Modern Jazz in Hungary 1961-1970

After we took a look at the modern jazz scene of Czechoslovakia in the previous episode of the Focus on European Jazz series, it’s time to delve into the jazz music of its neighbouring country Hungary. This is quite a logical step, as the history of the jazz scenes in Czechoslovakia and Hungary show many parallels.

Being both Eastern European countries, Czechoslovakia and Hungary suffered from extreme left regimes that undoubtedly put their stamp on the history of their country’s jazz music. In Hungary, the harsh communist regime was installed right after the Second World War. This regime was opposed to jazz, as it was perceived as music with a distinctive Western character that represented freedom and other principles that did not fit the Soviet ideology.

In 1956, the Hungarian people stood up against this regime, but the Soviet troops reacted heavily and killed 20.000 people. In that year the Hungarian borders were open for a brief period, during which approximately 250.000 citizens, among them many freethinkers and artists, fled their home country. One of them was guitarist Gabor Szabo, who would later have a successful career in the USA and who recorded many classic jazz albums for the Impulse label.

It’s needless to say that this political and sociological context caused a disadvantage for the Hungarian jazz scene and that it withheld the Hungarian jazzmen from making the same progress as American or West European jazz musicians. To give you an idea: 1956 was the year when Sonny Rollins recorded Saxophone Colossus, Miles Davis recorded Round About Midnight and Horace Silver recorded Six Pieces of Silver, all three landmark jazz albums. At that time, musicians in Paris and Stockholm were already recording jazz of the highest quality, which can easily be compared with the music that their American idols were producing at the same moment.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the political climate became more favourable for the Hungarian jazz scene. Little by little jazz clubs and festivals started to pop up in the cities, some articles about jazz appeared in magazines and newspapers, and the state owned label Qualiton (later Hungaroton) started to release a yearly anthology of Modern Hungarian jazz music.
But in the sixties too, the government kept an eye on the jazz scene, even using secret agents to keep track of certain musicians who were considered ‘dangerous’. Even though the organizing of jazz festivals by state officials may seem like a step forward, it was actually a dodgy way of trying to control the jazz scene: if the government organised the jazz festivals, they were able to determine which musicians would perform and, more importantly, which musicians would not.*

But yet, these festivals, clubs and recording dates offered the Hungarian jazz scene, with artists like János Gonda, Aladár Pege, Rudolf Tomsits and Csaba Dese? to name just a few, some opportunities. In the decade to come, they created a thoughtful avant-garde jazz sound with a distinctive Hungarian character. Not by reproducing American jazz, but by delving into the musical history of their own country, and using elements of classical music and folk music (just like the Czechoslovakian musicians, for example, did too) in their compositions and improvisations.

Unfortunately, not much jazz music from Hungary was recorded at the time. The state owned label Qualiton/Hungaroton put its focus on classical, folk and later pop music. Luckily there is the aforementioned Modern Jazz Anthology series, which showcases the finest jazz orchestras of the moment. These Modern Jazz Anthologies (a series of ten volumes) form the basis for the accompanying mix and remain the last witnesses of the modern jazz scene in Hungary.

János Körössy and his Ensemble – Happy Little Sunbeam

János Körössy (aka Ianci Körössi, his name is spelled in many different ways, dependant on where his records were printed) was born in Rumania, but recorded this album in Hungary in 1964. A masterpiece of European modern jazz, this album consists of both jazz standards as well as original compositions. There is no other personnel credited on this album, except for János Gonda, who appears as the musical manager.

Qualiton Jazz Ensemble – Night And Day
That same János Gonda was the pianist and leader of the Qualiton Jazz Ensemble, an orchestra consisting of mostly young musicians. They had the honour of recording the first volume of the Modern Jazz Anthology series. As I wrote earlier, many Hungarian jazz artists were hugely influenced by classical music, and the Qualiton Jazz Ensemble is a fine example. The orchestra consisted of former academy and conservatory students and one of them plays the oboe, an instrumental rather uncommon in jazz. To quote the liner notes: “This band seeks to find the ways leading from jazz to classical music, and they strive for establishing a specifically individual style of chamber music character. At the same time they have also taken into their repertoire (…) numbers which represent other up to date trends in jazz music.” One of those songs is their rendition of the Cole Porter tune ‘Night And Day’, a jazz dance track that still sounds very fresh today.

Studio 11 – Theme Of Achmed Djamal
Studio 11 was the house orchestra of the Hungarian Radio. This beautiful modal jazz song is an interpretation of a theme by the American pianist Ahmad Jamal (hence the title) by Studio 11 pianist Sándor Dobsa.

Csaba Dese? – A Tale
One of the more famous jazzmen of Hungary, Csaba Deseo is remarkable because he plays an instrument that is uncommon in jazz: the violin. In the late sixties, Dese? joined the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he would continue to play until 1999. He always kept on playing jazz though, and improvises on his violin like other musicians improvise on a saxophone or a trumpet. This song was taken from the last ‘Modern Jazz Anthology’ album and is called ‘A Tale’, but Horace Silver fans might recognize ‘Song For My Father’ in it.

Studio 11 – Bled 66
This deep and dark cinematic jazz piece was written by the trumpeter of Studio 11, Rudolf Tomsits. He played in different formations, including his own group, whom he appears with on many of the Modern Jazz anthologies.

Garay Ensemble – The Lake Has Dried Out
Pianist Attila Garay shows us how to transform a Hungarian Folk Song into a cool hard bop piano tune with Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Gyula Kovács Quartet – Keleti csemege (Eastern Delicacy)
Here’s a great example of how Hungarian musicians looked beyond the rules and standards of jazz music and widened their horizon by digging into eastern music. This song was written by Gyula Kovács, who plays drums with his hands on this fantastic deep track.

Csaba Dese? – Under the Csitári Mountains
Another track by Csaba Dese? that I wanted to share is ‘A csitári hegyek alatt’ or ‘Under the Csitári Mountains’, as it is another beautiful example of the fusion of Hungarian folk and jazz. ‘Under the Csitári Mountains’ is a well-known Hungarian folk song, that’s interpreted here in a jazz manner.

Bergendy Ensemble – Blue Light
We end this mix with a fusion track by saxophone player István Bergendy, from the last Modern Jazz Anthology compilation from 1970. Bergendy would later gain notoriety with his work as a progressive rock musician, but this track here is a true jazz funk gem.

* See HAVADI, G. An Individual Subculture Reflected in Domestic Spies’ Reports. Hungarian jazz in the Socialist Period. In PICKHAN G. and RITTER, R. (eds.). Jazz Behind the Iron Curtain. (Peter Lang).`

Cover picture: Janos Gonda (piano), Sandor Vajba (bass), Gyula Kovacs (drums) and Richard Kruza (vibraphone) from

Published by BlastKid - Lander L. is a record collector and DJ. He has this thing with European jazz music.

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