Bartók as jazz inspiration

6 February 2017

Bartók works have inspired plenty of jazz musicians over the past 70 years. Jazz pianist Dániel Szabó, lecturer at the school of music of the University of California, Los Angeles, contributed an article to Concert Magazine on what it is about the magic of his music that is so inspiring for jazz.

Whenever I hear the second movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, the extraordinarily tight rhythm, the shifts in emphasis, inserting 3/8 phrases in the 2/4 metre, I am infused with the very same energy as when I listen to Miles Davis’s album Four and More or the Wayne Shorter Quartet. I reckon that some sort of intense spiritual affinity can be observed between Bartók and jazz musicians that is difficult to describe in words, despite the fact that there are numerous clear and concrete musical elements that link the two worlds. However ‘refined’ the music of Bartók, beneath it there is a raw and honest force that derives from folk music (and, naturally, the personality of Bartók), a ‘beat’ that is as much a part of Afro-American music as that of Hungarian peasant music or any Central-Eastern European folk music. In many of jazz recordings, one can sense the presence of Bartók; it is as though he is there, waving from the background.


Dániel Szabó


It is a cliché to say how many jazz musicians were influenced by Bartók: Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs clearly references Mikrokosmos; in their joint album, Herbie Hancock and Corea play Bartók’s Ostinato in a four-hand version; years ago when Danilo Perez was my mentor, he frequently mentioned ‘Béla’ with great enthusiasm and warmth as the person who had given him so much inspiration and so many ideas; the ancestors of Béla Fleck include not one of Hungarian origin, the name Béla being given purely as a mark of respect for Bartók. The list goes on, naturally with Hungarian jazz musicians as well: Kálmán Oláh’s beautiful composition Polymodal Blues couldn’t have come about without Bartók, and it is no surprise that Mihály Borbély also arranged the piece in his own style with his own orchestra, while the oeuvre of Mihály Dresch – an artist totally at home in folk music and jazz alike – is simply inconceivable without a Bartókian influence. I myself grew up on Bartók, I started playing simpler Mikrokosmos pieces at the age of five, and whenever I hear his music I immediately fall under the spell. It was important for me to evoke the spirit of Bartók on my first album released in America: this became my composition Barbaro con brio.

As for the other side of the coin, it is common knowledge that Bartók’s relationship to jazz was contradictory. Although he was interested in the genre, primarily Afro-American folklore music, and he was inspired by the wealth of rhythms of this music culture, his statements with regard to jazz covered a broad spectrum indeed (for instance, he said that harmonic richness was lacking in jazz tending towards dance music). Of far greater importance than this, though, is how a Bartókian idea, a musical phrase, clicks a button in the head of jazz musicians, and how the Bartókian aesthetic, the compositional attitude, harmonize with the thinking of jazz performers. Although it would be possible to come up with a long list (and illustrate with sheet music examples) of specific moments in the Bartók oeuvre which create a clear connection with jazz, let me mention just a few more generally valid phenomena which link these two worlds.

For example, the duality of soaring creative freedom and the constraints of tradition. It is well known that Bartók willingly employed traditional forms and techniques, that the originality and newness of his music emerged from tradition (the opening movement of the Second String Quartet  is in ‘sonata form’, the opening movement of Music is a grandiose fugue, and so on). His compositions reflect extraordinary consciousness, some analysts have discovered mathematical correlations in them, and in fact the thematic and melodic variations, the repetitions in the complex musical texture, the hidden co-references all form a fascinating, coherent unity in his music. But whatever novelty he employs, he never goes against tradition, and this is extremely important because the most significant figures in jazz history, similarly to Bartók, always profoundly understood and respected tradition, which they integrated into their own world. John Coltrane would have played in a totally different way in his milestone album A Love Supreme, which tends towards free jazz and stacks pentatonic motifs one on top of another, if he hadn’t at the same time been a brilliant bebop/hardbop player, or if he hadn’t known the genre of gospel; these latter determined those strict frameworks from which his freedom derived. The fearless freedom emerging within the given frames without denying its predecessors – this is as important in the case of Bartók as it is in jazz.

The acceptance of risk-taking is yet another shared aspect of jazz and Bartók. The first piece of Bartók’s Etudes grows out of special intervals, minor and major ninths and tenths. It takes considerable courage from a composer to start a piece with these gestures instead of the usual themes and scales. Just as Bartók accepted a serious risk when he integrated the tools and the most important innovations of musical modernism into the pieces of his pedagogical series Mikrokosmos intended for children. Bartók had the courage to go against the grain, he dared sacrifice popularity for deeply held convictions.

Finally, I would like to highlight rhythm, the single specific parameter of music, in the context of the relation between Bartók and jazz. With the exception of Stravinsky, who also represents an important source of inspiration for many jazz musicians, the 20th century does not have a single composer who would have dealt with rhythm in a more masterful way than Bartók. Polymetric structures, asymmetric patterns, unexpected stresses, rapid movements filled with astounding rhythmic energy, and the importance of rhythm as an organizing element – all these raise Bartók above his contemporaries.

Dániel Szabó