GYÖRGY SZABADOS: an original Hungarian (The Interview)


One of the basic issues in the development of contemporary jazz concerns the growing pro­portion of ethnic dialects which lend a special flavor to this universal form of musical ex­pression.

Since the ‘50s, many musicians have turned for inspiration toward African and Far Eastern music, with some striking reesults. The contribution of Eastern European countries has been relatively insignificant, mainly for political and commercial reasons. Yet these barriers are bound to be lowered sooner or later and, according to some critics, fresh impulses can be expected from this part of the globe. Such is the aim of the following interview with pianist György Szabados, a highly individual and original musician from Hungary.

Szabados was born in 1939. Beginning with his first groups back in the ‘50s, he has con­sistently tried to create a special Hungarian type of jazz. His compositions and piano style are a synthesis of folklore, contemporary music and creative improvisation. Not only is Szabados a musician, but also an artist devoted to expressing his ideas, which are determined by particular social and geographical factors. With a combination of self-confidence and modesty, he uncompromisingly follows his own path, without taking into account the commercial popularity of his music. With his quintet, he took first prize in the free jazz category at the 1972 San Sebastian Festival. In the beginning of this decade, he successfully toured in West Germany and played with Anthony Braxton  at the 1984 Debrecen Jazz Festival. Three of his records have been released in Hungary: The Wedding in 1974, Adyton in 1983 and Szabraxtondos (with Anthony Braxton) in 1985. His individual approach and steadfast determination have earned him tremendous respect among his native jazz fans.

This interview is an abridged version of one published in Gábor Turi’s book I Say: Jazz which sums up the pianist’s musical ideas and aims.

  • You got into jazz in the ‘50s, when it was forbidden for political reasons in Hun­gary and labelled a decadent product of decaying imperialism. What made you turn toward this music?

– I was born into a musical family. I studied music privately and always enjoyed impro­visation. It was like a kind of prayer for me. I found jazz to be music which feeds on a imysterious soil, leading one to a mystical but promising land. There was a special, secret kind of magic to it.

  • What kind of music were you playing at that time?

– We were imitating American pieces mostly in the bebop and cool style. Of course, we also had our own compositions. We considered new things as well, for political reasons. There was a lot of restriction in the country; the tension that resulted could only be felt as an undercurrent. Only Hungarian folk music was being broadcast, which led to a very rebellious reaction among the youth. We began to see Hungarian music as the music of the political system, and were only interested in what we saw as its opposite.

  • What kinds of problems and ideas were you involved in socially and musically?

– Well, I realized that the Hungarian people had had a rather peculiar history. For centuries we had been unable to develop a lifestyle which suited our nature. We had always been forced to adopt alien ways. And then came the Second World War which suppressed the country shortly after it had begun to stand up and build its own free world with incredible hope and strength. A terrible rift and a kind of serfdom followed that shocked everybody, especially the young. The music we liked, such as American jazz, could not express what was going on in our country. Jazz at that time was mostly for entertainment. The jazz of the ‘50s was played mainly by whites, and the stylistic characteristics came from past ages of Euro­pean classical music that fit in neither with the level of contemporary music, nor with the essence of Hungarian music. The main characteristic of our music is its relatively undefined rhythm. Jazz at that time was too strictly defined, as was European music from the 17th cen­tury to the height of romanticism. I found that this rhythm couldn’t express my feelings. I didn’t find it to be like a mother tongue which is necessary for self-confidence.

  • And how did you find the key to the solution?

– The essence of jazz lies in the special way it handlés time, its propor-tion,, the tension relase. When we listen to a defined certain type of Afro-American music and then to Hun­garian or to East European dance music, the question arises as to how fchese differences can be grasped. I realized that for solution I had to go back to the ancient connection between speech and singing. In prehistoric times, they were both merely sounds; it was the aesthetic sense that separated singing while speech became a more objective means of communication. Perhaps their link lies in this notion.

This twas also felt by most of the black American jazz musicians in the ‘60s when they turned to Africa. Strangely enough, some of them stuck to the defined rhythm while others went beyond it. One example is Ornette Coleman, who plays the music of today. John Coltrane, on the other hand, feels the cosmic situation of mankind. But his music also involves the feeling of the present, of everyday situations. But Coltrane music is not definitive; rather, it is parlando-rubato, so to speak. This is not in the sense of Hungarian language and folklore, but is more ancient. This ancient moment makes it possible for one to perceive the meeting points. This is quite reminiscent of Bartók’s suggestion that all ancient music originated and diverged from a common music ocean.

  • Could you recall how this perception permeated your music?

– As I mentioned, my sense of Hungarian music was always conflicting with the set rhythms of the jazz that was in style then. In the early ‘60s a desire to play what I really felt awoke in me. We began to work quite freely, and the musical instincts brought new solutions. I was lucky to come up with a rhythm which cosmbined Hungarian musical feeling and jazz. My starting point was folk singing, not instrumental music. All kinds of music come from singing, and the ancient character of Hungarian music is mainly a parlando-rubato type of singing which apparently lacks a defined rhythm. But deep down it has some kind of rhythm: intuition, feeling makes it move in such a way; that in short passages it is asymmetric, but on the whole it becomes well-balanced. I had to learn to improvise in such a way as to blend naturally the characteristic, 20th century feeling of rhythm, not with the traditional jazz rhythm, but with an equalizing rhythm which constantly moves forward. I had to take the characteristics of Hungarian folk music and raise them to a twelve-tone scale. Thus it became atonal and tonal at the same time. This connection is established in the natural background of folk songs. I realized that the most solid basis for organizing and setting styles lies in the musical mother-tongue deep within ourselves, due to its intimate, unambiguous and concentrated ancient nature. I think there must be a point where my universal world outlook (that connects me to tonality) and a natural devotion to a Hungarian culture and psyché can meet. In the twelve-tone scale, an improvisation based on a folk song is like a dissection of an arch in architecture. It is in close connection with the sound in: a way that it preserves something important, I mean the main characteristics or the skeleton of the wider musical background, thus creating a relation or unity between world music and Hungarian music – past, present and future.

  • As a Hungarian who is aware of the results of your effort to create this synthesis, I understand what your terms and categories mean. But for those who know less about this subject, could you explain what you mean by Hungarian music as such?

– I mean the Hungarian musicality which has folk music as a base. I believe that all music originates from folk music, I also see that with jazz, for instance, the great renewals or dissemination began when the spirit came down to earth, so to speak; when it fed on the ancient soil. But I want to make it clear that the music I play and compose is not folk music. It is music. Of course, the influence of the cultural background cannot be ignored. Hungarian folk music is so modern, rich and eternal that it fascinates the spirit, too. I think in my case neither the gesture-world of the vernacular, nor the Afro-American influence have been lost from its essence even in a rhythmic sense. I hope their meeting keeps both alive; not as a mixture of Yin and Yang, but as something new, a combination.

  • You have been giving free concerts since the early ‘60s in Budapest, about the time that the new style in America was beginning to spread. The new way of thinking, the intense need of expression, the complicated rhythm structures, harmonies and sound effects were then quite unusual. It took fifteen years for them to become generally accepted.

– The present state of jazz cannot be viewed separately from the situation of contempo­rary music in general. Since the turn of the century, East European and other folk music have brought various elements to composed music that had previously been strange for the diatonic classical system. What could the fourths, fifths and the non-tempered way of thinking bring forth? A Stravinsky, a Bartók, a Kodály. And it is continuing even today. All the changes, the feeling of spaciousness that make contemporary music so exciting can also be found in jazz. I myself am working along this line. My musical language differs from that of’ others in as much as the place shapes the mind. This is inevitably behind one’s gestures and in the way of building motifs and structures. While composing I don’t think that the material will be this or that style; I only take into account whether or not it fits with the way I feel. In order to play open music right there must be an inner structure, a feeling of the whole as a unit. I imagine that the most free style of playing should be defined by a very serious feeling, desire or belief. There must be principles in order to find the proper means and elements. The musician should concentrate to express his message clearly. But, most important, he should feel love, not hate, while playing. This is the freedom of this music.

  • You probably know that you are quite alone in Hungary with this direction. Some even say Hungarian folk music cannot be transformed into the language of jazz.

– Well, I wouldn’t say my music is jazz. It probably can’t be categorized. My intention was to play music. Things have effects on each other with understandable results. It may not be jazz,, but it’s music! Everything is measured by its spirit. It may be paradox in that its form is jazz, but most of the material is not. What is most important is that it is music.

  • It is not jazz, nor contemporary music, nor folk music, all of which have been men­tioned along with other things. I guess it would be superfluous to categorize your music. Let’s forget about automatically searching for such crutches although this embarrass­ment might have played some role in the rejection of your music for years. There were periods when the mass media was closed to you and your ideas.

– In the ‘60s our national music scene was adrift in a state of Kodály-epigonism. Contem­porary music didn’t exist, and jazz had reached the level of bebop, hard bop. It is therefore understandable why I began to experiment with musical effects on a rhythmic basis. It happened in a vacuum. Later, in 1971, I composed a longer piece based on a Protestant psalm. While performing it, I noticed that my musicians, and the audience, were becoming bolder, were finding mainstays. We stayed with this line of an instrumental version of the parlando-rubato folk song interpretation. And although we won first prize at the 1972 San Sebastian competition, and had the support of the young intelligentsia at home as well, a silent period of six-seven years followed. You know, in Hungary, jazz had been viewed negatively for a long time. More time is still needed for new generations to overcome psychologically that judgement. Jazz had been equated with simple dance music, and it is still overlooked as an insignificant means of expression. As a result, only a few talented experts are trying to analyze it either in terms of aesthetics or sociological importance. Jazz was not able to put down roots among the intelligentsia, therefore couldn’t develop properly and lacked the necessary commentaries. Being hermetically sealed condemns one to death, especially mentally. That’s why a culture should be strong. Its genius can integrate every impulse if it is strong enough. But it needs the ability to work out its own means.

  • Does Hungarian jazz have this ability? Because otherwise it is a kind of inter­action.

– Yes. I must say that Hungarian musicians detest their folklore and don’t respect or are ignorant of the great masterpieces. Our musical mother-tongue is not respected enough, and this holds true in contemporary music as well. At the same time, with jazz we don’t stand on our own feet; choices are made by watching what is happening in America, which is a sort of escape. It would be a healthy sign if North and South, East and West would come together here. With jazz, everybody can create his own means of expression, but it depends on thought processes. A creative artist should be a thinking person too, because he imitates God. How do we create? On the basis of observation and recognition. We analyze phenomena, going beneath the surface to realize their essence. And that is how someone is able to form his own world, a world determined by his abilities and mentality.

  • With this in mind, can you speak about Hungarian jazz as such?

– I am afraid not. With jazz, we still do not possess the traditional Hungarian mentality as we do, for example, in fine arts or in literature. If, for instance, you listen to the music of Albert Mangelsdorff, you can tell that it is very good German jazz. Nevertheless, German musicians are absolutely aware of the history of German music, the history of jazz, Indian music, Japan music, African music, everything. But they are living where they are living and are who they are. They play music having absorbed and experienced all the musical influ­ences they have come across. They do so consciously and intuitively. They ponder every­thing, their spirits are high, their consciences are easy and they know what they are doing and why. That’s what makes their music so strong.

  • The object-orientation is a general condition of creation. How then can jazz have a national character?

– Listening to German music, I always feel that there is an attempt to organize the highly individual mentality into the spdrit of a kind of idealism. And it is the tension between the extraordinary strength of individuality and the desire for conection that produces a very precise music. German musicians are precise in general because they want to make everything clear in order to indulge everyone’s preferences. Their main characteristic is the exceptional accuracy which is connected with severity, uprightness and the primary role of strength. And, deep down, there are moral inclinations. In Hungarian jazz, I don’t get the same feeling. Hungarian jazz musicians don’t mentally and stylistically digest other music and their own traditions. They don’t develop an original musical ideal. Of course, it depends on the circum­stances too, that they don’t work under their own aura, although they would be able. Instead, there is a mosaic with a lot of things hidden inside. Strength, too. Itt is typical for us that we always wanted to find solutions with the help of strength. And we become weaker and weaker. And if there is enough strength, it is not used consciously and successfully. There is an incredible worship of rock for instance. And the conservative affinity for jazz is still affected by standards and trends.

  • Free jazz in the America of the ‘60s was in harmony with the black social movements. Do you think Hungarian jazz can express in a similarly direct way something special about its surroundings and background?

– Well, Hungarian jazz is actually expressing certain symptoms. But not with a comple­xity and authenticity that would express a particular idea. Instead, one can find phenomena and qualities which are somewhat valid, but which are motivated by temperament, not by a wider and universal view. You can listen to the blues or to standards but, despite some very excellent performances, you do not get the same feeling as when listening to Mangelsdorff. Let’s take blues-playing for example. In blues, the message can be that, “Well, cats, we are making a nice living, we can eat and drink enough, so we are happy”. Or you can play a blues that says “whatever the situation is, we want to believe that we will be happy; that is our plea”. To tell the truth, I mostly hear the first message when listening to the blues in Hungary. These days, it is not a matter of life or death, but rather of degrees of well-being. But true art ís the expression of one’s deepest essence. It is an attitude. And if somebody once begin to loosen, if not every moment has its authenticity (even in such a music that is largely based on spontaneity), it would only speak of his persistence and the point of giving it up.

(Jazz Forum, 1987/6)