The Bohém Ragtime Jazz Band
HEARD IN THE BREAK
The Bohém Ragtime Jazz Band is a frequent visitor to our shores and enjoys an international reputation. Andrew Liddle caught up with their founder and leader, Tamás Ittzés, during their recent tour.
Tell me a little about the band, where it's based, its name and history.
I founded the Bohém Ragtime Jazz Band in 1985. For about a year, we were named The Seven Wickeds Ragtime Band before taking our current name from the word 'bohém', as Puccini used it in his opera La Bohéme. The word implies that the band and the music are happy and carefree.
We have gone through several changes in personnel and instrumentation during our 28 years but have had the same line-up for more than 12 years now. We’re an 8-piece band based in Kecskemét , situated in the centre of Hungary, only an hour’s drive from Budapest to the south. We have played most of the major classic jazz festivals around Europe and many in North America, and have released 18 albums.
We try to give the audience lots of fun but at the same time make music with style, making difficult arrangements sound easy. Stylistically we cover everything within Classic Jazz from Ragtime through New Orleans Jazz and Dixieland to big band-style Swing. Most members are multi-instrumentalist, therefore we are flexible in sound and style. Many people pay compliments saying that we are the world's most versatile jazz band but we always put the word 'probably' at the beginning of that statement.
Tell me about yourself and your own role in the band.
I am a full-time classical violin teacher , at the Debrecen University and at the world-famous Kodály School in Kecskemét, Hungary, but I mostly play piano in the band, a little violin (sometimes the so-called Stroh violin, too), sing and write most of the arrangements. And work on about everything behind the scenes.
So are you the one that drives the band on, gets the bookings etc?
It was only myself for the first 26 years, but for the last 2 years I have had an assistant , Fanni, who works a lot for us . In the UK, we are represented by Hunique Events.
When did it actually all start for you?
Our very first appearance with the band was 29 years ago at a party of the Teachers' Choir in Kecskemét, in which I sang. One of my choir mates asked me to make an arrangement for Joplin’s Fig Leaf Rag, just for the choir party. So we used the best instrumentation we could get within the choir , 2 violins, clarinet, alto sax, piano, cello, tuba - and played that one tune. Making that particular arrangement was my first experience with Ragtime. When we really started rehearsing a few months later, I got into it and within a year Jazz came along. I was 18 at that time. We gradually developed, and have been going through Jazz history ever since.
Was there any one particular record or artist that got you hooked for life?
There are a lot, but Jelly Roll Morton stands out. I love many other musicians including Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, Edmond Hall, Barney Bigard, Teddy Wilson, Jo Jones. We are fortunate having had the chance to play with a few greats, including Joe Muranyi, the last clarinettist in the Louis Armstrong All Stars. Joe was with Louis for 4 years and he played with everyone important. We performed and recorded with him from 1992 for 16 years. Joe's parents were Hungarians and he loved coming 'home'. We performed with Catherine Russell, daughter of Swing era bandleader Luis Russell, and many others, including one of my personal favourites and friend, German reedman Matthias Seuffert. Among the English, I have many favourites, not only old ones like Al Bowlly but many from the present jazz scenes, for example Keith Nichols - who once started explaining to others that I was his Hungarian son - Nick Ward who was at our festival in 2009, Rico Tomasso … The list is endless.
You play a wide range of stuff, from Ragtime to Swing? Do you have a preference for any particular style?
Not really. I personally love them all; I have favourite tunes, not styles. I love to play a tune in different styles, tempos and keys. But we seldom do that, although sometimes it happens. Our strength is variety.
As well as being first-rate jazzmen, you all appear to want to amuse and entertain. Is there an element of the showband about you?
We are not a showband but we want to entertain and want to show people how lively this music is. We do have several 'built-in' jokes (mostly musical, sometimes verbal) but none of them were ever designed. They all started spontaneously and we kept the best ones. We use different ones in the UK now, having learned that expectations are slightly different. But there are always many
new, entirely spontaneous jokes at our concerts.
Do you have a residency and what kind of work have you got coming up?
We have two monthly clubs, one in Kecskemét and one in Budapest. We play individual concerts and also informative school concerts around Hungary. This is an important mission for us, educating our future audience. We also organize an international jazz festival as well, and play at festivals and clubs around Europe.
Is Jazz popular, then, in Hungary?
Jazz was, is and always will be popular but only for a relatively small audience. Many old Hungarian jazzy songs are popular again (we were one of the first ones to start digging them out about 25 years ago) as is the big band sound and voices that audience can link to Sinatra and other popular American vocalists. Swing dancing is popular again.
Many Hungarians played in pre-war Berlin dance bands. Is there a tradition of Jazz and Swing-influenced music in Hungary? And in the 1950s, when we in Britain had the Trad boom did you have anything similar?
Jazz was kind of forbidden during Communism in Hungary, until a few bands copied the British Trad bands, normally also playing a little Rock'n'Roll at the same time. We did have lots of great Hungarian Jazz bands mostly playing in great theatres between the two world wars and recording for films but from 1948 their heyday was suddenly over. We had a few Dixieland bands being popular from the '60s and '70s but then from the mid-eighties new bands, including us, emerged and these bands cared more for earlier Jazz. Now our audience is getting more and more educated in Jazz, I believe.
Tell me about the band's international reputation and where you have played.
Within the classic jazz circuit we are well-known, I believe. We have played at most major classic jazz festivals around Europe and some of the all-around jazz fests as well. The Bohéms have appeared in 18 countries so far and we have been to festivals in Dresden, Ascona, Montreux, Düsseldorf, Davos, Pori, Oslo, Berlin, Breda, Nis, Sacramento, Whitley Bay, mentioning only some of the biggest ones.
How is your current tour of England going?
It is very successful, the band is being very well received and we have been invited to return to most of the places we are currently playing. It seems that by now almost everyone who is linked to Trad Jazz in the UK has at least heard of us and many fans have heard us live over the years. This is our fourth tour in the UK. We are here again next August and September. We might even come in the spring with a smaller formation. We have a trio and a trio +1 combo within the band.
How do audiences compare in England with elsewhere?
More knowledgeable. But getting old. Some think this music might be in decline, but I'm optimistic and think that both musicians and organizers can do a lot about promoting it to the younger audience. We are about to start an international movement for this, and people can read about our Bohém Jazz School on our home page.
For many years the great Ferenc Puskás was the most famous Hungarian in England? Who deserves to be even more famous?
Nobody. Puskás is unsurpassable!
Bartók, Kodály and many musicians might deserve to become more famous than they are, but music will never be more popular than football .
Tell me about your forthcoming festivals.
We have been organizing jazz festivals since the band's foundation, and are having the 23rd International Bohém Ragtime & Jazz Festival March 28-30, 2014 in Kecskemét. We are not only selling tickets for the festival but offering tour packages for those who are interested. Next year's festival is subtitled 'New York, New York!' and it features great American classic jazz musicians. The line-up includes Jon-Erik Kellso (tp), Grammy-winner Scott Robinson (reeds), Matt Munisteri (g, bj), Greg Cohen (sb), Aaron Weinstein (vl), the great Czech singer Ondrej Havelka and his Melody Makers . I'm convinced they are the very best hot Jazz dance band in the world together with the Bratislava Hot Serenaders. There will be many Hungarian musicians, too, at the festival, including the Bohém Ragtime Jazz Band, of course. Details can be found on our home page: www.bohemragtime.com For further details contact us at email@example.com or call Fanni at +36(20)336-4620
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