Italian-Hungarian author and journalist Stefano Orlando Puracchio presented his new book Gábor Szabó – il jazzista dimenticato at the Virág Benedek house of culture in Budapest, Hungary, on Saturday, September 10, 2022. The bilingual event (in Hungarian and Italian) was moderated by Andrea Parente and translated by Istvan Cobino. The presentation was followed with a musical performance by the Ádám Török & Ádám Fehér Duó with special guest Károly Németh. Stefano transcribed the presentation for me in his native Italian and allowed me to translate in to English. I am pleased to provide here the English translation of this momentous event.
Andrea Parente (moderator): Hello everyone. I'm Andrea Parente. I come from Naples and I write for JAZZIT, one of the most important jazz magazines in Italy. First of all, I wanted to thank the House of Culture Virag Benedek for hosting this presentation and a dutiful thanks to the Italian Cultural Institute of Budapest, the patron of this presentation.
I wanted to kindly ask you all to turn off your mobile phones or put them in "airplane mode" because the presentation will be recorded for all those people who could not come here to attend. Like, for example, the family members of Gabor Szabo. And speaking of which, today we are here to remember a forgotten jazz musician.
The "forgotten jazz musician," as the title of the book by the author Stefano Orlando Puracchio reminds us. A truly formidable jazz musician. A jazz musician who deserves to be much better known than he is: guitarist Gabor Szabo. Thank you.
Stefano Orlando Puracchio (author): Good evening, everyone. Let's say it's evening ... Today, in theory, we should talk about my book. However, we will not talk about it. This is because an author who promotes his book is like an innkeeper who tells the patrons of a tavern that the wine is good. The innkeeper must sell the wine, so the wine will always be good. I have to sell books, so my books will always be good.
But seriously, I would like to dwell more – also to arouse your attention and curiosity – on the subtitle of the book. Why the forgotten jazz musician? I could have used any other title, such as: "the jazz musician of two worlds" or "the best Hungarian jazz musician in the world." The truth is that Gabor Szabo – I say this to Westerners, I know that the name should be read in Hungarian – was a monster.
But not a monster like those of Hollywood: Dracula, Frankenstein or similar. Or, thinking of fantasy, goblins and Kobolds. He was a monster because, inspired by the Italian definition, he was a prodigy. A very talented person in a specific domain. In our case, music. Szabo was a very talented man in the field of music who, unfortunately, the moment he became the leader of a band and found a contract with one of the most important record companies in the industry, was not treated as he deserved.
They treated him as a curiosity. Treated and described, by the managers of Impulse Records, as an “exotic” sorcerer from Eastern Europe. Let's clarify that: the curiosity seen by the Americans in Szabo had nothing curious in hindsight. Szabo combined the American jazz of the 1950s with the lessons of Bartok and Kodaly.
I know I'm simplifying but it's important to make it clear that the fusion of these two aspects has created, through Szabo, a third way. A third way that is original and meritorious. Impulse's decision to focus on curiosity and not on the real merits of Szabo caused his name to go to the top of the public's attention. Let's remember: in the 1960s, Szabo’s name was well circulated.
DownBeat magazine, the jazz bible, also talked about Szabo. However, if you focus on “the curiosity,” the attention rises. But it goes down just as quickly. It would have been better to focus on the merits but the decision of Impulse was made in this regard. Unfortunately, we cannot do anything about it. But we should try to right the wrong.
The first one to ever right the wrong was fellow Hungarian writer Károly Libisch, who is sitting in the audience and whom I thank. The second was me and the first in Italy. And, God willing, a book will also come out in English that both my colleague and I are waiting for anxiously.
The hope is that there will be a return of interest in Szabo's work. We, as authors, put all the good will of this world into it. However, even if we come together, we do not have the power to be able to make a campaign in support of the memory of this great artist.
The hope, therefore, is that the institutions – especially the Hungarian ones, since Szabo was Hungarian – will take this issue more seriously. Also, because, speaking out of line, Szabo represents a cultural asset that could be exploited a lot in terms of advertising and promotion of the country.
I will end with a provocation. Although in reality it is not a provocation. If the Americans manage to build a museum for someone like Buffalo Bill, I do not see why in Hungary you cannot focus on an artist like Szabo. He has provided concrete and proven results.
Before moving on to any questions from the public, I would like to remember a fellow journalist of mine who passed away earlier this summer and who also collaborated on my book, Manuela Romitelli. In the last few months her health had worsened but she really wanted to be able to see at least the video of the concert of Adam and the other musicians. So, I think it's nice to remember it like that. Thank you.
AP: [To the audience] If you have any questions, please ask now.
Istvan Cobino (translator): If you will allow me, while the audience thinks about its questions, I would like to say a few words on behalf of the Italian Cultural Institute because the director asked me. [The interpreter speaks in Hungarian, describing the current activities of the Italian Cultural Institute in Budapest, including a further thanks to the Virag Benedek House of Culture]. And, in the meantime, if you have thought about the questions, please...
Audience member 1: A question that should never be asked to composers and performers: "What is the most beautiful record you have made?" But I can put it to a writer who has listened several times, knowing all the work performed by our great guitarist. In your opinion, what is the most representative record, the one that makes the Hungarian soul stand out the most without contamination?
SOP: Coincidentally, I expected such a question from the audience. [Laughs] And, therefore, I prepared myself. [More laughter] I prepared myself because I have here... [Stefano takes from a small table the cover of Dreams and the shows it to the public] ... I have prepared for you a nice advertisement. In my opinion, the album from which you have to start is this. Which is Dreams.
Then, subsequently, I would recommend all the albums released by Skye Records. This is a convenient choice, I admit. But it is also true that the period in which Szabo had more "tranquility" was the period in which he worked for Skye.
Of course, none from the Impulse period. The Skye period was a very interesting period in terms of quality. In addition, with Skye, he released many albums in a very short space of time. Dreams, for sure. Then, everyone goes where they want.
Audience member 2: I have a question about the subtitle, "forgotten." Starting with Chick Corea and many other artists, they cite Szabo as an ideal model or someone from whom they have learned so much. Why was he forgotten?
SOP: Thank you for your question. Because this question is relevant. The problem will be to look for a way to synthesize the answer. An artist who managed to enter the prestigious Berklee school as a self-taught musician... and we know that Berklee has an admission rate of 30%... these are today's data, before they were even more severe ... an artist who was called by Chico Hamilton, one of the greatest jazz drummers there has ever been... a guitarist who was, practically, the mentor of Carlos Santana... and precisely a guitarist who has collaborated with people of merit, as you mentioned, Chick Corea ... with the living legend Ron Carter, one of the best double bass players and bassists.
One would think, after all these things here, that he is the most well-known person in the universe. However, here we are talking about a guitarist who, despite all these things is not known by the general public. The reasons are many. And I'm pickling one: Szabo is accused by many jazz musicians of having made covers of then-recent pop songs. This is one of the problems.
However, in my opinion, the main problem is that he was described by Impulse as an “exotic sorcerer from the East.” … During the writing of the book, I contacted one of the most important Italian jazz musicians to ask him for a comment on Szabo. And he said, "I don't want to express myself on this little character."
This is because he never heard Szabo on a deeper level. And he really thought he was this “sorcerer of the East!” It was enough for me to say "Berklee" to make him change his mind. The same problem always remains: I can say it, Libisch can say it, the people who are writing the book in English can say it, Doug Payne can say it... we are few. We must try to make "more mass". I hope I have been exhaustive.
AP: If Stefano will allow me, I would like to add two small considerations on this subject. Over time, the jazz world has experienced a bit of superficiality. Both with regard to people and with regard to events. Szabo had two peculiarities. The first, as Stefano said, is he was self-taught. The second was his guitar amplification system. For jazz musicians, these two aspects were seen as "bad." And this has caused incorrect information to be created around this "monstrous" jazz musician.
SOP: Incorrect information that, at times, was culpable, sometimes malicious. But let's not delve into it, otherwise this becomes a wrestling match and no longer a cultural event.
AP: On the contrary, we invite the public to deepen the story. Through this book and through the individual research of the jazz musician Gabor Szabo.
Audience member 3: What prompted the author to structure the book in the way he then decided to structure it? What are the motivations?
SOP: This is another question that will practically prevent Adam and the musicians from playing... [Laughter] Here too: extreme journalistic synthesis. A book that speaks in Hungarian for an Italian audience needs to think "as an Italian" and not "as a Hungarian."
So, you reset your cultural background and ask yourself: "But what does an average Italian from Hungary know?" Obviously, he knows: Unicum [a Hungarian herbal liqueur] to drink. Gulyás [Goulash] to eat. Pálinka: entertainment and liquid courage. And so on.
So, in the first thirty pages, I had to tell the Hungarian story from 1936 to 1956. Also, because in Italy, we in high school stop at the end of the Second World War. We don't study the Cold War at school. Imagine if an average Italian can know what the second post-war period meant in Hungary, what 1956 could mean but, even, the post 1918, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
I would have liked to do without it. Unfortunately, it is all information that goes to create the cultural background of a Hungarian in general and of Szabo in particular. If you do not know what it means for a Hungarian to have gone through certain historical events you cannot understand why, then, Szabo managed to arrive in the United States, to burn the stages and to sign a contract as a leader with one of the best American jazz record companies.
Here too, to answer, I had to do some flips but I hope I was able to answer the question properly. I would have to say that now is the time for the music.
[Presentation of the band as the three on stage leave to make room for the musicians.]
Gábor Szabó, A Tribute (With Ádám Török & Ádám Fehér Duó – Special Guest Károly Németh):
Ádám Török – flute, percussion
Ádám Fehér – guitar
Károly Németh – electric piano
1. Mizrab (Gábor Szabó)
2. Sombrero Sam (Charles Lloyd)
3. Evening in the Country (from Bartók)