AN INTERVIEW WITH CHET KOWALKOWSKI – HALL OF FAMER, PAST IPA DIRECTOR, FOUNDER OF THE POLISH CAROLERS, BANDLEADER AND MUSICIAN
IPA INTERVIEW — SEPTEMBER 2011
by Christy Krawisz, Editor of the IPA Newsletter
Reprinted from the IPA Newsletter with the Editor’s Permission
IPA: Please tell me about your family.
Chet: I am the only son of Polish immigrants, Andrew and Veronica, and I had a sister named Irene, who only lived to the age of 16. I’m first generation, American born and proud of my heritage. I was blessed with three great children and six wonderful grandchildren.
IPA: What age did you start playing instruments and what were they?
Chet: At the age of 8, I began playing the accordion, with my father assisting on the violin. We played backyards, front porches, dance halls and for various occasions. Once in awhile, I would try and play the drums, but became extremely fascinated with the trumpet when I entered high school.
IPA: What made you decide to play Polkas?
Chet: Growing up, our home was always filled with Polka music. My mother would sing and my father played Goral music on his violin. We also listened to the Polish stations, which gave us the news and polka music. I attended Trinity High School, which was predominantly Polish. There I entered amateur contest, playing with a 4 piece Polka band, and we took first place. After that, I formed my own Polka band.
IPA: What bands have/do you played in?
Chet: Besides performing with Eddie B., I was also featured with the Happy Hearts, Polka Dot Five, Jimmy Mieszala’s Music Explosion, Dial-A-Tones, Don Jodlowski’s Vibra Sounds, Lil Wally, Ampol Aires, Marion Lush and the Paliga Bros.
IPA: Tell me about your relationship with one of your best friends, Eddie Blazonczyk, Sr.
Chet: My relationship with Eddie B began in our childhood years. Accompanied by our families, we would march, in our Goral attire, in the May Day Parade from Augusta Boulevard to Humboldt Park. Following the parade, Eddie and I would ride our bicycles behind Pulaski Village, which was located on 18th and Ashland. During our high school years, Eddie spent most of his time with his sister in Wisconsin as a rock and roll musician by the name of Eddie Bell and the Bel-Aires. When he was in town, Eddie and I would entertain at various polish organizations.
IPA: What was it like, performing with him on stage?
Chet: My father would always drive us to and from the functions, since we were too young to operate an automobile. At the time, we were only a two-piece band, Eddie on the drums and me on the accordion. Since we were very versatile, in many instances, we would switch instruments, and Eddie would play the accordion and have one foot on the base drum, and I would accompany him on the trumpet. As I grew older, I began playing steadily with a band called the Versatones. In 1963, I invited Eddie to come to Club 505 and sit-in with us, because I knew he would be great playing the base guitar and doing vocals. Yes, this is how it all began!
IPA: I have heard you and Sr. are both jokesters, what would you guys do to each other? (Keep it clean.)
Chet: Eddie and I were definitely pranksters. One Christmas after decorating the outside of my house, I heard a lot of noise coming from the backyard. I looked out the window and saw two men jumping over my fence, carrying statues from my manger scene. I immediately told my former spouse to contact the police and we filed a formal complaint. The following day we were playing at Hyzny’s on 51st and Rockwell. While carrying in my trumpet and equipment, I noticed that my manger scene was on stage and Eddie and the boys were on their knees singing “Pojdzmy Wszyscy do Stajenki” [“Let Us Go to the Stable”]. Immediately, I began to cuss them out, and Eddie said, “Where’s your sense of humor?” Another incident that I recall is when Eddie flew to Buffalo, New York, for a funeral. While he was away, I was in charge of Bel-Aire Studios on 47th and Hermitage. Before he returned, I taped the windows and doors with butcher paper and placed a sign out which read, “BUILDING FOR SALE CHEAP – INQUIRE WITHIN.” When Eddie arrived home, he was amazed to see the sign. As he walked in the door, I threw a whipped cream pie in his face and confetti all over him. You could imagine the look on his face. I laughed and said, “Where’s your sense of humor?”
IPA: What made you start the Polish Carolers?
Chet: Christmas of 1972, my good friend Stas Bulanda and I were having a few drinks at the Omen Lounge, located on Archer Ave. We began to sing koledy [carols] and the patrons response was phenomenal. I informed Stas that in the 1940s, my father and Eddie LaBuda’s father sang and played carols at the neighborhood pubs and I felt that we should embark on this tradition. So Stas and I went caroling to a few lounges and it was heart wrenching to see the reaction of the people. During the ensuing years, many more carolers joined our group and the tradition grew bigger and better. I then decided to take it to the next level and that was to visit shut-ins, nursing facilities and hospitals. The caroling is done prior to the Christmas holiday. At that time, we would squeeze anywhere from 10 to 14 musicians and their instruments into one van, but we made it work. In 1992, I decided to extend our caroling to many other states. We also included Canada and made a special trip to Poland. After doing this for 30 years, I decided to semi-retire and do this on a smaller scale. Following in my footsteps, Tony Blazonczyk now does all the scheduling for the group.
IPA: Your other good friend, Stas Bulanda, passed away over a year ago, tell me about your relationship.
Chet: Stas Bulanda was an extremely gifted musician. He was one of the original carolers and wrote many popular polka songs. Stas also had a good sense of humor. We spent a lot of friendly and professional time together, as well as him featuring me on many of his CDs and last Christmas album. Losing Stas at a very young age was difficult. Thank God, we made many irreplaceable memories together. He will never be forgotten.
IPA: Who did/do you admire musically?
Chet: I admired many Polka bands from the past, but my all-time favorite was Marion Lush. He was truly the Golden Voice of Polka Music. In many instances, people have commented that my voice and Marion’s had quite a resemblance.
IPA: What was your most memorable moment on stage? What Year? What Town? And why?
Chet: In August of 1991, being inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame was the pinnacle of my career, and later that evening performing on stage with Eddie Sr.
IPA: How do you think we can keep the music we all love so much going for years to come?
Chet: Chris, that’s almost impossible to answer. I don’t imagine that any one person has an answer to this problem. Many years ago times were very different. Our parents would take us everywhere: weddings, picnics, various functions, always featuring live entertainment. In homes, on porches and backyards, people would visit and musicians would take out their instruments and play. It was not unusual to roll-up the carpets in the living rooms, so the musicians could play and family and friends dance. Those were memorable times. It’s a shame, but most of our children today are not interested in the polka scene. Today, the younger generation of Poles opt for a DJ, instead of live Polka music. There are just a few people whose children are involved in playing Polkas or interested in attending Polka events. Unfortunately, this group is not large enough to replace the people that have passed away or are unable to attend functions, due to catastrophic reasons. I believe that some of our Polka music will remain for many generations, since it is featured at many festivals, cable TV and played by various ethnic groups.
IPA: If you were asked the question: “Why should I join the IPA? What is in it for members?” How would you answer them?
Chet: It helps promote Polka Music. Individuals get awards by being recognized for their talent through years of performing Polka Music. Being a member, you get discounts at some of the IPA functions.
IPA: How do you think we can get more people interested in being a member of the IPA?
Chet: A membership drive with interaction between IPA and prospective members, live entertainment by various Polka bands, and free food at the meetings.
IPA: Would you like to add anything else?
Chet: A Breakfast Club is held for retired Polka musicians. These meetings give musicians the opportunity to discuss past historic events, exchange of memorabilia, photos and souvenirs, and reminisce of days gone by. Retired musicians and promoters are welcome to attend. Breakfast Club meetings are held the last Wednesday of the month, at 7:00 a.m., at the Southern Bell Restaurant, located on Archer Avenue and Roberts Road. There are no meetings during the month of December.