Volume X, Special Issue on Jazz

"'Who will win­ – the jazz or Gypsy, it is hard to tell:' Gypsy Musicians Defend Hungarian National Culture Against American Jazz" by Kornél Zipernovszky

Kornél Zipernovszky is currently pursuing his PhD in American Studies at ELTE University, Budapest on identity politics related to jazz. He graduated majoring in English and Hungarian, and became a foreign affairs journalist until 2003, when he was appointed as a cultural diplomat to Vienna. As a jazz critic he maintains his own columns at Fidelio Online and at Bohém Jazz Magazin, is a senior correspondent of Gramofon Klasszikus and Jazz, which he co-founded in 1996, and is a contributor of Imágó Budapest, Kalligram, Müpa Magazin, Revizor Online, etc. He survives no longer than two days without listening to jazz and three without writing about it. Email:

1. Introduction

Hungarian national culture1 and Gipsy music have been crossing ways and have become interwoven for a long period, for well over a century before the first new music and dance from North America became popular in the Old World. So much so, that the difference between authentic rural Hungarian “peasant” music and urban, composed Gipsy music or magyarnóta (literally meaning Hungarian song) was first scholarly defined and described by folklorists Béla Vikár, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. That the two should be not grouped together had not been clear to the general public before their work started to bear fruit. For the non-Hungarian readers a further explanation of the term magyarnóta2, in fact a synonym of cigányzene (Gypsy music) is necessary. It signifies a mix of mostly, but not only urban Hungarian popular music compositions, performed predominantly by the Gypsy orchestra3. Gypsy music, denoting a clearly definable set of songs and melodies, was played mostly for entertainment in cafés and restaurants, that remained practically unchanged over long decades of the twentieth century. Over the course of the last hundred years, as the folklore research has proven that this kind of Gipsy café music is also different from the rural folk music of Gypsies played for non-commercial, non-entertainment purposes, such as funerals, weddings, etc. However, in the twenties, the decade I am about to explore, restaurant goers and café patrons alike thought of Gypsy music as something typically, if not genuinely Hungarian. Musicologist Bálint Sárosi observes: “In the twentieth century the life and career of Gypsy musicians, as in earlier times, continued to receive special attention, since they were perceived by the great majority of the general public as the depositories, cultivators and nurturers of Hungarian music” (Sárosi 16).

Basically the whole Hungarian society clung to Gypsy music long into the interwar period, because they considered it one of the most important, if not the only form of national music. When the modernist intellectual movement, mostly composers Bartók and Kodály and leading intellectuals criticized the fashion of Gypsy café music, they took a stand against its perception as the only significant form of Hungarian music culture. Theatre director Sándor Hevesi very convincingly argued in 1905, that Gypsy music continued to have a right to exist in cafés, but the general Hungarian public should be able to get away from the spell of Gypsy music and orient itself towards the classical European music culture, as taught, for instance at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music (Sárosi 35).

Perception of Gypsy café music as the bearer of Hungarian musical culture extended far across the borders of Hungary, accompanied by the stereotype that Gypsies are a merry folk, full of song-and-dance. Zigeunerbaron, the operetta of Johann Strauss featured for the first time the Rákóczi March on stage in Vienna in 1885, thereby breaking the ice for a symbol of Hungarian sovereignty, as the march had been strictly banned there before (Hanák 18-19). The libretto was based on writings of Mór Jókai, one of the leading figures of Hungarian national romanticism (Sárosi 16). Rákóczi, or his generals never ever employed a Gypsy musician – these images are the results of the romantic myth constructions of the emergence of the national reform movement from the early nineteenth century onwards. Ideals of national literature, music and visual arts in the nineteenth century were established by poets Ferenc Kölcsey, Mihály Vörösmarty and Sándor Petőfi, writers József Katona and Jókai, composers Ferenc Erkel and Ferenc Liszt, painters Károly Lotz, Mihály Zichy, Viktor Madarász and Bertalan Székely. Along with these ideals various stereotypes about the national character of the Gypsy music, embedded in romantic nationalism became deeply rooted in public thought, and remained there long into the next century, despite the more modern ideas advocated by people like Hevesi and Bartók. When a ten-nation radio program was broadcast for North-American audiences on Thanksgiving Day in 1929 to promote peace and understanding, among the national orchestras contributing to the gala were an English air force band, Scottish pipers and the orchestra of La Scala in Milan, while the Hungarian national colors were sported proudly by the Budapest Gypsy Orchestra (“Europe’s Best to Be Heard in Transcription” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 10 November 1929: F9).

Gypsy orchestras in the period rarely had the ambition of playing their own original compositions, rather the bands played the favorite songs of the masters or the hosts of the parties, or the patrons of the cafés or restaurants whose tables they approached (Sárosi 9-12). When one of the highest authorities on Hungarian music, Aladár Tóth published an obituary about the Gypsy bandleader Béla Radics, he wrote: “He didn’t exclude foreign sounds, he played all along the golden era of the Viennese waltz, the French quadrille and the polka, the Boston, the syrupy French waltz, the tango and the different ‘trotts’, and finally his bow danced – albeit with a bit of sympathetic aversion – also to the rhythms of jazz” (Sárosi 275). Seemingly, by 1930, the year Radics died, the repertoire of the Gipsy orchestras had to adopt to jazz. However Gypsy orchestras and musicians were also willing to take part in the dissemination of new fashions from overseas before 1920. Research by Wolfgang Hirschenberger (1988), Rainer E. Lotz (1997), Géza Gábor Simon (2007), and others prove that ragtime was put on the repertoire of Gypsy orchestras in the very first years of the twentieth century. As Eva Federmayer notes, military and Gypsy orchestras frequently played marches as well as ragtime pieces, so “Gypsy bands were also instrumental in the ‘Hungarianization’ of ragtime” (553). After 1920, when not only the songs but the musicians entered the venues where Gypsy musicians earned their living, a cultural clash erupted. The competition of the Gypsy music which was supposed to express the national sentiments and the jazz band evoke intense passions in the twenties, and was even caricatured in the North-American press as a brawl.

The suffering of the First World War and its aftermath, mostly the trauma of the Trianon peace treaty severely affected the whole population, including the people working in the entertainment industry. According to the figures published in the Hungarian press, 2000 out of a total of 3000 Gypsy musicians based in Budapest were jobless in 1921 (Sárosi 175). Fight for the daily bread of musicians was even made more difficult in the post-war years, when Afro-American jazz and dance music rapidly conquered Europe, generating unexpected and tough competition for local musicians everywhere. The craze for the jazz band in the twenties in Sweden, for instance, has brought about conflicts between folk-music enthusiasts and jazz aficionados, a conflict that continued sporadically for many years, writes Swedish jazz historian Erik Kjellberg: “Periodically some self-appointed promoter of folk-music and things Swedish would berate the public in burning oratory, often with racist, moralizing and nationalistic arguments.” (Kjellberg 62) Opposition to the new dance and music of the jazz age can be interpreted as a reaction to its becoming extremely fashionable: a large part of the European public happily embraced the influx of American music into the world of entertainment, welcomed the musicians and dancers performing it. By the mid-twenties fashionable cafés and cabarets in European metropoles offered jazz shows, in many venues both as music to dance to and as a performance of music and dance to watch. What became to be known later as the “roaring twenties,” unfolded showing a famously wild attitude dancing to the rhythm of a new and “foreign” music.

Protests against emerging fashions in culture, as against jazz in this period, are nothing new in cultural history; but the nature of this sort of clash for the audiences in Hungary does show peculiar features. Not only is it overshadowed by a xenophobic and nationalistic attitude, the Gypsy bands and their organizations happened to be the loudest defendants of what they claimed to be the Hungarian national cultural heritage. The outcry against the jazz band in the twenties in Hungary has reached such a volume and intensity, that it has even been frequently described in the contemporary U.S. press, too. I will now focus on this clash based mostly on contemporary written sources.

The cultural studies approach I adopt and the more traditional music history approach diverge in terminology: there is a clear discrepancy whether all music played by the “jazzband” type of orchestras could be considered jazz. In the most accepted current definitions of jazz, improvisation is always included as a minimum requirement for being qualified as jazz, however, that is a criteria that cannot fully be applied in the twenties. János Gonda, who has been urging a narrower definition of jazz, argued that the music of the jazz band in the whole interwar period must strictly be marked off and separated from jazz because it was “dance music” (Gonda 273). There are good reasons for using the term pre-jazz to refer to the time before 1920 in an Austro-Hungarian context, nevertheless I’ll continue to describe all the music I discuss in the twenties as jazz without restriction because the perception of the jazz band by the public and the audience was unanimous, and the usage of the term continued to be unambiguous all through the swing era. The term jazzband was more used than the term jazz in the twenties in Hungary, witness the first complete book published in Hungary on the topic by Antal Molnár, as well as the first Music Encyclopedia describing it and a number of analytic articles on the subject.4

I also stick to the contemporary usage of the term Gypsy music describing the style of music that was in the age exclusively played by people having come to be called Romani lately. Romani, similarly in a way to African American, may be the only politically correct term today, but it would be improper to thus describe either the music, or the people playing it, as they only called themselves Gypsies.

It seems acceptable that the terms “jazz age” and “roaring twenties” are often used as interchangeable. But in the case of Hungary one should be a little more cautious as jazz arrived in Hungary with some delay. Nevertheless in 1922, the year when Louis Armstrong moved to Chicago and started playing in King Oliver’s band, a Chicago daily reported that in seven Hungarian towns Gypsies organized a gathering and passed a manifesto condemning the “erotic and crazy” music of the jazz band performers (“Gypsies Must Step Back” The Chicago Defender National Edition June 10, 1922: 8). As to the events signifying the end of the era: the apocalyptic events of the world economic crisis indeed wiped out most of the song and dance culture of the jazz age. Black Thursday on Wall Street was ultimately, but not immediately followed by a financial crash in Hungary when the government had to close down all banks for three days in July, 1931, thereby ending the era once and for all.

2. Jazz becomes fashionable in Hungary

When the fashion of the American-style jazz band started to spread so effectively in Hungary, some people called the police. But others, like a young dancer-turned-drummer, as he recalled in his memoires, desperately wanted to become a part of all that jazz:

At that time a fantastic black band was playing in the Parisien Grill and they really spoiled their audience with their playing. The whole of Budapest was so enthusiastic about them… We were booked to succeed them, and the audience was not particularly happy about the change. The blacks have brought along the ancient rhythm from the homeland of jazz, they could play jazz with such an ease, when in Budapest it was still hardly known. We could have never been a hit after the blacks (Orlay 48).

Jenő Obendorfer-Orlay, also known as Chappy (1905-1978), was an exemplary figure of how the jazz band as a new way of international cultural communication fascinated European people from various schools of life. His memoir is one of the most valuable source about the advent of the jazz era in Europe (Zipernovszky 2011). In it, he describes a moment in his life that bears a special significance for my topic: at the end of the summer of 1926 he became the first Hungarian to be invited a full-time member of a first-rate international band abroad. The band was led by Arthur Briggs, one of the highest rated American musicians touring Europe. Briggs was from St. George, Grenada, but he and the bands he led were mostly advertised as U.S. Americans, or, in fact often like they were headlined in Vienna, upon their engagement in the Weihburg Bar for most of the summer of 1925: „Nigger Jazz-Band Arthur Briggs mit dem Savoy-Orchester aus dem Palais Washington, Paris" (Bergmeier-Lotz 94). When they got a major engagement in Constantinople in 1926, the line-up behind trumpet player Briggs included Earl Granstaff on trombone and Chappy on drums. Most of the editions of the ethnically mixed Briggs orchestra, playing in many important venues of Europe over the next two years featured Chappy behind the drums (Orlay, Schulz). It is also worth noting that in fact one of the incarnations of the Briggs orchestra, for an engagement in Berlin in August 1927 included all but non-black musicians, alongside the Hungarian drummer, the only exception being the bandleader himself (Bergmeier-Lotz ).

The bug of jazz that bit Chappy in 1925 turned viral in Budapest no later than in 1924. This is how Fred Bonny, a comedian who had been engaged in Budapest many times, even in the pre-war years, summed it up writing home to the paper of his home city: “Budapest is jazz-crazy… Fred Bonny says that when all of these ‘spades’ assemble it looks as if they had moved Harlem into Hungary” (“Bonny and Freeman” Chicago Defender, National edition, November 29, 1924: 8). Budapest was indeed one of the cities frequented regularly by the most famous American and international touring bands in the mid-twenties. The aforementioned comic duo of Bonny and Freeman was residing at the Cercle des Etrangers in May 1923 (these contracts mostly ran for the full calendar month at one venue), and after having been invited to the Maxim Jardin in Constantinople, they returned to the Tabarin in Budapest in October, 1924. Chappy himself danced and later played in the Parisien Grill following in the footsteps of the Palm Beach Five. They were the ones who raised the expectations of the audience to immensely high levels during an extended engagement starting in September 1924. The band featured not only Briggs, but also Earl Granstaff, a pioneer Afro-American jazzman, dancer-turned-trombonist, who was largely responsible for launching the international career of his friend-to-be, Chappy. The revue act of Harry Fleming (born on the Virgin Islands and based mostly in Denmark) was on the program of the Tabarin in October the same year, and the Papagáj (parrot) advertised Thompson’s Drums and Four during the same time. Probably the most important single European jazz tour, touching down in Budapest November 2-14, 1925, was that of the Sam Wooding Chocolate Kiddies. They played to packed houses in the Reneszánsz (Renaissance) Theatre and according to both the contemporary accounts and historical reviews they represented the highest level in the genre (Simon 1999, 51-57; Björn Englund 44). In September 1927, the Frank Wither’s Stomp Jazzers also played a double engagement in Budapest. The Parisien Grill on the one hand and the Royal Orpheum on the other hosted their shows, numbering over 60 within a month in total. Exactly 12 months later they repeated their triumph at the Parisien Grill. The show of Sam Wooding is considered the most artistically advanced production, but the appearance of Josephine Baker in Budapest in May 1928 in the Royal Orpheum, exerted probably the greatest effect on the general public (Simon 1999, 79).

The influence of the jazz band was not limited to the audience of the cafés, it was felt all across the intellectual and artistic circles. The talkies also contributed to the dissemination of jazz, although The Jazz Singer (1927) was premiered in Hungary first on stage and only a year later in the movies. Modernist poets Árpád Tóth (1926) and Cézár Brichta (1928), novelist Gyula Szini (1931), short story writer Ferenc Herczeg (1932), as well as music critics Sándor Jemnitz (1925), János Vannay (1926), Miklós Vadász (1926) and others, some of whose writings I will discuss below, reflected on the passions aroused by the jazz band, its music, the new dances and the changes it brought about in fashion. The popularity of the jazz band is well indicated by the figures that Hungarian Radio played jazz or jazz-influenced music pieces at least 78 times in 1926, but almost twice as much next year (Simon 1999, 70).

3. Hungarian Gypsy musicians respond to jazz

Suffering severe losses in their earnings due to the cataclysm of the war and the peace treaty, Gypsy orchestra members needed anything else but the competition that the new craze for American music and dance meant. Their first reaction according to press documents was to unite and to form a National Association of Hungarian Gypsy Musicians in May 1921. One of the main reasons for setting up the new union was that “A strong organization is also needed against the foreign music” (Sárosi 172). Desperate over what they called the “nigger invasion”, they started intensive lobbying. The number of jobless Gypsies, without a place as they would say, was estimated by Magyarság (Hungarians), the weekly paper quoted above, to be around 2000 in the year 1921 only in Budapest, and as much as 10 thousand nationwide (Sárosi 175). That might have been exaggerated, but the number of registered members of the National Association a few years later was indeed 2600.

Gypsy musicians also migrated in 1923-24 to Budapest from provincial cities in great numbers upon losing their contracts. That phenomenon was covered in well over a dozen press reports from various provincial cities and towns, such as Miskolc, Debrecen, Hódmezővásárhely, Zalaegerszeg, Szeged and others. It was already the second major wave of Gypsy musicians migrating, the first happening immediately after the end of the of he first world war as a consequence of the Trianon peace treaty, which reduced the territory of Hungary to 28% of its pre-war size. Trying to regain their lost hegemony in the city of Debrecen in March 1925, Gypsies complained publicly that as many as five or six jazz bands were playing in local cafés simultaneously, but that proved to be an exaggeration. Nevertheless the local Gypsy musicians intervened with the mayor, who replied that he saw no legal option to ban jazz bands. So the Debrecen Gypsies sent a delegation to the city police and complained there, but to no avail (Sárosi 201).

That said, at other times lobbying by the union seems to have been received with at least some sympathy by the cultural administration. In early 1921, when the country was still in ruins after the war, official government sources deemed fox-trot, one-step, and jazz music “decadent and injurious to the younger generation” (“No Jazz for Budapest” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, New York, 29 March 1921: 6). We are talking about the post-war years, when concert advertisements, for example one for a concert in the city of Miskolc still included a remark that heating of the hall is guaranteed (Sárosi 169).

Even before the jazz age, the most famous Hungarian Gypsy musicians toured many countries of the world, also the United States regularly. But in 1925 they were surprised to encounter obstacles when they encountered protectionism restricting their chances for touring, e.g. in France (Sárosi 203). France was indeed one of the first countries to reduce the number of musicians from abroad, working there permanently or temporarily. This did not only hurt Hungarian touring Gypsy orchestras, but also, among others, several members of the Briggs orchestra, including Chappy. In February 1929 they were unable to obtain work permits, and were forced to quit the band. Many musicians found it especially hard to work abroad after the outbreak of the world economic crisis. In 1928 the Association of Hungarian Gypsy Musicians pondered joining the The Hague-based world federation of musicians in order to get more chances for their membership to play abroad (Sárosi 241). The situation of Gypsy musicians has not improved at all by the middle of the decade, although in 1924 the minister of the interior brought about a resolution which empowered the Union of Hungarian Lyricists, Composers and Music Publishers to be paid an overhead by every venue featuring live music unless the venues entered individual negotiations based on the copyright payments of each work performed5. The measure was not directed against the jazz bands or the Gypsy orchestras, since they all fell into the same category, but it gave a precedent for the next resolution taking effect at the beginning of 1927. The interior ministry gave the rights of issuing and withdrawing music performance licenses to the local police chief, almost at will. Generally employment as a musician in Hungary was regulated more strictly than ever before, requiring musicians to have a photo ID and registration. The papers ironically reported that the only known fatal consequence of the tough new resolution was a Russian Lieutenant guardsman, who took his own life after losing his job as a café musician in Budapest (Sárosi 219), but the clash between Gipsy music and Jazz was far from being over. Newspaper articles continued to report the ”clash”, and the “war” until the mid-thirties (Sárosi 339) and broke the news of a Gypsy orchestra leader challenging a jazz band saxophonist-conductor in 1934 (Sárosi 343). The most radical standpoint of the age was probably occupied by the small town paper of Kisújszállás, which went as far as to call for the liquidation of the jazzband, though under the combative title the article itself called on the public just to neglect, not to root out the jazz band (Sárosi 237). Jazz, or at least putting an Afro-American jazz saxophonist’s character on the opera stage also evoke intense passions in some of the general public, when Johnny Spielt auf, Ernst Krenek’s opera was first performed in Budapest in March 1928. Tumultuous and violent scenes erupted in and outside the opera house, similarly to the ones accompanying the performances in Dresden and Vienna earlier (Jemnitz, Sándor “Húzd rá Jonny” Crescendo Vol. 2 No. 8. 1928: 11).

In September 1927 it was publicized that 3700 musicians were “without a place”, while jazz bands were playing in two popular thermal baths of the capital, the Lukács (Lucas) and the Császár (Emperor), on the Margaret Island, in the City Park, and in the popular restaurants of Buda. So the Gypsy Union took the issue to the Budapest municipality and actually managed to make the Town Hall pass a resolution ordering leases from the city not to hire foreign musicians, only local Gypsies. The protectionist local resolution actually came into effect in 1928 (Sárosi 243). Gypsies’ organizations were also lobbying with the minister of the interior in the meantime. In a typical gesture they were planning to hand over their petition at the minister’s home, while playing him a lovely serenade (Sárosi 234). In the town of Kaposvár, a few days prior to the 1930 Dorottya Ball, honoring the petition of the local organization of the Gypsy musician association, the police captain simply banned the performance of jazz bands by introducing mandatory police permits, made possible by the earlier interior ministry resolutions (Sárosi 268). While the repeated protests of Gypsies led to stricter administrative rules on the entertainment business on both the municipal and the national level, one of the few calls for moderation on the part of the political establishment came from a famous politician of the age, Kúnó Klebelsberg, the state secretary of the Bethlen-cabinet, responsible for culture and education over almost the entire jazz era (1922-1931). Klebelsberg, the main ideologue of new nationalism, openly disagreed with his colleague, the minister of the interior, who went as far as to condemn jazz and stressing the importance of the Gypsies as upholders of original Hungarian musical culture. According to the Budapest correspondent of The New York Sun Klebelsberg said “he would apply stronger measures if cabinet members won’t mind their own business” (Horvath, George “Jazz Music has Hungary in Row” 19 August 1930: 21).

But why did the majority of the political establishment support the fight of Gypsies? Why was the interwar society so keenly hanging on to Gypsy music? Ideologically we are looking at the decade of strong revisionism in Hungary, called – and modeled – after the Italian term “irredentism.” Even progressive intellectuals such as the poets Attila József or Dezső Kosztolányi let their voice be heard in the nationwide call for a revision of the Trianon peace treaty.6 One of the more enlightened music critics, Emil Haraszti declared simply: “Gypsy music is needed more than ever nowadays, because the Gypsy is the agitator and the soldier of the irredentist Hungarian, and no other nation can produce anyone comparable to him as an artist” (Sárosi 257). Not only within the borders of Hungary did Gypsy music become an expression of revisionist feelings, bandleader Lóránd Fráter told the press that all his songs, Gypsy music with Hungarian lyrics had been perceived as “irredentist propaganda” in Transylvania (Sárosi 282). Gypsy music was what people at the time considered Hungarian National Music, states musicologist Bálint Sárosi. It was constantly repeated in articles of the contemporary press that Gypsy music is the immediate “expression of the Hungarian soul” (Sárosi 10). The mulatság, a form of feast cultivated in the 19th century, was a rather feudal way of entertainment, but it was still considered the most acceptable of all mundane pleasures for a noble Hungarian man. The form of entertainment, Gypsy violinist playing the favorite songs of the gentlemen on the side of the dining table hardly changed before the second world war. The perception of the Hungarian nature of Gypsy café music was a very deep rooted notion, even Bartók defended the merits of Gypsy music against new, foreign fashions such as “shramli and jazz”, which he once called “shoddy”, expressing his hopes that it would never be adapted into the repertoire of the Gypsy orchestra (Bartók 50). He was, nevertheless, aware of the fact that European classical music by Hungarian or other composers would not surface very soon on the horizon of the masses. In the early thirties he suggested support for the cultivation of Hungarian folk music, “peasant music” at the cost of Gypsy café music.

Foreign – that was one of the main charges leveled against the jazz band by the Gypsy unions in their fight against them and it was the strongest argument of the music establishment, too. Decoding the language of the musicians as quoted in the press reveals an overtly xenophobic standpoint. A Gypsy orchestra leader who lost his work in the eastern city of Miskolc and therefore had to move to another city, Debrecen, claimed only the restaurant and café owners “forced the guests to put up with the jazzband”, they would not have wanted it themselves. In his interpretation the entrepreneurs wanted extra profit and therefore tried to copy what the “queer taste of their Budapest colleagues” required (Sárosi 185-86). Even more telling is the attitude of a Gypsy musician from the provincial town of Zalaegerszeg, who blames the audience for not supporting Gypsy music any longer, due to the “nigger campaign” – a view countered indirectly by James Weldon Johnson, to be quoted below (Sárosi 213). In the conservative national paper Szózat the decline of the Hungarian Gypsy song and music is directly put in the context of the “apocalypse” caused by the Trianon peace treaty. All through the jazz age it seems that the sentimental Gypsy music had a revisionist coloring: “If we do not let our language and music soak up the Hungarian spirit completely, than we could soon completely pull the cover of our coffin of Trianon on ourselves” (Sárosi 205). An article in the right-wing Szeged paper, Új Nemzedék described the “queer situation”, as it was formulated, that the young Gypsy musicians excelled in playing shimmy rather than in performing Hungarian Gypsy songs. It claimed only the “alien-hearted young stock-exchange dandies” tried to force through the changes in entertainment fashions (Sárosi 189). This is a hardly concealed anti-Semitic statement in a paper, which has frequently attacked people such as the Hungarian poet of Jewish descent, Miklós Radnóti (Szegedi Új Nemzedék, 22 February 1933: 6).

4. The clash of cultures in the American narrative

How did members of the touring American jazz bands take that they came here as representatives of a new music and dance style and found themselves in the focus of a cultural clash? Did they take notice at all? They were sought after artists all across Europe by the middle of the decade, most bandleaders and soloists had received many invitations to tour over longer periods of time, able to arrange these engagements in close succession. Would there be any trace in the contemporary American or the Black American press of the clash surrounding jazz in Hungary at all?

The answer can be found in about two dozen articles in the East Coast dailies of the era discussing the clash of jazz and Gypsy music in Hungarian context. None of them are as telling as the caricature the New York Call carried, the caption of which I used as the title of my paper.

The article accompanying it is a satirical piece on spending excessively by people who live the jazzy nightlife in America and on the curse of the Gypsy musicians of Hungary against the invading jazz band: “they’ll do their best to drive out the Negro jazzers. They will beat the band with their zithers and zingaras, anything at hand” (Rohe, Margaret “Rather Jazz Than Eat” New York Call, Evening ed. 7 July 1922: 8). The situation in Hungary is interpreted in about half a dozen different New York state and Illinois papers in terms of warfare, in articles that continue to report on it deep into the next decade, the thirties. We can abundantly find phrases like fight, clash, campaign, re-conquer, invasion, ruler, fiddler army, besieged and declared war on jazz.

The Black American press had, since 1919, “truly become a national vehicle for the common cause of African Americans” according to Clint C. Wilson II (83). The Chicago Defender became a nationally distributed paper, while some local tabloids on the East Coast gained weight due to the contribution of pre-eminent figures of the civil rights movement and the Harlem Renaissance: “Langston Hughes‘ work appeared in the Chicago Defender, Neale Hurston wrote articles for the Pittsburgh Courier and James Weldon Johnson … served as editor of the New York Age” (Wilson 78). Many touring Black American artists have reported on their experiences overseas. When, for instance, musician James M. Shaw, a bandmate of Granstaff, or the comic duo Bonny and Freeman regularly corresponded with the Chicago Defender, which printed their messages about their stay in Hungary, they referred to themselves as “Race musicians”, or “members of the Race”, and one time as spades (quoted above). One of the overseas correspondents from among the professional Afro-American musicians was Earl Granstaff, as historian Rachel Gillett observed, wrote home a letter from Budapest full of glee at negotiating good contracts, enjoying the freedom from American prohibition laws, and actively choosing which cities to visit and how long to stay. After having moved to Budapest for eight months, Granstaff joked in a letter home to a musician friend that he had absorbed so many “brain-racking words” of the Hungarian language that he thought he’d now “jump to London” (Gillett 475). As upbeat as the correspondence of Granstaff, newspaper reports of the stint of the Peyton orchestra exemplify the still smashing success of touring jazz bands in Budapest a couple of years later. Members of the Peyton orchestra were staying in the most elegant Hotel of Budapest in 1929, the Britannia, and played to packed houses in the similarly trendy New York Café, and they did not have to miss out on reading their favorite paper, The Chicago Defender, which was delivered to their doorstep.

On the other hand, the complaint of the leader of a Gypsy orchestra, who used to conduct his band in the New York Café, was quoted in a wire printed by a local New York State daily, claiming that two thirds of the Gypsy bands in Budapest were out of work. The bandleader went on to say that they had only been getting wages enough to starve on, and that they had been seeking protection from the government in vain. (“Jazz in Hungary Makes Gypsy Bands Jobless” The Binghamton Press 5 July 1928. 12). Despite what this bandleader was convinced of, lobbying by the Gypsy musician organizations has started in the early twenties and lasted for another couple of years and did have some success. A lot of the reports by local correspondents and the wire services, mostly the Associated Press, in the American papers I reviewed stayed rather neutral in the clash that they had reported on. The correspondents of some articles and the people they interviewed tried to answer the question why the Hungarian Gypsies had attacked the jazz band. The neutral, to some extent sympathetic stance of the press towards the Gypsy music phenomenon can be demonstrated in the lengthy and respectful description of the burial of the most famous Gypsy violinist, Marczi Banda by the Associated Press (“Banda, the Gypsy Musician Who Made an Empress Weep” New York Evening Post, 31 March 1925: 9). The same daily follows up on the plight of the Gypsies in an anonymous, nevertheless elegiac piece of writing, mourning the loss of Gypsy lifestyle, foreseeable, the writer argues, as a consequence of the planned government measures to settle down the Gypsies in Hungary. Although the article clearly states that Gypsy musicians started to lose ground due to the advance of the jazz band, it concludes “this is a lament on the passing of the last few spots of color from the world’s already too drab face” (“Votes for Violins” 24 July 1928 4). The Post also shared with its readers the news of a plan to establish a department of jazz primarily for Gypsy musicians at the Music Conservatory in Budapest. The conclusion of the editorial was that the fight against jazz by the classical establishment had proven hopeless, and another step of the ”so-called Americanization of Europe” had been completed. But readers could also have remembered the earlier reports of this newspaper regarding the loss of popularity of the Gypsy music when reading conclusion of the anonymous editor: “mere propaganda is never able to suppress anything that has merit. People buy what they want, listen to the kind of music they prefer and accept ideals that appeal to them without caring greatly about their origin or nationality.” (“A Chair for Jazz” 17 Nov. 1928. 10).

“The public still likes jazz. And the female part likes the jazzband, too.” – despite the fact that administrative restrictions have been posed onto the music of Americans in Hungary, judged the commentator of the Shenectady New York Gazette (20 July 1928. 4). Lighthearted and sometimes ironic, these reports take it for granted that the ultimate judge in the clash would be the audience, and some writers predict that the fight against the more modern style of music, jazz, by an ancient one, Gypsy music, is a hopeless one.

One of these writers, James Weldon Johnson was an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance, and the first African American executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1920 to 1930. He fought racial discrimination and purging as a lawyer, writer, poet and newspaper editor. He was also the co-author of the “Negro Anthem” Lift Every Voice and Sing. He remarked in his column in The New York Age on the news from Hungary under the title Losing Fight: “It is interesting to see this conflict between American Negro music, the newest dance music, and Hungarian gypsy (sic!) music, the oldest dance music…Gypsy bands have perhaps been furnishing Europe with dance music for nearly a thousand years” (James Weldon Johnson “A Losing Fight. Views and Reviews” The New York Age 10 June 1922. 4).

Johnson is wrong presuming that Gypsy bands, alas Hungarian Gypsy musicians have dominated the European scene for a thousand years; this probably just comes as the echo of clichés of the Hungarian millennium still ruling the discourse in the press about the Hungarian past. Nor is it correct to refer to Gypsy music as dance music only – and the article on giving the Gypsies voting rights for the first time is also based an a false presumption. But the social situation when a large section of the population loses their daily bread due to an influx of foreign labor could have sounded familiar to Johnson. In the 1920s the situation of Afro-American workers could not improve because instead of them the many new white immigrants were hired systematically, resulting in Black nativism. Six years later Johnson’s stance on the role of Black Americans in jazz and its international significance was clearer: “The only thing that may be termed artistic, by which the United States is known the world over, is its Negro-derived popular music. The folk creations of the Negro have not only received a new appreciation; they have—the spirituals excepted—been taken over and assimilated. They are no longer racial; they are national; they have become a part of our common cultural fund” (Johnson 1928).

5. Reactions of the Hungarian musical establishment to the jazz band

One of the most important Hungarian music critics of the age, Antal Molnár (1890-1983), a pioneer for the music of Bartók, Kodály and modern composers, devoted a complete volume, Jazzband, to the new style. He finished the manuscript at the end of 1927, making his book one of the first serious treatises of jazz published in Europe. He also discussed what he termed “the new craze” in another book he wrote the same year. His standpoint is revealed by the title of the corresponding chapter: Sexuality and Culture (The Jazzband) (Molnár 1927). He was immensely concerned about keeping up what he called traditional European values of morale that he associated with high culture in the face of what he saw as the severe American challenge to it: the fashion of the modern age nudity and the shimmy, the blues and the charleston. He warned: “Our only dangerous antagonist is America”, calling on what he thought was the best defense: “…being aware of the healthy boundaries of the role rhythm should take, crossing them I know to be harmful for the life of culture’ (Molnár 1927, 57).

A much more understanding interpretation for the social role of jazz came from quarters one would not expect it from: Pater Blazovich, a Benedictine secondary school teacher and writer discussed “Our music culture and the machine” in a Catholic weekly. He wrote “For the modern man, who is attacked by the particular music of the machine from a thousand different points, rhythm can be the most meaningful. …The love of passionate rhythm has made jazz popular, too, it is the Negro rhythm and melody resolved in western music with a refined technique” (Blazovich).

While Molnár was one of the music critics of the modernist periodical Nyugat (Occident), its main rival from the conservative side, Napkelet (Orient) also confronted the challenge posed by the jazz band. Music critic Margit Prahács, who soon became the chief librarian of the Music Academy, recommended a revised, refreshed viewpoint to look at jazz in 1929, especially in contrast with Gypsy Music. The latter, she argued, was not contemporary any longer, and its claims to be essentially Hungarian were not well-founded, either. Gypsy music, she noted, stood nearer to the soul of the peoples of India than to those of Hungary. In line with the ideology of the populist writer’s movement that she and the journal Napkelet had identified with, she was quick to observe that the newest generations were turning their ears towards Hungarian rural folk music (Prahács 544).

A different perspective is demonstrated by music critic and teacher Emil Haraszti, who was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in Budapest 1920-27. He discussed the issues that have arisen in the wake of the jazz band in a book for the general reading public:

Modern art strains the line at the feverish tempo of speed. This rhythm of life, to increase the speed record, since European folk music is not sufficient to freshen up the crippled creativity, fuels its engine by the ancient primitive rhythmic energy of America and Africa (jazz). Linear music principally advocates the cult of forms, nevertheless its clash of problems and the fixture of horizontal energies delays the crystallizing of forms. (Haraszti 77)

On the other hand, one of the best selling writers of musical books in these years, Géza Falk, mixed criticism and respect for the phenomenon of jazz as encountered by European audiences:

In the New World negro and jazz music lived in and was shaped by the hands of educated musicians, while we, in Europe, only heard about it occasionally. The U.S. soldiers stationed on West-European arenas and the western countries communicating freely with the States and the publishers gradually transplanted the music from America. After the end of the world war this typical American music poured into Europe as if it was hot lava. The waltz, the chanson and the grand operetta have proven to be too soft a material for the deranged nerves of European peoples, and an all embracing, short, 32-bar form was needed, the «uniformed» music. It had a rounded shape, varied, stimulating rhythm, new type of melody, harmony and instrumentation which raked up the shattered nerves and made us the smell of yesterday’s blood forget! Jazz music crashed on European dance music with an elemental force that was both subversive and transformative. (Falk 229-30)

Falk, like other critics (e.g. Molnár 1928, 107), resorted to a piece of public wisdom when he tried to explain the “exalted” nature of jazz and its quick absorption in Europe by the distress and the sentiments of the post-war era. As early as in 1919 this view was expressed in the Budapest tabloid Az Est (The Evening), and it seemed to determine the public perception of jazz for the decade: “The dance craze is a strange nerve phenomenon of the post-war world” (“Jazz” Az Est, 23 October 1919: 4). By describing jazz as “the greatest revolution that music history has known” at the same time predicting the waning of the fashion of jazz soon, and its further absorption in Hungarian music, Haraszti shows that before the end of the decade the process leading to the acceptance of jazz by the music establishment has definitely started (1928, 37-38).

6. Conclusion

”The Hungarian soul” is from where every Gypsy musician believed with pride his songs originated (Sárosi 9), and their audience in the Hungarian part of the dual monarchy indeed considered this music and its traditional way of cultivation a national cultural treasure. Critics such as Haraszti referred to Gypsy music as the apt expression of irredentism, the nationalist ideology dominating the political discourse after the first world war. For most of the twenties a peaceful resolution of the clash between Gypsy music and jazz seemed impossible. While the Gypsy musicians repeatedly turned to local and national authorities for support of their material interests, the impression of people involved with jazz in Hungary and abroad was that a clash of this kind could not be resolved by one group defeating the other. Reactions in the press observed that it was all about winning the audience. The leader of the jazz band in the Hotel Aranybika (Golden Bull) in the eastern city of Debrecen was unequivocal about the issue when asked what he thought of the lobbying of Gypsy musicians: he said it was only the audience should decide what music they wanted to hear (Sárosi 201). This argument was also voiced by the New York Evening Post, quoted above. In the long run, the integration of the American hits into the repertoire of the Gypsy band was a more sophisticated response. Members of Gypsy orchestras, especially the well-educated ones, found a way to jump on the bandwagon they had been trying to run against earlier. The leader of the orchestra in the Hotel Aranybika, quoted above, replied in the interview that the saxophone player in his band was, in fact, a Gypsy musician originally from a Gypsy orchestra, and he had been employed because the band had been “open to anyone who could read and play music well” (201). The reporter of the Pesti Tőzsde [the daily of the Budapest Stock Exchange] got the same explanation from the bandleader engaged in the elegant Hotel Ritz: his sax player used to play in the Gypsy orchestra of Béla Radics, but was trained at the Music Academy and is now happily employed in the jazz band (233-4). At the Gypsy Union headquarters on Kálvária square in the capital some of the members told the reporter of Magyarország (Hungary) that one could not stand still, one must progress with the times and “learn the new dances, tango and charleston.” Another Gypsy musician was handing out pre-arranged scores of jazz era tunes to various other Gypsy association member musicians (219). An almost identical assessment of the situation can be read in the New York Evening Post in 1925: “The Gypsies must keep up with the times. Driven from Paris, London and Vienna, they have taken refuge in Budapest, and even here they alternate csárdás and plainland melodies with Irving Berlin” (31 March 1925, 5). Editor-in-chief of the main modernist literary journal Nyugat (Occident) of the times, Ignotus predicted in 1928 in a newspaper article that ”Today the Gypsy and the jazz play music separately, but not for much longer because it is to be feared that the Gypsy will be eaten up by jazz.” (Sárosi 240).

During their migration, Romani people have successfully assimilated the folklore, song and dance of the host peoples and nations, leading to the development of new styles, such as flamenco. Jazz, however, is a particular blend of styles and influences, developed in North America mostly by African-Americans, partly under the influence of European- style classical music. It is able to absorb many different musical approaches, and by the time it became popular in Europe and Hungary, the second half of the twenties, it had been perceived as a unique style, to become a new genre in music. The first Hungarian book on jazz comparing the improvisation of Gypsy music to that of jazz observed that jazz was not supposed to divert from a fixed meter and rhythm, unlike the typical rubato of Gypsy musicians – a conclusion proven wrong by the development of jazz since (Molnár 1928, 16-17). Despite differences in their respective cultural and social situation, acculturation as well as the spirit of openness were instrumental for both the Hungarian Gypsy and the African American jazz musicians in absorbing most diverse cultural influences while also striving to maintain their respective cultural heritage. Yet it was jazz that evolved into the modern vernacular of assimilated and highly trained Hungarian musicians of Gypsy origin, producing generations of staggering jazz talents in the second half of the century – a complicated process to be discussed in another paper.


Works Cited

  • Bartók, Béla. “Cigányzene? Magyar zene?” [Gypsy Music? Hungarian Music?] Ethnographia. 1931. Vol. 42. Number 2. 49–62.
  • Bergmeier, Horst P. J.–Lotz, Rainer E. “James Arthur Briggs” Black Music Research Journal. 2010. Vol. 30, Number 1. 93-147.
  • Blazovich, Jákó OSB. “Zenekultúránk s a gép.”[Our music culture and the machine] Élet 1933. Vol. 25. 281-4.
  • Englund, Björn. “Chocolate Kiddies. The Show That Brought Jazz to Europe And Russia In 1925” 1975. Storyville No. 62. 44-50.
  • Falk, Géza. Mindentudó zenei zsebkönyv. [Universal pocket guide to music] 1936. Budapest: Rózsavölgyi.
  • Federmayer, Éva. “Nation, Gender, and Race in the Ragtime Culture of Millennial Budapest” In: Comparative Hungarian Cultural Studies. Ed. Steven Totosy de Zepetnek and Louise O. Vasvari. 544-561. 2011. West Lafayette: Purdue UP
  • Gillett, Rachel. “Jazz and the Evolution of Black American Cosmopolitanism in Interwar Paris.” Journal of World History. 2010. Volume 21, Number 3, pp. 471-496
  • Gonda, János. Jazzvilág. [The world of jazz] 2004. Budapest: Rózsavölgyi.
  • Hanák, Péter. “A bécsi és a budapesti operett történeti helye.” [The historical place of the Vienna and the Budapest operetta] Budapesti Negyed. 1997. No. 16-17. 9-30.
  • Haraszti, Emil. “A jazz” Budapesti Hírlap 25 Dec.1927, 37-38
  • —-, A zenei formák eredetéről. [On the origin of musical forms] 1931 Budapest: Magyar Szemle
  • Hirschenberger, Wolfgang. Ragtime unter dem Doppeladler 1901-1928 (RST 90284251) 1988. Liner notes to the LP, see alo http://www.jazzkutatas.eu/article.php?id=435&skey
  • Johnson, James Weldon. “Race Prejudice and the Negro Artist” Harper’s 1928. The Annals of America: 1928. (November) Vol. 14-1928. Web.
  • Kjellberg, Eric. A Visionary Swedish Musician – Jan Johansson. 1998. Stockholm: Svensk Musik.
  • Lotz, Rainer E. Black People, entertainers of African descent in Germany, and Europe. Essays by Rainer E. Lotz, with contributions by Jeffrey Green, Howard Rye and Bruce Bastin. 1997 Bonn: Birgit Lotz.
  • Molnár, Antal. Bevezetés a zenekultúrába. A zeneművészet barátainak. [Introduction to music culture. For the fans of the art of music] 1927. Budapest: Dante
  • Molnár, Antal. Jazzband. 1928. Budapest: Dante.
  • Orlay, Jenő “Chappy”. Dzsessz-dobbal a világ körül. [Around the world with a jazz drumkit] 1943. Budapest: published by the author.
  • Prahács, Margit. “Forma és kifejezés a zenében” [Form and expression in music] Budapest: Magyar Királyi Egyetemi Nyomda, 1932.
  • Sárosi, Bálint. A cigányzenekar múltja. II. 1904-1944. Az egykorú sajtó tükrében. [The past of the Gypsy orchestra. vol. 2. 1904-1944. In the mirror of the contemporary press] 2012. Budapest: Nap.
  • Simon, Géza Gábor. Magyar Jazztörténet [Hungarian Jazz History]. 1999. Budapest: Magyar Jazzkutatási Társaság
  • —-. 2007. K.u.K. Ragtime: Az Oszrák-Magyar Monarchia Ragtime-korszaka [K.u.K. Ragtime. The ragtime era of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy] Budapest: Pytheas
  • Schulz, Klaus. “Jazz in Wien zwischen den Kriegen – The Roaring Twenties. Syncopated Orchestra, Arthur Briggs, die Weihburg-Bar und Chocolate Kiddies” FOX auf 78, 2000. No. 19 (Frühjahr)
  • Somfai László: Mi a magyar Bartók zenéjében? [What is Hungarian in the music of Bartók] In: Szegedy-Maszák, Mihály – Romsics, Ignác (eds.) 2005 Mi a magyar? [What is Hungarian?] Budapest: Habsburg Inst.-Rubicon. print 231-257
  • Szabolcsi, Bence–Tóth, Aladár. Zenei lexikon I-II [Encyclopedia of Music] 1930. Budapest: Győző Andor.
  • Wilson, Clint C. II, Whither the Black Press? Glorious past, Uncertain Future 2014. Bloomington: XLIBRIS
  • Zipernovszky, Kornél. “Kinek köszönheti Bécs a Charlestont? – A jazzkorszak magyar szemmel.” [Who Started the Charleston in Vienna? The Jazz Age through Hungarian Eyes] In.: Álmok köntöse – Magyar írók Bécs-élménye 1873-1936. [A gown of dreams. The Vienna experience of Hungarian writers 1873-1936] 2011. Budapest: Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum.



An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Conference of HUSSE (Hungarian Society for the Study of English) in Budapest, January 2013. All quotations from sources published in Hungary, unless otherwise noted, are my translations. I wish to express my gratitude to Canadian jazz historian Mark Miller for his support.

1 The national character of works of visual arts, literature and music perceived as Hungarian on the territory of the Hungarian Kingdom from the early nineteenth century onwards did not have to be defined, it was obvious for most of their practitioners and audience. However Somfai points out, that for scholars of the first half of the twentieth century the stress on various aspects of Hungarian culture shifted from Hungarian in language, or to a lesser extent, in character to Hungarian in the geographic sense. (Somfai 233)

2 The origin of the meaning goes back to the early nineteenth century when in Hungary printed notes of dance music bore the description Magyarnóta to differentiate their contents from non-Hungarian dances, also fashionable at the time. Later in the 19th century these songs were also described as national songs, as a synonim, to denote their domestic origin. The semantic difference between the Hungarian synonims of nóta and dal (song, as in folksong) is that only the first one can have a pejorative meaning (Sárosi 10).

3 Well established Gypsy bands often preferred to call themselves an orchestra, because the term banda was sometimes used pejoratively in the interwar period. This was driven to the extreme in the sixties and later, when they were featured in public radio broadcasts as folk orchestras, omitting Gypsy.

4 Antal Molnár published Jazzband in Budapest in 1928; he also wrote the corresponding entries in the 1930 Music Encyclopedia edited by Bence Szabolcsi and Aladár Tóth. In the main Hungarian newspaper and journal articles on the topic between 1925 and 1928 Molnár, Sándor Jemnitz, Miklós Vadász as well as the poet Cézár Brichta write about the jazzband, while János Vannay, Árpád Sándor, Emil Haraszti and Mátyás Seiber discuss jazz as a musical genre.

5 Interior Ministry Resolution 168.809; Oct. 10, 1924.

6 There is a concensus of historians internationally that in the case of Hungary the treaty harmed the Wilson principles, which it was supposed to be based on, see: Romsics, Ignác. 2001. A trianoni békeszerződés. Budapest: Osiris.