Just 10 years ago this month, Polish pianist Adam Makowicz (who opens Tuesday for a three-day run at Catalina's) played his first American job.
Though unknown in the United States, he was a big star back home: The Polish magazine Jazz Forum had already declared him Europe's No. 1 pianist in its readers' poll. He had come to the attention of John Hammond, who helped arrange his first gig at the Cookery in New York.
Makowicz was also helped soon after his arrival by a CBS album produced by Hammond, and by critical acclaim. Though often likened to Art Tatum, he used his phenomenal technique to play everything from the compositions of Scott Joplin to John Coltrane, as well as his own engaging works.
His role as a little fish in the vast American pond presented its problems. There were times when jobs were either scarce or unsuitable, yet his determination to tough it out in the Big Apple never flagged.
"I always wanted to play with the best possible musicians, and New York is where you find them. It's the center of jazz; all the world is looking at what goes on here, and I wanted to be a part of the jazz family."
How did he make the adjustment to the pace of New York after living most of his life in Poland? (He was born in Czechoslovakia but moved to Warsaw as a teen-ager.)
"It's hard to make the comparison now," he says, "because I haven't been back there since 1978, and many things I have almost forgotten. But here I can travel freely, and this is important. The musicians have been very friendly, and I have managed to gradually adjust my life style and be comfortable here.
"New York is expensive, but so is Boston or Washington--and, for that matter, London or Stockholm. But somehow we cope. My wife, Irena, graduated from nursing college and is now working at a New York hospital."
Though he has worked most often in nightclubs, Makowicz has broken into the concert circuit, playing the New York Jazz Festival, the Norway Jazz Cruise and other major events around Europe, where he will go on tour again this month.
Because records are the life-blood of any jazz man in search of steady work, he is happy that, after a few ventures on independent labels, he is now set with RCA's recently launched Novus Co. His first Novus album, "Moonray" (Novus 3003-1-N) was well received and will probably be followed by a George Gershwin album commemorating the 50th anniversary of the composer's death.
Another project he has in mind is a set of his original compositions for piano, bass, drums and string quartet, along the lines of a recent successful venture by the Kronos Quartet. "I like the idea of bringing together the roots and heritage of classical music with the spirit and essence of jazz," he said.
Looking back over the past decade, he admits there have been a few rough spots. "It's getting better now, but two years ago, things were really difficult financially. In part, it was my own fault. I rejected certain jobs because I couldn't stand to work in some club or restaurant where people were talking and paying no attention to the music. And I had become fed up with playing on some outrageously bad pianos. I thought I'd rather suffer a little more economically instead of suffering in soul and spirit by being subjected to the wrong working conditions.
"On the whole, though, I am quite happy now. On some of my European dates this summer, I will play 'Rhapsody in Blue' with symphony orchestras. My American jobs are getting better and easier; I'm really looking forward to working with (bassist) Andy Simpkins and (drummer) Sherman Ferguson at the Catalina.
"I don't feel that living in the middle of Manhattan as I do is a perfect situation by any means, but at least I can say so! It's a free country--I have the right to be wrong--and this, for me, is one of the greatest things of all."