Hungarian musicians recall secret jazz recordings from 1956 

BUDAPEST: In the Hungary of the 1950s, jazz music was a dangerous pastime — but music lovers got some clandestine help from the United States government.

Jazz was a tool of US Cold War diplomacy, promoted and broadcast into the East Bloc in an effort to make American culture more appealing to intellectuals and other elites behind the Iron Curtain.

On Thursday evening, the United States celebrated those past efforts with a concert at a nightclub in Budapest that featured the music of Duke Ellington and other artists that it once broadcast into Hungary.

The embassy also released a limited edition CD of Hungarian jazz recordings sponsored by a US diplomat shortly before the country's failed anti-Soviet revolution of 1956. Later that year, the recordings were broadcast back into the country — and around the world — on Voice of America.

"There were freedom fighters in 1956 ... fighting for freedom and for democracy," Ambassador Colleen Bell said before the concert in Budapest. "Some were in the streets with makeshift weapons and some were in recording studios recording jazz."

The concert was part of embassy commemorations marking the 60th anniversary of the revolution, which was crushed by Soviet tanks.

It comes at a time of deeply strained ties between Hungary and the United States, with the US frequently criticising the erosion of the democratic system of checks and balances under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Among those at the tribute concert were some of the musicians who performed for the 1956 recording.

Drummer Ferenc Ruttka, later a famous painter and art director in films, recalled that jazz was a "forbidden fruit" in the 1950s. He said many musicians managed to stay abreast of the rapidly changing scene through smuggled recordings.

"Jazz is my life. Making these recordings was total joy," Ruttka said.

The free-spirited musical form was feared as a subversive force by rulers across the communist world. In Hungary, public performances were banned and the syncopations and improvisations of jazz were kept off the national radio stations.

Instead, jazz lovers held clandestine jam sessions to avoid the secret police and listened to American music on static-filled radio shows that authorities tried to block.

"The Americans believed that, through jazz, they could target the intellectual classes of the communist bloc," jazz critic Robert Maloschik said. "This tactic of 'loosening up' was effective, because college students and jazz musicians would get together to listen and play jazz in their homes. To do this in the 1950s was very risky because the security services were always watching out for such activities."

Ernest Nagy, the American vice consul in Budapest in 1956 and an amateur musician, attended some covert jam sessions. Impressed by what he heard, Nagy rented out the Qualiton Studio of the state-owned Hungarian Record Production Company to record some of the Hungarian bands.

The sides recorded in June 1956 included original compositions as well as standards like Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" and "Bernie's Tune" by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet.

They were broadcast on Nov. 23, 1956, by legendary presenter Willis Conover on his Voice of America "Jazz Hour." By that time, Soviet tanks had crushed the Hungarian revolution.

"We don't know whether the musicians who made this music are able to listen today or even where they may be, as we broadcast their music," Conover said. "But here for the world is their living testimonial in the universal language of music."

Several American jazz greats, including Mulligan, Quincy Jones and Billy Taylor, were guests of the show.

"This one sounded better than some of the things I hear cut over here," Jones commented on one Hungarian performance. "A lot of European musicians have tendencies to just imitate outright. This seems to have the basic feeling that we have and their own approach to it."

As it happened, at least one of the performers back in Budapest was listening on short-wave radio: Ervin Vaszondi, then 19, who played trumpet in a sextet. His group included the late Gabor Szabo, who later gained world renown for his groundbreaking guitar style.

"I turned it on and suddenly I heard myself," Vaszondi said. "I woke my father up and told him, 'Dad, come listen, I'm playing on the Washington radio.'"

His father was less impressed, Voice of America or not.

"His favourites were Hungarian songs and operettas and he said 'You call this music, son?'" Vaszondi recalled. "And I said, 'Yes, I do!'"