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The first jazz festival in Sopot in 1956 was a very peculiar event, as on one hand there was a lot of anticipation and joy, and on other hand there was a lot of fear on the part of the communist government that it might bring some unwelcomed cultural revolution. In 1956 around 50 thousand people came to Sopot. After a decade of communist rule, this was something new, as the country was in many ways cut off from the rest of the world by the iron curtain. It was extremely rare to hear or see elements of any foreign culture on public television which was totally controlled by government. But the iron curtain was not tight enough, and a lot of recordings like jazz on vinyl records were coming through sailors and the music could be heard in private saloons or private parties.
Sopot was known at that time as a window to the world because of its close proximity to sea ports where a lot of foreign commerce was coming through, and with it people were bringing magazines, newspapers and music from abroad. This was the place where you could feel what life was like outside the iron curtain. And this was the reason that suddenly the first jazz festival was organized by the people. Although in later years the Sopot Festival took over, the jazz tradition remains until today.There is still the Jazz Festival but not as many people come to participate as in 1956. Later, the Jazz festival had its permanent organizers like Tyrmand, Kisielewski, Kosinski and many others. But the spontaneous event of 1956 was extraordinary with thousands of people walking up and down the main street under the watchful eye of the secret police and the communist party who were afraid of trouble. It was very peaceful, although people were carrying a lot of banners full of sarcasm about the communist system. Over the next 24 hours, people were sitting and sleeping by the thousands on the beach, the atmosphere was full of joy and entertainment, and people were making new friends and having a lot of fun.
The procession seemed to be very dangerous for the communist party because it was also a manifestation which demanded cultural freedom. The government was afraid at that time, because it was the largest gathering since the war, when the communists took over the government, but it was a manifestation mainly by the young generation demanding more cultural freedom and choice. The young people were very brave, as you have to remember that it was a police state, and you could be arrested for any behaviour considered improper by the authorities. People were simply tired of old folk Russian music promoted by the state controlled media, which you could hear on any radio station for most of the day. As an allusion to the current situation, people were carrying caskets on which the words "Old Polish pop music" were written.
This was a time when the soviet style was promoted and a certain dress code was expected from every person. It was not uncommon that if you went out dressed too modern and too colourful you could be arrested and declared the enemy of the people. This is why the Sopot Jazz Festivals during that time were so popular, where you could fill the wind of change. It is hard not to recognize the meaning of the first jazz festivals, which shaped the culture in the years to come in Poland. Taking jazz music from private places to the public is the main achievement of the Sopot Jazz Festivals. After jazz, there were other events which followed. Although the years of euphoria are long gone, jazz festivals are still one of the attractions Sopot has to offer, and consistently attract a lot of artists and spectators.
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