Gabor Szabo in Budapest

Monday, January 8, 2024

I was in Budapest recently, where I was constantly reminded of one of my favorite jazz musicians, Gabor Szabo.  

Gabor Szabo fled Hungary during the failed revolution of 1956. Starting in the late 1970s, however, he was able to return to the country and perform. The video above is from a concert that he gave at the Hilton Hotel in Budapest on January 1, 1978. 

I love everything about this video: the music, the folks in the late 70s socialist-era audience, the evident pre-performance confusion, the cake that he's scarfing down before he goes on stage, the funny way that he's spinning around at the bar, the uniforms that the bar-girls are wearing. The first minute or so looks like a sketch from SCTV. 

I've spent a lot of time in Hungary due to the fact that my daughter is Hungarian. My Hungarian used to be quite good, although it's gotten pretty rusty in recent years. In any case, it was good to go back there. 

Gabor Szabo died in 1982. In 2015 I visited his grave in Budapest's Farkasréti cemetery--he's buried next to his mother. There's something about these border-crossing artists--like Nâzım Hikmet--that certainly interests me. Even more than their artistry, it's their ability to re-invent themselves in new places that I find fascinating. 


For example, my first book was about the so-called "pan-Turkists," Turkic Muslim community activists from Russia who later made their way to Young Turk-era Istanbul and became known as the forefathers of Turkish nationalism. It certainly wasn't their pan-Turkism that interested me, but rather their talent for adjusting to new circumstances and places throughout their careers. So, rather than focus on their "debates" or "ideas" (topics that had already been written on many times), I set out to show how their border-crossing influenced their lives and their writing--and, by extension, how we should understand the origins and development of Turkish nationalism.

Likewise in my book about 
Nâzım Hikmet, it frankly wasn't his poetry (or his politics) that excited me, even though these tend to be the lenses through which people generally write about him. Instead, I saw his life to be a much larger representation of his times, in the form of his border-crossing. This, I realized, was something what Nâzım shared with many others from his generation, and it was this historical context that I found the most compelling. Not only was his border-crossing something that affected his life considerably, but it's also reflected in the various changes that took place in his writing over the course of his publishing career. 

Gabor Szabo, too, is someone like this--a man of his times whose world was changed significantly by his cross-border experiences. Here's a rough sketch of his life, but I really wish someone would write a proper biography of him. If my Hungarian were a little better, that's what I'd be doing now. 

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