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July 1996

Hungarian Rhapsody: In Budapest, a thousand jazzy flowers bloom

Jazz flourishes in Budapest

Along the streets of Budapest, glimmering highrises, trendy restaurants and crowded jazz clubs announce that Hungary's capital has made a clean break from its Communist past. But unlike its office buildings and restaurants, which flooded in after the 1989 change in political guards, Hungary's jazz tradition can be traced back to before the Communist empire crumbled. The country's love affair with jazz, -filled with late-night trysts and ending in a state-sanctioned marriage,-began in the 1920s and '30s with Hungary's own "Golden Era of Jazz." At that time, Budapest thrived as an international culture capital and jazz clubs littered the cityscape. But these clubs closed their doors with the onset of the Second World War and the Communist takeover that followed. The new regime immediately branded jazz the "music of imperialists" and criminalized listening to or playing it. Fortunately for Hungarians, the U.S. government soon began broadcasting Radio Free Europe and Voice of America into Eastern Europe: while RFE took care of the news, VOA took care of the jazz. The man responsible for infiltrating the sounds of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington behind so-called enemy lines was the eminent jazz critic Willis Conover, the host of the nightly jazz show, "The House of Sounds." Conover had an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and a drawl that endeared him to his non-English speaking audience. It is difficult to find a jazz musician or fan in Hungary over the age of 40 who doesn't credit Conover for keeping the flame of jazz alive during those dark days. "I can remember listening to jazz sitting on the floor in my room, careful that my head was no higher than the piano," says Janos Gonda, today the director of the prestigious Franz Liszt Music Academy's jazz department. Back in the '50s, Gonda was a boy desperately trying to catch Conover's nightly show. "I didn't want the neighbors to find out I was listening to VOA, because that would have been dangerous." Not surprisingly, the Communist ban on jazz backfired: by suppressing the idiom they simply added to ist appeal and popularity, and Hungarians yearned for more. "Whatever is forbidden, I want," says Gyorgy Vukan, sitting at a piano between sets at his weekly gig at the Obuda Jazz Club. "There were plenty of other musicians who kept playing under communism to satisfy their own needs and to spite the regime." Vukan was in his late teens when the ban went into effect, and though he largely ignored the order, he hedged his bets and pursued a career in medicine. Today, Vukan is the best jazz-playing dentist in the country. Eventually the Communist government recognized the futility of their repression, and in the early '60s jazz was decriminalized Ironically, the Young Communist League opened the first official jazz club in Budapest: Dalia Bar. Unshackled, jazz began to thrive again in Hungary; the 80,000 fans who turned out to hear Louis Armstrong and his all-star band in 1965 were living proof. The change to a market economy in 1989 finally allowed the Hungarian hunger for jazz to be satisfied. In less than two years, there were more than 20 listings in city papers for live-jazz venues, -though many were no more than small bars with make-shift stages in a spare corner. Today, on nearly every evening of the week, the sounds of Dixieland, bebop, fusion, free and acid jazz can be heard drifting out of clubs throughout Budapest. A few meters from the Danube and directly behind the former Communist Party headquarters, the Jazz Café plays host to some of the city's best up-and-coming acts. One of these is Trio Midnight, headlined by pianist Kalman Olah, a graduate of the Liszt Academy's jazz program and arguably Hungary's most talented young jazz musician. Olah is also a Roma, which makes him the latest in a long line of Gypsies who, according to Gonda, are responsible for sinking the roots of jazz deep into the soil of Hungary. "When one looks at the underpinnings of jazz-, the self-expression and the improvisation, -one has to acknowledge the immense influence Gypsy culture and music have had on Hungarian jazz," Gonda says. When Communist tried to stamp out self-expression and improvisation, jazz was one of the few areas of people's lives where a sense of individuality could develop and flourish. Defying the ban against jazz amounted to more than just evading another ridiculous Communist decree: for Hungarians, jazz became a personal pronouncement of freedom. Today, that statement of freedom can still be heard-, louder and more joyously than ever. BUDAPEST JAZZ VENUES Incognito, Ferenc Liszt 5. Trendy bar filled with Budapest's beautiful people and a DJ with great tastein funk and acid jazz. Jazz Cafe, Balassi Balint Utca 25. Low-key club with live jazz nightly until 22:00. Two pool tables,friendly staff and late hours. John Bull Jazz Pub, Podmaniczky Ter 4. English-style pub with live jazz. Chosen hangout ofinternational business types. Labirintus, Uri Utca 3. Dimly lit cellar-club in the historic castle district. Live jazz and rock three tofour nights weekly. Merlin Club, Gerloczy Utca 4. An elegant setting for high quality international acts. Obuda Jazz Club, Obuda Ter 12. An out-of-the-way cellar club that's worth the trip.

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