Bassist and composer Nicholas Krolak is a young veteran of the Philadelphia jazz scene. He’s spent the last decade working as a sideman, experiencing new styles, and studying with the masters. Now, he has taken all he has learned and is applying it to his own artistic adventures. Those adventures are informed and inspired by his other adventures as an avid outdoorsman. There aren’t many jazz players out there who are just as likely to post a picture online of their most recent show, or hanging off of a rock face that they’ve been climbing in the woods.
Writing for WRTI, Philadelphia’s jazz and classical station, Matt Silver says that Krolak is “a different kind of songwriter—perhaps a different kind of jazz musician altogether. He’s like the bass-playing, modern embodiment of Walt Whitman. And, just as Whitman used his prose poems, Krolak uses his music to celebrate and also reconcile the competing and contradictory nature of the two worlds he straddles: the natural and the urban.”
Krolak is in the inaugural cohort of Jazz Philadelphia’s CORE program, where he hopes to divine what path to take toward success. “The way I see it, lack of knowledge about how the music industry actually works is the main obstacle. Philly produces some of the best players in the world, but we often rely on guesswork, tradition, and superstition in matters of business,” says Krolak. He’d like to help change that. “I dream of Philadelphia as a city that can produce its own stars without being reliant on other larger scenes,” he says.
It’s an important vision and trek to take; Krolak believes that one’s artistic voice carries power “to uplift, to inspire, and to create thoughtful and meaningful change.” A world full of uncertainty in all regards means that your music can be your northstar, and his mantra is “Voice = Power,” which is also the name of podcast Krolak started to highlight the work of other artists and build community.
The ultimate uncertainty for musicians has been the Covid pandemic, which silenced stages and left musicians wondering whether they would ever work again. For Krolak, it was time to reset, re-evaluate, and also try out some new approaches to music.
“During the pandemic, I began a collaboration with my wife creating digital music under the name ‘Zen Fuzz’,” says Krolak. “It has been a great learning experience because of all the new skills I had to learn, which include synthesis, mixing and mastering, and distribution. It has also opened up new musical pathways for myself by focusing on her creative ideas as well as other genres and artists.” He also came to the decision that he wanted to do fewer side gigs, side hustles, and teaching so that he could focus on music.
“My personal vision is one in which my art and my business are one, self-supporting enterprise.” He wants to get to the point where, “I am no longer guessing at what I should do, rather making informed decisions, and cutting out middlemen and gatekeepers as much as possible. When this is running smoothly, I hope to share this knowledge with the jazz community and help others build their visions.” It’s the kind of leadership that Jazz Philadelphia hopes to foster via the CORE program. “I try my best to learn from my mistakes, listen, and set-up my band members for success,” says Krolak, so it’s not a stretch to think that he’d want to expand that circle of mutual learning and care.
“Community is a group of people looking out for one another,” says Krolak. “There has traditionally been a lot of competition in the jazz community, but I believe that the data supports that there is room for all of us.”
Just like any good woodsman heading out on a journey, he knows that preparation is key. “There are many things about the music industry that I don’t understand and therefore either avoid or guess with no frame of reference. I hope that the CORE addresses some of these areas in a scientific manner” he says.
David Wong writes that “As a composer he has strong ties to the history of jazz while still sounding original and fresh. There is a wonderful sense of freedom alongside clear melodies and strong harmonies.” Trumpeter Terrell Stafford says, “He’s always telling a story.” Krolak is adept at writing torchy songs that would be at home in a smoky club, such as “This is Our Moment,” but also trippy, inventive tunes such as the fungi-inspired “Mycological,” a song he released as a single in 2022.
In releasing his latest set of compositions, “Expedition,” Krolak took listeners on a journey with him, literally (and you can still take the trip if you head over to his website). Over the space of six days, he’ll send a new song each day along with backstage peeks, sheet music, thought-provoking questions, performance videos, interviews, and anecdotes. Krolak isn’t just an adventurer himself; he’s also your guide, something hard to find in jazz players who can leave their audiences behind.
“Creating ‘Expedition’ was an adventure in and of itself and I wanted to share that experience with you in a new and meaningful way,” he writes on his website in an invitation to join him. “One that might be used in the future as a way for jazz to THRIVE in the 21st century.”
As he continues to explore and experiment, he says he’ll stay motivated by “going out into nature.” Krolak knows that it’s a long road, and rest and renewal is key. “Putting the difficulty aside for a little while always helps renew my spirit,” he says.
Jazz Philadelphia is proud to have Nicholas Krolak in the inaugural cohort of the CORE Cooperative, an entrepreneurship, leadership, and wellness program for jazz artists and advocates. For more information, visit Jazz Philadelphia.
“Philly produces some of the best players in the world, but we often rely on guesswork, tradition, and superstition in matters of business”