he would often jump on the piano, break chairs or pour water on the audiences. Sometimes it caused unpredictable consequences: his remarks thrown from the stage during a show in Białystok brought about indignation of the local authorities, and the destroying of a piano in Poznań made the manager of the promoting agency (Estrada Poznańska) swear Dudek would never play there again. He liked to pour a bucket of water on his audiences. One particularly embarrassing situation occured when, at one venue, the most celebrated local leaders of the communist party were seated in the first row. Attacked by the blues purists Dudek used to say: I'm a showman, not a product created by managers, or an answer to the economic demands. I'm a rockman and Shakin' Dudi and a bluesman and an entertainer – I'm not ashamed to reveal it. This incarnation of Dudek was active till the end of 1986, leaving behind an album with the tricky title Złota Płyta (A Golden Record), sold out in 70,000 copies in two weeks. Then Dudek transformed the band into The Dudi's, playing rock and roll but also rhythm and blues of the 60's.

In between, in 1985, he created a 14-piece Big Band Boogie which successfully performed at various major Polish festivals: Rawa Blues, Olsztyńskie Noce Bluesowe and Jesień z Bluesem, gaining many favorable reviews. Towards the end of the year he issued his first blues album, Irek Dudek No 1, presenting three sides of his personality: Big Blues Band, Big Band Boogie and a new line-up: a violin trio called Dudek-Błędowski-Gembalski. A beautiful and important moment came round when Dudek was granted the title of the Musician of the Year 1985 in the Jazz Forum magazine's annual poll. In the following year he received the Majka Jurkowska Award from the Third Program of the Polish Radio. The violin trio came to be the center of a project which was to bring him a considerable success abroad. In the second half of the 80's, Ireneusz Dudek tended to play more and more solo concerts in front of smaller audiences, with only an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. That's how he presented himself during the Blues/Rock Top '86 tour and at The Rawa Blues Festival '87, where he played acoustic versions of The Artwoods’ I Keep Forgetting, Them’s Gloria and The Animals’ The House of the Rising Sun.

After the year 1988 Dudek considerably reduced touring. The reason was very personal. After his show at the Opole festival in spring 1987, a girl approached him, asking Irek for a signature for her brother. They got married the following winter. He sees his life as two halves: before and with Iwona. His wife's professional duties kept them for the next few years in the Netherlands, from where Irek was coming to Katowice only for The Rawa Blues Festival each year. His appearance at this festival in 1988 was a recap of the five years with the big band. In the following year he performed again with the big band, but also with a chamber orchestra – another shock for the blues fans. Critics compared this string/guitar/ saxophone sound with John Mayall's music from the times when he recorded Bare Wires and Empty Rooms. Dudek's music from that period was captured on Nowa płyta album, and the song Kameralny Blues with lyrics by Krzysztof Daukszewicz was to become its highlight.

A serious car accident in December 1989 made it impossible for Irek to perform for many months but it seems that the blues is a good healer. Bed-ridden, in order not to go crazy, he spent long hours practising guitar licks. He limped on stage on crutches at the 1989 Rawa Blues, but it didn't stop him from giving a very energetic show, enthusiastically received by the audiences. 

In 1993 he articulated his symphonic-blues visions even more explicitly – and Irek Dudek Symphonic Blues was born. I had to invent something to differentiate my music. Who needs Irek Dudek playing like Muddy Waters? he asked in an interview in Jazz Forum magazine. In this project, Dudek was accompanied among others by Robert Gola – a guitar player from the times of the Irjan band, Roland Oumard on keys and Jerzy Piotrowski on drums. In arrangements meticulously prepared by Bronisław Duży, the band presented new renditions of Rollin' and Tumblin’, Trouble in Mind, Gloria, Kameralny Blues, Przebierka, and a song played by Apokalipsa - Wiatr się na jesionie wietrzy. Developed and worked out in the following years, Symphonic Blues  also gained appreciation abroad – Dudek toured Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, performing at some outstanding festivals (Insbruck Blues Night, Heilbronn Jazz & Blues Fest, Groningen Rhythm & Blues Night, and Freiburg Blues Monday, among others), and his name appeared on the posters in no smaller characters than the names of Poppa Chubby, Luther Allison, The Holmes Brothers, Geno Washington, Calvin Jackson, Robben Ford, Little Willie Littlefield or The Hoax. He was the first Polish act and one of the few Europeans to play at the famous German jazz club Subway in Köln popular for weekly shows of the best jazz greats. That show was aired repeatedly throughout Germany by WDR and ZDF TV stations. It was also recorded and issued on a CD entitled Irek Dudek Symphonic Blues – A New Vision of Blues by RUF Records in 1994 and reissued in Poland a few years later.

German and Dutch critics were delighted by Dudek's visionary project who, they said, succeeded in combining „blues music with Polish melancholy”. Thomas Ruf had far reaching plans regarding Dudek's symphonic blues vision, but they eventually were not carried out. 

Always a rebelious soul, he was constantly looking for new musical experiences. In 1998 he presented a new blues  project with lyrics by Curtis Knight, the man who discovered Jimi Hendrix. Moreover, he appeared with a string quartet playing a mixture of rock and roll, rhythm and blues and hillbilly, reviving the original line up of Shakin' Dudi for this occasion. This swinging period is represented by a live CD recorded during Rawa ’99 Swing Revival as well as the Platynowa płyta album. 

At the next year's Rawa Dudek performed with a 16-piece Shakin' Dudi Big Band. The performance was promoting his new album, Płyta Roku. The new music was rooted in the neo-swing style even more. Dudek said: Blues is my whole life, I cannot escape it. But right now I interweave it into neo-swing. 

After 20 years Dudek gave new life to Shakin' Dudi. The reformed Shakin' Dudi (Irek, Darek, Tomek Pala – piano, Irek Głyk – drums, Bartek Stuchlik – double bass and Łukasz Sosna – saxophone) was supposed to prepare a demo, but left the recording studio with material ready for a new album, Złota Płyta – ciąg dalszy. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the band, a new CD entitled 25, consisting of the band's greatest hits, was issued. But that's history, and Shakin' Dudi is utterly contemporary. We play a dozen or so concerts each year, only when they invite us to come. We always play live, as we advocate the 'ban lip-syncing' slogan - underlines Dudek. We always end the show with a bluesy version of ‘Och, Ziuta’, because 'Ziuta' is a blues song.

Ironically, his musical career developed in such a way, that Dudek became popular and recognized as an artist thanks to Shakin' Dudi - and it looks like it's going to remain this way. But after all, there would be no rock and roll without the blues, and Dudek keeps coming back to his blues incarnation. He performs solo, giving solid acoustic shows that focus the attention of those who are interested in the lyrics, but also appeal to those looking for expressive, rich guitar, as Irek is never tired of exploring the instrument's secrets. In 2010 he decided to cut a new CD entitled Dudek bluesy. It was a risky step as he was then presenting a more jazzy incarnation. He sang and played an acoustic guitar, harmonica and violin. The final touch was added by a swinging pianist Kuba Płużek, Max Mucha on bass and the most groovy of them all, drummer Arek Skolik. It took me long before I was ready to make an album with songs in Polish. I felt that I was ready. Recently, when I performed abroad and sang in Polish, I heard someone say 'what a harmonious language!' I know that I'm risking my neck, but I'm doing it on purpose - said Irek in his interview in Twój Blues magazine.

In the year 2011 Dudek released another record with Shakin' Dudi, ...bo ładnym zawsze lżej... The author of the lyrics, Darek Dusza, gave Dudi a new start writing funny stories, based on everyday situations but balanced with more earnest reflection. Irek's big band-oriented soul is still present. Twój Blues magazine's reporter wrote about Irek's big band show in 2012, the horn section was a class of its own. Four trumpets, three trombones, and four saxophones were like a few gasps of pure oxygen. Irek has his individual style and his singing is recognizable from miles away. An excellent rhythm section and a great pianist were an awesome completion of this great and thrilling show.

Dudek does not retreat from new challenges. In 2013 he played with James Blood Ulmer. Ulmer came to like The Rawa Blues Festival. I like the way James understands the blues. At the same time, he sets very high standards for me as a harmonica player. I believe that if I focused on one instrument, I'd be able to express my personality more fully (TB 53/2013).

In the following year another of Dudek's big dreams came true: he took the blues to another level, introduced it to salons. Supported by a handful of musical friends, he presented his Symphonic Blues in the newly open house of the Great Symphonic Orchestra of the Polish Radio and Television in Katowice accompanied by this renowned orchestra, conducted on that day by Krzesimir Dębski. For this concert Dudek received a standing ovation. Unchangeably, he is doing well as the president of the best Polish festival, The Rawa Blues. Since the memorable year of 1992 when he decided to continue organizing it at his own risk, he has developed it into an event comparable to the best ones in the world and still gaining importance and recognition – even in the USA. In 2012 The Blues Foundation from Memphis, Tennessee, honored Irek with „a blues Oscar” - the most prestigious award in the blues world, Keeping the Blues Alive. Rawa Blues was the first festival in this part of Europe to receive this trophy. This most appreciated prize topped a whole list of honors granted to Irek since the mid 80's. In 1985 he received the Audiences’ Award of the Polish Song Festival in Opole for the song Au sza la la la, the Jazz Forum magazine gave him the title The Musician of the Year in its readers' poll Blues-Rock Top '85. In the same poll next year he was chosen The Best Harmonica Player. In 1996 he received the above mentioned Maria Jurkowska Award granted by the Third Program of Polish Radio. The readers of the Katowice branch of the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper awarded him with the Cegła Janoscha Award for promoting the region of Upper Silesia in 2005.

In 2006 Metal Mind Productions record label issued a 11-disc Irek Dudek Anthology 1976 – 2006 including eight of his albums. There were also three discs with previously unissued material. In October 2008 Marcin Babko published Irek's biography entitled Ziuta Blues and in 2011 Irek's album Dudek Bluesy, recorded with outstanding jazz musicians, was issued by Agora and was awarded the Fryderyk Award in the Blues Album of the Year category. In the Twój Blues magazine’s annual Blues Top poll Irek received the title of The Personality of the Year in the year 2000, and his festival was chosen the Event of the Year five times: in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2011 and in 2013.

Is it possible to imagine what blues in Poland would look like without The Rawa Blues Festival or Irek Dudek?