Pesti Vigadó interviewed Kossuth Award winning Hungarian jazz musician and founding member of Hot Jazz Band Tamás Bényei about his inspirations, what jazz means to him and what the secret is behind his Band, which is turning 35 years old this year. Pesti Vigadó also inquired about what performance the Band is staging at their New Year's Eve concert in 2020.
Interview by Niki Nyírő.
What musical instruments do you play?
I started to play the trumpet when I was 9: I learnt to play it at a music school. I taught myself how to play the banjo without using notes when I was 11, and then I learnt to play the guitar all by myself when I was 15. In fact, I also play the ukulele, plectrum, banjo, mouth organ, and I am just about to play the alto saxophone.
Which is your favourite instrument and why?
I equally like all of these instruments, but perhaps my favourite is the banjo, which I first played and actually started to play of my own accord; this instrument has a very special sound, which always cheers me up. In this respect, the trumpet has a similar role in my life: I play the trumpet also to sound my favourite music. Still, the greatest joy is not produced by the instrument itself but by the freedom that we experience while playing it.
You graduated from the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. Have you ever had fine art ambitions in your life?
Of course. The knowledge I gained at the University is not useless. In the case of dedicated people, artistic creation is a lifelong process. I was charmed and captivated by music, so to say. Perhaps later, when I am less active in my music career, I will again work as a fine artist. In fact, one of the diploma works of mine at the University was a portrait of Louis Armstrong. Later I also prepared portraits of Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt. If I have the time later, I would like to continue this series. It is actually also me who is going to create the illustrations to our Band's new album entitled Hot Jazz Band for Children and Grown-ups (Hot Jazz Band kicsiknek és nagyoknak), which is under preparation at the moment.
What music and musicians inspired you and prompted you to move in the direction of jazz?
From the period of my childhood, my first memory is connected to an almost 100-year-old gramophone: not necessarily to jazz but to the voices of the stars of that era, including Hungarian singers Katalin Karády and Pál Kalmár. Then, at the music school I attended, my trumpet teacher and leader of the young dixieland band János Apáti had a great impact on me when he played live music to us.
Then I listened to records by Louis Armstrong, Wild Bill Davison, the Dutch Swing College Band and Django Reinhardt. Simply put, I was inspired by the greatest stars.
Later, during my career, I was exposed to new musical experiences by numerous foreign musicians, whom I also met personally or played with. Such names include Stéphane Grapelli, Joe Murányi, Allan Vaché, Lee Floyd, Howard Alden and Woody Allen's banjo star Eddy Davis, who unfortunately died this spring due to contracting COVID-19.
Which of your awards made the deepest impression on you?
Certainly it was the Kossuth Award. It transformed our lives, especially with respect to our spiritual standing. The value of the work we executed so far became clear and visible, which provided us with great incentive as far as our present, future and the realisation of our plans are concerned. Apart from this, our Sidney D'Or Award in 1995 was likewise influential in my life. This award embodies the most prestigious dixieland competition's trophy in the world. At the competition, we were ranked first among 52 bands. This signals a remarkable success as all this happened in France, which was and has continued to be the centre of the world's jazz life.
What is the most memorable experience of your music career?
I cannot highlight one single moment. All days of our lives are filled with great experience: we meet people with high musical impact, we look around the world, we experience marvellous moments and we also see and feel our audience's happiness. Probably, the power of music seems the most prevalent in this respect: the human soul is capable of regenerating while one is listening to music. In this context, I mean the soul of both the audience and the performer. Music radiates some kind of happiness and some kind of vigour. Music makes everything weightless and insignificant, and it even stops time for a while. And this is the most wonderful experience one can feel during a musical career.
What does being a jazz musician mean to you?
To me it means that I am not merely dreaming but I am realising my dreams. This lifestyle has taught me many things: it taught me to grow up, to be responsible, to behave, to be disciplined and to be able to come up to basic expectations, which are inevitable and are essential not only to stage life. Our music has become my profession and calling, and music has also become a mission for our Band due to its exotic nature and long-established past. Every time I step on the stage I feel I am a traveller who is unknown and who must conquer human hearts over and over again. I believe this is the only way one can deliver quality performances. Despite its constraints, one also feels a large amount of freedom in this profession.
Hot Jazz Band is turning 35 years old this year. What feelings do you associate with playing in the Band for such a long time?
I have been preparing for this career throughout my whole life, and I can never get bored of experiencing this feeling again and again. Our job on stage is to reveal some of the faces of the thousands of musical styles we play. As far as music is concerned, this is an enormous goldmine. I have always planned with long periods in mind as far as the human aspect of our Band is concerned: I have always had regular band members in mind, but life sometimes wanted it differently. I can reassure you that it is possible to stay together with the right and suitable people for a long period of time and it is also feasible to establish very good-natured relationships with them. Many things contribute to quality work in the field of music and, for members of a music band, being accustomed to one another is definitely one thing that contributes to quality performances.
How would you characterise the style of music the Band plays?
The secret lies in small details: in the shaping of our music, in its dynamics, and in our harmony with one another and in our synchronised actions. It is not an exaggeration to say that all of those Hungarian musicians are members of this Band who have the knowledge and skills to perform the jazz music of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The style of our Band can be characterised as rhythm-oriented, sophisticated and, to the greatest possible extent, musically educated. This encompasses everything that is mostly typical of the golden age of jazz.
Do you think one can make a bad job of musical improvisation?
Yes, definitely! In addition to the necessary musical foundations, there are also stylistic requirements. The freedom of improvisation is not equal to the opportunity of making mistakes. A good jazz musician will improvise using a framework of harmony. The means and manner of creating such harmony changes from style to style and from age to age, but there are strict rules to follow. Freedom is embedded in knowledge, but it is only through observing rules that one can be free even within this genre. The more one knows, the freer one is, and the fewer mistakes one will make.
Is there a contemporary Hungarian band – performing in any genre – that you like listening to?
Rather than bands I would prefer to mention only songs that I like listening to. The last song I got to love a lot is entitled "If you knew (Ha te tudnád)" performed by Ági Herczku and Nikola Parov. And I also like listening to music by other bands. A great opportunity to listen to other people's music is Hot Jazz Band in its big band formation called Tamás Bényei and Gramophonia Hot Jazz Orchestra. A performance by this formation will be hosted by Pesti Vigadó on 31st December.
What jazz hits does the repertoire of this New Year's Eve concert contain?
We will play music from the decades mentioned above, and there will also be a show of the music and dances of the American swing era, which performance will be made complete with the participation of Melody Dance Company. In addition, great Hungarian hits, in versions revived by our Band, will likewise be played. All this will result in a unique show as the musical sound at the concert will be that of a contemporary full orchestra, which only archive recordings are capable of reproducing.
What experience can your audience expect at your New Year's Eve concert in 2020?
The audience will be able to experience matchless elevating happiness characteristic of the beginning of the 1900s: this was the time when the inhabitants of metropolises discovered music for themselves and lay the foundations of pop music as we know it today. The music of that era is imbued with the joy of discovery through the incorporation of all musical traditions available in musical history up to that point. And this is exactly what makes this musical style really eternal.