"Ragtime dead? Hell, it ain't even sick!" - Bob Darch
The Bohém Ragtime & Jazz Festival is the largest jazz festival in Hungary. It has been going strong since 1992 under the direction of Tamás Ittzés, who just happens to also be an accomplished classical violinist, composer, pianist, jazz bandleader, recording artist, and high school music teacher. Actually, thinking about all the things that Tamás does makes me slightly dizzy.
When I e-mailed for tickets to the festival, I got a prompt reply from Tamás, which was reassuring as initially I wasn’t quite sure if my plan to travel to Hungary to attend a jazz festival was inspired whim or mere folly. Upon my arrival in Kecskemét, I went as instructed to pick up tickets at the concert venue, and sure enough there was Tamás, surrounded by of a flurry of festival activity. He was talking to several people simultaneously, but when I caught his eye and identified myself, he bounded forward and off we went off in search of "Monica," who was in charge of tickets. Tamás spoke rapid-fire and idiomatic English, and I was impressed to learn he was completely self-taught. Tickets in hand, I was set for the evening and the next day’s performances.
That evening, the lobby of the Erdei Ferenc Cultural Center was a festive scene, with the Smiling Ragtime Band providing background music as the audience filtered in and casually mingled. The concert hall doors opened at 6:30, and I found my seat—smack in the center in the sixth row back. Perfect.
The opening group was the eight-member Belgrade Dixieland Orchestra, the only Dixieland band in Serbia & Montenegro—in fact, as far as they know they’re the only Dixieland band in the Balkans, period. Thankfully, bandleader Vladimir Rackovic spoke English, the lingua franca of the jazz world, and introduced the numbers, including such perennials as "The Tiger Rag" and "Yes Sir, That’s My Baby." A few songs into the set, a striking dark-haired woman, vocalist, Bobana Djordjevic, came on stage. She used smoldering vocals and a feather boa to full effect during such numbers as "St. James’ Infirmary," and "Basin Street Blues," which were both dedicated to the people of New Orleans.
The Belgrade Dixieland Orchestra
The set’s highlights included clarinetist Ivan Svager’s solo in "Wildcat Blues" and trombonist Ljubomir Matijaca on "St. Louis Blues." The band even performed a traditional Serbian folksong to a Dixieland tempo. After each number, the audience showed its appreciation in the characteristic Hungarian manner, at first clapping individually and randomly, but then, at an uncannily consensual moment, the random clapping would coalesce in a unified rhythm, increasing in tempo and volume in proportion to the audience’s enthusiasm.
Next on stage was the Aulos Saxophone Quartet, four classical clarinetists trained at the famed Liszt Academy in Budapest whose love of ragtime had brought them together. I hadn’t ever heard ragtime performed by a saxophone quartet, but actually the layered sound of the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass saxes provided an interesting tonal color that was quite appealing. The quartet performed lesser-known pieces by James Scott, Tom Turpin, and Joseph Lamb in transcriptions done by Zoltán Szűcs.
Outside the crush bar during intermission, I collared Ivan Maksimovic, the English-speaking bassist from the Belgrade Dixieland Orchestra. It turned out he’d studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, which I foolishly confused with Berkeley on the left coast until he set me straight.
The final performers of the evening, Andor’s Jazz Band, hailed from the Netherlands. At least, that is most of them did. The following day in the hotel lobby, I met the band’s trumpeter, who turned out to be from Delaware, not too far from my hometown in Maryland. When I asked him how he came to be playing in a Dutch jazz band, he regaled me with a saga that started when he graduated from music school in the States and landed his first professional job as a bugler at Churchill Downs. Before each race, including, of course, the Kentucky Derby, out he’d step to perform the ra-ra-ta-ta-ta strains of the "First Call."
There’s no two ways about it. You meet some interesting people when you travel.
But back to the festival. Loquacious bandleader Andor Lukács introduced each number in fragments of Hungarian generously interlarded with Russian, English, German, and French phrases. It was, oddly enough, almost understandable, though I had the feeling that the Hungarian audience may not have exactly relished being addressed as "Gospozha ee Gospodin" (Russian for "ladies and gentlemen"). Once the intros ended, however, his band effortlessly swung into compositions by Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and other bandleaders of the 1920’s and 30’s. Pieces such as "Delta Bound," "Dream a Little Dream of Me," "In a Sentimental Mood," and "The Man I Love" proved crowd pleasers.
It was getting on midnight when the concert ended and I left the Cultural Center to walk the blessedly few short blocks to my hotel. After five hours of jazz, I felt I’d been around the world, both musically and linguistically.