‘Bending my spine’
Georges CZIFFRA AND PIANO BAR PLAYING
20th century history stole a decade and a half from the artistic career and life of Cziffra Georges. On the one hand, in a way that it forced the musician-turned-soldier, then prisoner, away from his instrument, and on the other hand it truly chained him to the pianos of the most diverse collection of bars, locales and nightclubs in Budapest. What was a priceless gift to the bohemian figures of Pest nightlife in the 1940s and 1950s was to Cziffra – quite understandably and rightly so – experienced as unjust internal exile. This humiliation is clearly apparent in his memories: Cannons & Flowers recalls this period of his life with just a few extreme (exaggerated and over-dramatized) examples. Even though the artist would prefer to forget this rather lengthy intermezzo when he operated in the hospitality field, this chapter of the Cziffra legend is all the more fascinating for posterity. The ‘descent’ into the underworld of bars and clubs of this unequalled pianist represents the three very different periods in the story of the (regressive) development of the Budapest entertainment industry.
Georges Cziffra’s first appearance as bar musician started at the conclusion of his ‘wunderkind-hood’, at a time when Pest nightlife offered world-class entertainment to each and every visitor, whether the Prince of Wales or the Maharajah of Kapurthala. Mention of these two VIP gentlemen is not by chance since both attended the glittering Arizona revue run by the Rozsnyais at No. 20 Nagymező Street during the 1930s. The nightclub operating from 1932 right up until the tragic month of December 1944 witnessed everything from dancing girls being hoisted into the air, an elephant trampling onto the stage and a host of young artists including Alfonzó and the magician of the keyboards himself, Cziffra. If we are to believe the swirl of stories surrounding the history of the Arizona, it was in this very place that the 19-year-old Georges Cziffra met his soulmate, the Egyptian exotic dancer Soleika. The sudden romance quickly came to the attention of Mrs. Rozsnyai, that is, Miss Arizona, and she immediately got rid of the two lovers.
It is certain that the Arizona was not the only music nightclub in which Cziffra featured prior to his call-up into the army in 1942, although on the whole the artist remained tight-lipped about this first foray into the hospitality-entertainment industry. All he was prepared to say was this: “One day I decided that I was going to earn some money. […] I became acquainted with a lot of nightclub musicians. It appeared that they liked me because they helped me get into the world of dance music. Naturally all this happened at night, once they had finished work, propping up a bar, glass in hand. Later on they invited me to where they were playing, saying, come along, pick up some experience. So a little while later I became a dance musician and this was my vocation for a long time.”
Cziffra returned to this calling when, after the war and captivity under the Soviets as a POW, he returned to Budapest in September 1946. In the bustling and yet stifling atmosphere of the coalition years the Pest nightlife of clubs and bars was reborn – but by that time it had irretrievably lost its once so proudly proclaimed ‘high society’ character. While the nightclubs and other music venues of the 1930s together formed a richly nuanced and stratified metropolitan entertainment industry, in the second half of the 1940s, beyond the terrible destruction of the Second World War and before the arrival of the new authoritarian regime, all this was a mere shadow of what had been. Despite this, the desire for entertainment and clamour for music were all the more frantic in these years, proof of which is to be found in the Hit series of Szilárd Darvas as well as the best of the hit-writing careers of Georges G. Dénes and Rudolf Halász, not forgetting the singing career of János Vámosi which launched at that time and immediately transported him to the heights of fame.
If we are to believe the reminiscences of Georges Cziffra (and everything should be taken with a pinch of salt), he received his first contract as a pianist (autumn 1946) in a sort of groping, orgy-like dive frequented by homosexuals, before he soon transferred to a pub, the owner of which was arrested shortly thereafter on a charge of multiple homicide. Far more important (and quite a bit more likely) than these overdramatized episodes, which at times appeared worthy of inclusion in a penny dreadful, is what Cziffra had to say about his fame as a one-time bar musician: ‘Everyone in Budapest knew of my staggering improvisations, which went from jazz, the fandango and the czardas to the passodoble. […] I thus became a star of the night-time music “espresso” bar-cafés in Budapest, and at a significantly increased night honorarium. […] I ended up dividing the nights between several lucrative places, spending two hours or so at each. The overwhelming majority of the guests were young intellectuals or fresh graduates of the piano.’
The above quote gives a true report on the increasing popularity of Cziffra as well as the expansion of a new kind of ‘catering unit’. The ‘espresso’ bar-café took the place of the coffee house although it, too, was a coffee-focused locale, typically with a much smaller floor area (and under increased political surveillance), but it continued to serve as a public space for social interaction and music.
In the meantime the transitional coalition period came to an end, although Cziffra’s second detour as bar pianist lasted right up to 1950, when he was imprisoned for attempting to defect. The single party state that now controlled Hungary allowed some of the music clubs and bars to stay open for the sake of appearances and to make them easier to monitor, as well as the fact that figures from the different levels of the state apparatus enjoyed the occasional visit to such venues. For instance, to listen to brilliant, good or pleasing piano music, for the fact was that bar piano playing in Pest was not the sole preserve of the astonishing virtuosity of Cziffra. For instance, the 156-cm-tall giant Rezső Seress amazed diners at the Kulacs (Osváth Street) and Kispipa (Akácfa Street) – without having any real training as a pianist and with no melodic voice. “Not a musician, just a genius,” is what Otto Klemperer, who at that time was working at the Opera, said of him, and just like Seress, so too a certain Mr. Tantos (the far more dextrous pianist of the Luxor on Szent István Boulevard) had a large following in which litterateur regulars also belonged.
In 1953, Georges Cziffra – who was released from prison in a much wasted state and with damaged hands – once again found the means to support his family in this environment which, in the meantime, had continued to go downhill and started to fragment. ‘Bending my spine, I sank back into the world of nightclubs, my only source of a livelihood, and once again I started tramping from locale to bar, from bar to locale. […] Like a well-trained beast of burden, I was soon back in harness and my hands ran up and down all sorts of keyboards in restaurants, taverns and bars,’ he wrote bitterly about his return. Yet, for all this, his virtuosity and marvellous improvisational skills quickly rekindled his fame and made him much sought-after. There is a dialogue dating from this period as told by Tamás Vásáry that runs thus: “Who’s playing the four-hand in the back room? Oh, that’s just Cziffra.”
It is at this moment that the professor of piano at the Liszt Academy Georges Ferenczy, who years earlier had discovered the hugely talented artist, came to play a vital part in the life of Cziffra: “In 1950, one evening I wandered into the Kedves coffee bar and all at once my ears were assailed by remarkable piano music. Who could it be that is on the one hand playing such entertaining music, and on the other hand is freely improvising so superbly?” In his memoirs Cziffra remembers Ferenczy making contact with the down-at-heel musician after his release from prison in 1953, once again in a bar: ‘One evening, two men came in for a drink in the bar where I had just gone on duty. […] One was a piano professor at the Liszt Academy, Georges Ferenczy; his friend held a high position at the Ministry for Cultural Affairs.
‘“We’ve been following you around for some while,” said the professor, “because we’re most intrigued by your past record and even more by your playing.”’
This meeting meant the end of Georges Cziffra’s bar pianist days, to be replaced by the triumphal progress of the great concert pianist celebrated first by Hungarian, then international audiences. Cziffra made up for all the wasted years at incredible speed. However, there is still something that we should be grateful for in all these years: a musician legend who went far beyond the borders of classical music and whose presence can still be perceived to this day at various points around Budapest, from the site of the former Savoy to Mai Manó House.