Remembering Legendary Jazz Guitarist Gábor Szabó

Sights

The self-taught guitarist fled Hungary in 1956, made his way to the States and had a huge influence on Carlos Santana, among others. He died tragically young.

Gábor Szabó and János Másik (with back to camera) in a still taken from one of their 1970s TV appearances.

All Gábor Szabó took with him that dark night of November 1956 when he crossed the border from Hungary into Austria was the thing that mattered most to him.

As he later told Jazz magazine, he thought the acoustic guitar “would be a pacifier in case we were caught. At night, though, it looked like a machine gun; I may have been inviting trouble, now that I think about it.”

Szabó was born in Budapest in 1936 and died there in 1982. He was inspired to play guitar by a Roy Rogers cowboy movie and pretty much taught himself. His earliest influences were Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Tal Farlow, heard on the Voice of America radio station which broadcast to combat Soviet propaganda.

Settling in San Bernadino, California, after he escaped to the West, Szabó attempted a career in music but ended up working as a janitor to save enough money to enroll at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He was accepted to study composition and arranging there in 1958. In that year, he took part in the historic Newport Jazz Festival, and things happened to him fast.

After Berklee, Szabó joined the Chico Hamilton Quintet. As he told Down Beat magazine in 1965, “It wasn’t until I joined Chico Hamilton in 1962 that I developed my own style and really loosened up.”

Szabó’s solo career began in 1966 with the album “Spellbinder”. It included “Gypsy Queen” which inspired a hit for the band Santana in 1970. Carlos Santana described Szabó’s music as “fantastic, spellbinding […]. Until I heard Gábor, I never knew there were other possibilities with the guitar.”

He also picked up on Szabó’s ability to grab a song “and immediately make it like it’s the first time you ever heard it. It takes a very strong soul personality, not so much an ego personality, to be able to put your fingerprints on somebody else’s song.”

Cult Album

Throughout the 1960s and into the early ’70s, Szabó made sometimes great albums. But it’s 1967’s “Jazz Raga” that has become a cult.

As Matthew Fiander wrote on the Pop Matters website in 2010, the year the album was reissued after languishing in obscurity for too long, “It’s an important jazz record, it’s an important guitar record, and it’s an important rock record.”

With its mix of Hungarian, Indian, jazz and pop music, it’s been suggested that “Jazz Raga” is the first jazz fusion album. Critic Doug Sheppard wrote in his liner notes to the 2010 reissue, “Szabó’s already fluid licks are blended with the sitar in uncanny fashion, producing sounds so far out from jazz that it’s almost an accidental psychedelic rock album.”

“Corny psychedelic […] so f*cked up and good,” is how American singer-songwriter Beck described “Jazz Raga” when he cited it as an inspiration for his 1996 album “Odelay”.

Unfortunately, “Jazz Raga” was met with mild approval but also a large dose of incomprehension on its release. It’s taken the past 50 or so years for a slightly larger audience to catch up with what the cognoscenti saw, or rather heard, right away.

Somewhere along the way, Szabó became a heroin addict. He was treated at a facility connected to Scientology and came under its spell for a time before breaking away. Because of his addiction, he suffered from ill health. On a visit to Budapest in 1982, he was hospitalized and died. He was not even 46. Highly respected Hungarian keyboard player and writer János Másik befriended and played with Szabó when he visited Hungary in the 1970s. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Másik, who told me his story.

Born in 1952, Másik was the right age to fall for rock and roll in the mid-’60s but he soon moved on to the blues and then jazz. His band Interbrass won Hungary’s only talent show in 1972.

“When I was learning jazz, I heard many things about Gábor Szabó, that he was a popular guitar player in the USA. I believed he was very old because I heard so many things about him. But I didn’t hear his music. You couldn’t buy American jazz albums in Hungary then,” Másik told me.

Improvisation

“In 1974, I heard from other musicians that Szabó was going to visit Hungary for the first time since he escaped to the West in 1956. At that time, my band Interbrass would play once a week in Marczibányi square. We didn’t rehearse, just improvised,” he recalled.

“One night when we were playing, a young man was sitting near me with a guitar. ‘What will we play?’ he asked me. ‘I don’t know, we improvise,’ I said. This young man was Gábor Szabó. He later asked me to play keyboards in the band he put together for the two performances filmed for TV in 1974 and ’77. Szabó said I played like the best American jazz musicians.”

Szabó told the younger man stories of his life in the United States, and the musicians he had worked with and played with, including George Harrison, Miles Davis and Chick Corea.

“He opened windows into himself as a simple human being and to another world, very different from Hungary,” Másik said.

Replying to my question as to Szabó’s legacy, Másik said “his music influences younger musicians all over the world. He wasn’t interested in virtuosity but in pouring all of his soul into simple, beautiful musical sentences. He was brave to do things this way.”

You’ll find a decent biography of Szabó at dougpayne.com/szabo.htm. His albums are available at good Budapest record shops. You can watch Carlos Santana talk about Szabó’s influence on him on YouTube. The music of János Másik is available on Spotify.

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