Hungarian Gypsy Ragtime 1905-1919.
The Original Recordings. Early Syncopated Music of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.
Cake Walk, Ragtime, One Step, Two Step, Fox Trott, Shimmy
If you ever heard a gypsy orchestra play in a restaurant you probably know that they transform every kind of music into their special gypsy style and perform it in their own way. They are able to integrate anything into their musical world. It has been so for a long time, thus gypsies performed the most popular tunes of any style of the certain era. Maybe because of its originality and, one could say, fascinating sound, this kind of gypsy music became very popular even among the members of the high society of Hungary in the second half of the last century. I say this kind because original gypsy folk music is something totally different. The music we label gypsy is an "urban" kind of gypsy music (which does not necessarily mean that it did not exist in smaller villages, too). This urban gypsy music had more connections to the Hungarian popular music of the era than to gypsy folk music. However, it was purely gypsy, it was definitely their style (listen to the Hungarian Dances of Brahms - as these are good examples of serious music influenced by the Hungarian urban (?) gypsy music). And, as I mentioned at the beginning, gypsies could integrate anything into their repertoire. And that is the point where jazz comes in view. The best gypsy orchestras always were extremely up to date. Whenever they heard a tune which could become popular they played it the next day. Many times they made those tunes really popular. That happened with jazz tunes, too.
This is a CD with old recordings from the early years of the 20th century mostly played by the gypsy orchestra of Béla Berkes Jr. Berkes himself was titled the "official dance musician of the Court of the Emperor and King" (referring to the K. und K. - kaiserlich und königlich - era of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy). It means that the music he played was enjoyed even by the highest nobles of the region. And this certainly must have affected the musical fashion of the time. The fact, that we have so many tunes recorded by the extensively touring Berkes' group, means that the recorded ragtime and pre-jazz songs were really popular in that era. It is obvious that without the gypsy orchestras the popularity of ragtime and jazz in Hungary would not have been on the level as it was in the first two decades of this century. Even there were many vaudeville type locals, cabares both in Vienna and Budapest where black American artists performed (and then whites acting blacks just like in the US) and even these venues were popular of that time, certainly the gypsies were pioneers in this case and made bigger influence on most people. They had the "privilige" to direct or at least affect musical fashion.
Such a tune as Alexander's Ragtime Band was recorded in Hungary about one year after it came out in the US (Irving Berlin composed it in 1911) and immediately became a big hit. According to one of its new Hungarian texts (we have three different versions from 1912!), Alexander's Ragtime Band was often entitled "Bärentanz" (Bear Dance) as it appears here, too. There is no other tune on this record that would still be well-known nowadays but they certainly were the favourite numbers of the era when ragtime, syncopated music and early American jazz was at least as exotic to Hungarians as gypsy orchestras to Americans. Altough I've spoken of American music, this selection contains some tunes composed by Austro-Hungarian composers but their music obviously has a very strong American influence and for the general public, these tunes were American music, anyway. I said, Austro-Hungarian composers and I mean it. Almost half of the population of Budapest was native Germans at that time and also many Hungarians (mostly members of the high society but some of them did compose music!) lived in Vienna. We had "joint countries" with "joint culture". Even though the Austrians dominated, Hungarians, Slovaks and other nations influenced each other back and forth on every field, especially in music. And gypsies were an important part of that strange multi-national society.
However, due to the similar full orchestra sound throughout the CD, this album wouldn't be as enjoyable to an average listener as important it is for the Hungarian jazz history. And it is not only Hungarian jazz history. Just note the labels, including Columbia many times, these tunes were originally issued on. Credits go to Géza Gábor Simon for collecting, selecting and publishing these important early recordings. Thanks to Wolfgang Hirschenberger (Vienna, Austria) and Rainer E. Lotz (Bonn, Germany) for letting Simon use some numbers from their personal collections. I'm sure, all researchers, discographers, historians and jazz lovers will be delighted to have these original recordings available.
Cover text to the CD Hungarian Gypsy Ragtime 1905-1919. The Original Recordings (Pannon Jazz PJ 1022) (1997)