At last the ice has been broken, the Hungarian jazz circuit saw the birth of a new event in July this year, the Budapest Jazz Festival. Over the years the once flourishing national network of jazz festivals, spanning towns like Nagykanizsa, Miskolc, Békéscsaba and Debrecen in the ‘70s, has been shrinking; now only the latter remains on the map.
And even the driving force behind the circuit, Hungarian Radio, now looks as if it’s going to throw in the towel. Budapest has other, new arganizers.
Although the opening of a new central sports hall in the capital led to an increase in the number of jazz concerts staged, these were mostly in the fusion vein. It was around the jazz club at the University of Economics, the Karl Marx University, that a small but devoted audience, interested in more open and creative trends concentrated. Here numerous avant-garde concerts have been staged during the past few years, and it was their popularity which led the organizers to feel that the time was ripe for them to get into the groove for a jazz festival. Hence they found a nice, albeit somewhat isolated, locatíon in the Kamaraerdő Youth Park.
And so mid-July saw the first Budapest Jazz Festival, which attracted a thousand-strong audience made up of Hungarian, Austrian, East and West German jazz fans. The international program mostly included musicians who have visited the Közgáz jazz club over the years. In total, 14 groups were presented, all noted exponents of contemporary improvised music. There were the “traditional” free players from both Germanys, Peter Brötzman, Peter Kowald, Helmut Sachse, Johannes Bauer and Manfred Herring, the comparatively conservative saxophonist, Steve Lacy and his trio, the multi-voiced master Phil Minton and his group from England, the Willem Breuker Kollektief from Holland, the electric wizard Elliott Sharp from the States and the David Gattiker Quartet from Switzerland.
However, not all the sets were satisfying, some showed the weaknesses and narrowness of their chosen language. But none of the musicians gave routine or uninteresting performances. One thing that did become clear, was that the so-called European free or improvised music has become normative in its expressive means, and that it now needs special personal messages to fill it with interesting content.
In this respect it was the Soviet Union’s Vladimir Chekasin who stole the show with his extrovert and ironic performance as much related to theater as to music itself. Chekasin is a natural actor for whom music is not an art for art’s sake activity, but an artistic practice engendering musical, social and political associations, its purpose being to reflect the absurdity of life in a grotesque way.
Self-expression was also the keyword for the Hungarian participants. The fruits of many years work are now ripening. Károly Binder, who duetted with clarinetist Theo Jörgensmann, György Szabados, who appeared both in trio and with his own band Makuz, and Mihály Dresch and István Grencsó who performed with their respective bands too, showed themselves to be the most original and creative artists on the local jazz scene. The music of these mature and confident jazzmen gives a special national color to the international palette of jazz, and as such it deserves wider recognition.
Only a week separated the Debrecen Jazz Days from the Budapest Festival, but it seemed more. Every musical event has its soul or spiritual character, and Debrecen’s, now 18 years old, showed itself to be wearing somewhat thin at the seams. There seemed to be a lack of any exact conception as to what the festival was for, and ad-hoc planning led to a fairly mediocre program that drew far fewer fans than ever before. Although some dixieland and rock-blues bands were invited to widen the spectrum, their inclusion failed to make the festival a success. It’s good music that's needed, no matter what style or category, and good music isn’t always a question of money, nor hard currency. If you say the John Scofield Trio, the Hermeto Pascoal Group, or Los Papines, you know what you're going to get. But this isn't enough for an established jazz festival. New faces, experimentation and an updating of atmosphere are needed to keep public interest alive. A festival without individuals gets boring, and this is what ha ppened this year at Debrecen. Although we saw the Polish Trio Priest and Big Cork, Czechoslovakia’s Eckert Quartet, Yugoslavia’s Ivan Svager Group, Béla Szakcsi Lakatos, Csaba Deseő, the Super Trio with American altoist Allan Praskin, big band leader Rudolf Tomsits, and Ferenc Muck’s and Gyula Csepregi’s groups from the local “jazz-farce”, one would be hard pressed to say that there were any specially exciting contributions.
It is not easy to define the spiritual essence of a festival, as it is an amalgam of people, places, musicians, and organizations. And, of course, one’s reaction also reflects one’s interest and mood. What is generally agreed upon however, is that every event needs constant creative renewal. This is the key to the future of Debrecen, which now has a rival in Budapest.
(Jazz Forum, 1989/5)