Jazz musicians need to be as open as the genre itself! – remembering János Gonda

Speaking of past and present of Hungarian jazz, it is inevitable to mention János Gonda’s name. He did so many things that it is almost impossible to imagine how it could be only one person’s life work. The jazz-pianist-composer died this March; Müpa will commemorate him with the concert Jazz Relay – A Celebration of János Gonda. His fellow musicians, presidents of the Hungarian Jazz Association, and leaders of the Jazz Department (now Faculty) of the Academy of Music after him will remember Gonda, kind of an origo of Hungarian jazz, with his compositions and favourites.

If you didn’t have the chance the see him on stage or listen to him talk about music, you can still get a glimpse of the art and spirit of János Gonda through his recordings and books. He played in a sextet with Gábor Balázs (bass guitar), Tamás Berki (singing, guitar, drums), Péter Kánton (saxophone), István dely (percussions) and Gyula Kovács (drums), but also alone, and also in trios. Between 1963 and 1999, he recorded ten albums. With the eight-volume anthology Modern Jazz, he aimed to make the genre more popular and accepted in Hungary. His avantgarde style album Sámánének (Shaman Song) was followed in 1980 by a solo piano album, and five years later the Keyboard Music. His 1999 album Képek, Emlékek (Pictures, Memories) contains solo and duo pieces, latter with Balázs Berkes.

Apart from being an active musician, János Gonda organised a department for jazz at the conservatory. He started it in 1965 – first time ever to have jazz in the Hungarian state music education. He led it for more than 30 years, until 1998. During that time, it became a department and then a faculty at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music. We can thank Gonda that since 1990, one can also study jazz in Hungary.

János Gonda also wrote a lot to make jazz more popular. He published eight books. The first one came out in 1965, titled Jazz. History, Theory, Practice. It was surprisingly successful.

“Hungarian intellectuals already knew how jazz was accused of being a cosmopolitan, decadent thing. I was afraid that not everyone knows what I am really talking about, so I put three singles at the end of the book. Only a few minutes long due to copyright reasons, but chosen in a delicate way. The book was sold out instantly”

– he explained in an interview in 2008.

He calls himself the apostle of jazz: his mission was to persuade classical musicians to be less suspicious about it, to let them understand that jazz is no less complex than their expertise. He often compared jazz to baroque music in which – unlike later periods – free improvisation and combination of given and spontaneous elements were also integral parts of any musical performance.

“I called Ferencsik [János Ferencsik, late Hungarian conductor – translator’s note] to show him something. I showed him the Mulligan-Brookmeyer quartet’s song My Funny Valentine, in which the two wind instruments play a wonderful polyphonic improvisation, and Ferencsik didn’t believe that this music isn’t written down! As the marvellously created and final-sounding countermelody is played during the theme, a classical musician cannot even imagine that it is the product of the moment. I was young those days and told Ferencsik enthusiastically that when an improvisation sounds like final, it is art already. Like how Sviatoslav Richter played the Apassionata-sonata in ‘53. He, one of the greatest pianists of the century, could play a totally composed piece in a way as if he had been improvising. That’s what I’m talking about: an integration of two possibilities of creating music.”

He was also a prolific composer. In the ‘70s, he wrote music to accompany various theatre productions and films: of Zoltán Fábry, Félix Máriássy, Gyula Maár and Sándor Sára. Sometimes he worked with huge orchestras on these.

“There were films that I am ashamed of working with, because they were bad. But it was wonderful to play with István Szabó. I wrote music for three of his films. He had a deep impression on me”

– he said in the interview mentioned above.

Another important experience was the dance theatre by Miklós Köllő, containing pantomime, dance and literature, which was also popular among the audience. They performed pieces based on Thomas Mann’s, Ferenc Juhász’s, and Hieronymus Bosch’s works.

“Jazz musicians took part in those performances, but it was never pure jazz music. I never wanted to leave classical music completely behind, I didn’t want to be exclusive”

– explained Gonda.

He won Széchenyi and Erkel Prizes as one of the most important figures in Hungarian jazz. He claimed openness to be one of the most important values. As he summarised in the interview quoted above:

“If you entitle yourself to a genre and work in it that is open towards everything, then you also need to be open. Jazz reacts sensitively to contemporary music, electronic music, rock, fusion, anything; therefore, the musician needs to be reactive, too!”

The Jazz Relay – A Celebration of János Gonda will happen at the Müpa Festival Theatre on 28 August from 8 pm on.

Article: Zsuzsanna Deák

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek