On a Mission to Promote Jazz in Hungary

Music

Lizz Wright

Photo by Jesse Kitt

On April 26, the 2023 edition of Jazzfest Budapest kicks off with an appearance by smoky-voiced American jazz and gospel singer songwriter Lizz Wright. The program also includes a rare European appearance by U.S. bassist Stanley Clarke, a founding member of pioneering jazz-fusion band Return to Forever and a film score composer, on May 6.

The driving force behind Jazzfest is Attila Kleb, a photographer in his day job for the past 37 years. Kleb became a convert to jazz when he was assigned to photograph Miles Davis in concert in Budapest in 1989. The poster for Miles’ next, and final, concert used one of Kleb’s photographs. Kleb says it was a highlight of his life meeting Miles before that show.

Bitten by the jazz bug, Kleb ran a small CD store selling jazz and classical recordings for a few years. Although the store was tiny, he organized intimate chamber concerts. GetCloser Concerts, founded by Kleb and other like minds, was formed in 2014. Since then, it has put on roughly 200 shows featuring some of the biggest names in jazz as well as future stars. Jazzfest itself began in 2021 on, Kleb told me, a sleepless night in November.

“I realized it was time to level up, think bigger and do something about jazz increasingly taking a back seat in the media and public consciousness, despite the fact that there are so many amazing, talented musicians here. It was incredible to me that Budapest, a magical, diverse city with a vibrant cultural life, hadn’t had a major international jazz festival for nearly 15 years.”

That first year, although there was funding from the Capital and National Cultural Fund, Jazzfest organizers worked for free. The festival program was enjoyed by a mostly local audience of between 7,500 and 8,000.

For Kleb, a major achievement this year was putting together the team of curators taking charge of the festival:  Miklós Lukács, Tamara Mózes, Mihály Borbély, Kornél Mogyoró and Krisztián Oláh.

“I’m convinced that with this team, we’ll achieve major changes and overcome the challenges somewhat paralyzing and poisoning the domestic jazz scene,” Kleb says.

International Appeal

As the festival has its own ticketing system, Kleb can see that there are significantly more people coming from abroad than last year. This is important to him.

“It’s vital that the city is not dominated by party tourists, but that cultural tourism is given as much weight as possible, as it enhances the value of the city in our common interest. We trust that the government will welcome this goal with open arms.”

Asked what he thought would be the highlights of the festival, apart from the appearances of Lizz Wright and Stanley Clarke (to be honest, the only names I recognized) Kleb prefers to mention his personal favorites.

“László Dés’ band, the Free Sounds Quartet, is entirely improvisational. They’re followed by a fantastically creative duo formed in January this year. Vietnamese-born guitarist Nguyen Lé and drummer-pianist Gary Husband, known from Level 42 and later John McLaughlin’s band, will join Dés and his band for more improvisation,” the founder explains.

“This is sure to be a fantastic experience, as will be the performance by Mihály Borbély’s Balkan Jazz Project, which has invited Mihály Dresch, one of the icons of Hungarian jazz, to play. These two saxophone geniuses will be joined by the Italian jazz phenom Enzo Favata, who will perform after them. Three saxophones!”

Kleb continues, “Stacey Kent will be joined by the Danubius Orchestra to pay tribute to the work of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Also worth mentioning are the Avishai Cohen Trio and Stefano Bollani’s piano concert. Anouar Brahem, one of the biggest stars of the ECM label, will perform at the Music Academy. This, for me, is a clear sign of Jazzfest’s mounting prestige.”

Hungarian Contributions

Hungary has made major contributions to the world jazz scene. For example, through musicians such as Gábor Szabó and jazz players’ perpetual fascination with composer and ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók.

But, today, in Kleb’s opinion, “The whole genre is completely marginalized in Hungary. Only members of a small subculture go to the concerts. Jazz gets no coverage in the media and, sadly, cultural policy acts as if it doesn’t exist. And we still produce outstanding musicians.”

With this in mind, as well as promoting jazz, Jazzfest Budapest features special performances where Hungarian musicians play with world stars and hopefully attract ears to their talent.

Kleb is keen to draw attention to the April 30 Jazz Day program of free concerts, officially part of a day of free concerts around the world promoting the genre, finishing with an international gala broadcast live globally. Jazz Day was launched in 2011, by Herbie Hancock and the institute he founded, and is supported by UNESCO.

Last year, the finale of Jazz Day was watched by 30 million viewers. Kleb and his team are working hard to bring the gala to Budapest.

“We’ve had lengthy discussions with global event organizers,” he tells me, “and managed to convince them that our concept is worth supporting. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do, and we need major financial support.”

Until that happens, anyone with open ears can head for Madách tér on April 30 and enjoy music from the Balkan Union, the János Nagy Trio, the Péter Sárik Trio and, finally, the Jazzfest Budapest Allstar Gala among others. If everything goes as planned, Kleb and his team will stream the event live online.

Check out the Jazzfest Budapest program at jazzfestbudapest.hu. Listen to “Holding Space,” Lizz Wright’s latest album, recorded live in Berlin, on major streaming platforms.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of March 24, 2023.

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