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ZWERIN ... GETS HUNGARY

by Mike Zwerin

PARIS - I just found a cracked and yellow piece of paper with faded words typed exactly ten years ago. It was, so-to-speak, wrapping fish. It was an article about the state of jazz and rock behind the Iron Curtain (remember the Iron Curtain?). Ten years this month! Time marches on. Shit happens. In Hungary, it went down like this.

Budapest, September, 1986:

Out of Le Gare de l'Est in a Wagons Lit. Down the Danube from Vienna in a Hydrofoil loaded with loaded Austrians. Up in a hotel room, studying a crumpled piece of cross-section paper with scribbled contacts. Synch or sink in Budapest.

The streets on the Pest side of the river were straight and clogged and soiled from cheap diesel fuel. It was withering hot. I found the bassist Aladar Pege in the State Concert Bureau. Physically, he resembled his bass.

"Who is your favorite bass player?" I asked him.

"Me." Aladar Pege has no need to pluck courage: "I am the best."

Buda is hilly with a Hilton Hotel on a plateau. Gyula Babos in the hills of Buda looked Budesque. He had recently described his life on State television: "I'm half Gypsy, I'm half Jewish, I'm a jazz guitar player, and I'm...still...alive."

For 15 years, Babos had been telling himself, "if only you could play like an American." When he listened to his latest record, he thought: "Babos, you sound like an American now." But by that time nobody wanted to sound like an American any more. They'd begun to sing rock in Hungarian and guitar players wanted to play British. Babos was fed up.

The jam sessions which Gyula Babos directed with Tony Lakatos, another Gypsy, every Monday night in the youth club on the top floor of the Eastern Railroad Station were like bebop "A" trains...a little noisy and old-fashioned but they got you uptown. Arrival and departure announcements floated in through the window. On the Monday I was there, the "A" train had only 31 passengers.

Bebop Monday nights in a railroad station don't pay goulash. Babos played casuals - weddings, barmitzvahs and the like - and backed up singers on ham-sandwich tours for soft currencies. He taught in the Jazz Academy, founded in 1965 by Janos Gonda, a department of the Bela Bartok Conservatory. Janos Gonda was also fed up.

Friedrich Karoly taught ear training in Gonda's Jazz Academy. He played the trombone and sometimes filled in on bass with the trio backing his wife Kati, who was singing in a club which bore her name on a back street in Pest. Every summer, Karoly played trombone on a small German resort island in the North Sea. He was paid in Deutsch Marks, hard currency but no soft touch.

He played from 11 AM until 10 PM with an hour or two off here and there. Not enough time to do anything else, as if there were something else to do. It was cold and either raining or going to rain: "The Germans think this is healthy weather." Friedrich Karoly was fed up too.

Janos Masik never heard of Sting. "Who? Stink?" Masik played the synthesizer with "European Edition," an underground alternative rock band. "We sing about our lives in Eastern Europe," he said. "This is a new style of communication. Sung Poetry." I guess he never heard of Bob Dylan either.

Masik had graduated from Janos Gonda's Jazz Academy, with honors. He was one of the best compers in the country. "He's a prototype," Gonda said.

I told Masik that Gonda had talked about him. "What else did he say?" Masik asked.

"He said that you're 'decadent.' He said, 'nothing is important to Masik. There is no aim, no energy to fight for anything. Today he plays jazz, tomorrow rock. That is the way the young people are today. They live from day to day. Nothing is worth fighting for, so they do nothing. They are fed up.' "

"That's just what I thought he'd say about me." Janos Masik shrugged.

"My generation is different," Director Gonda had also said. "I lose myself in my work. But you know? Now for the first time in my life I am thinking about stopping with music. I feel - how do you say it? - dispersed. It's all too much. Perhaps I must cnange my perspective. Work less hard. I am feeling very sensitive to the bad atmosphere among my pupils. And jazz jazz jazz - I'm fed up."

Janos Gonda looked at his watch. "Now you must excuse me," he said. "I have an appointment with my cardiologist."



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