In the 1950s and 1960s, Romanian born Jancy Körössy was regarded as one of the best pianists in Eastern Europe. Yet, today he seems to be almost forgotten.
(also János, Ianci, Jancsi or Yancy – his travels gave Jancy (‘John’) many names)
Piano, organ, composer, band leader
26 December 1926 – 21 January 2013
Growing up as the son of a conservatory professor in Transylvania, Jancy Körössy picked up his first instrument – the violin – at the age of four. He was already a professional musician at the mere age of twelve, when he was part of an orchestra that played Hungarian and Romanian folk music. Upon moving to Romania’s capital Bucharest in 1946, Körössy became the pianist of the Electrecord Ensemble, the dance orchestra of the state owned recording company. Although the Electrecord Ensemble played mostly popular dance music, Körössy began to rearrange the band’s repertoire by fusing it with elements from jazz music, a musical development for which he gained critical acclaim during the band’s international tours to Russia and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. In that decade, Jancy Körössy more and more started to develop himself as a jazz pianist, influenced mostly by his idols Art Tatum, Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson.
As the local music scene offered hardly any opportunities to jazz musicians – in communist Romania, jazz was practically banned until 1965 – Körössy spent most of his time abroad, performing and recording in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Russia. Especially in Prague, he found a second home in the very lively jazz scene of the moment. As he recalls: “[The Prague jazz scene] was the greatest you can imagine. Czech people really loved American jazz music, and Czech musicians were capable to create the sound of American jazz musicians. It was very difficult to believe they were not American born!” After a concert of the Czech Radio Big Band, Körössy introduced himself to some of the musicians, and soon after he was the regular piano player of both the Radio Big Band and the Studio 5 Ensemble, the foremost modern jazz combo in Czechoslovakia.
In 1960, Jancy Körössy recorded his debut album ‘Jazz Recital’ for the Supraphon label in Prague. On ‘Jazz Recital’ he is heard in a trio setting with added guitar, playing standards like Perdido, Yesterdays or Stella By Starlight. Körössy interprets the jazz standards with a classical feeling, which explains the title of the album. His classical approach works well on the beautiful The Man I Love, but this doesn’t mean that Körössy doesn’t know how to swing – listen to Get Happy for example. In the accompanying notes, Stanislav Titzl goes as far as to say that Körössy is “the best European jazz pianist”.
On another recording made in Prague in 1960 (but only released on this 1961 anthology), Körössy appears with the Studio 5 Ensemble on the track Man With The Top-Hat, a playful Luděk Hulan composition in typical West Coast style. The tune gives ample opportunity to Körössy, who is praised in the liner notes for his “imaginative, thoughtful and disciplined, yet still spontaneous play, which is characterized mainly by the consummate art of the left hand.”
In Prague, Jancy befriended a musical couple: Jan Hammer, a doctor and jazz musician, and his wife, a singer. “During my stay in Prague, we used to see each other almost daily. They had a son who was at that time about 13 years old, very talented, who loved to ‘play drums’ with two wooden sticks on chairs. Up until one day when his parents asked me to initiate little Jan to the piano. Which I did… gladly!”. Jan Hammer Jr. later became a member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and is now one of the most popular keyboard players in the world.
Jancy Körössy also became a well-known musician in Hungary, where he recorded an album for the Qualiton label, appeared in radio and television broadcasts and made the soundtrack for two movies. “My experiences in Hungary are among my greatest”, says Körössy. “I was a star over there. In nine months time, I became a ‘public figure’ due to my numerous TV shows.”
Jancy Körössy‘s first long-playing album, recorded in Hungary, is definitely a treasure of Eastern European jazz. It starts with a great modern jazz interpretation of Hulló Levelek, the original title of Autumn Leaves, a jazz standard that was actually written by Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma. Other highlights include Green Dolphy Street, which stands in cheer contrast with the earlier work of Körössy, and Happy Little Sunbeam, a bop tune with a starring role for Hungary’s finest trumpeter Rudolf Tomsits. Also interesting on this album is that Körössy plays the organ instead of the piano on some of the tunes.
Very soon, Körössy was one of the most talked about jazz pianists in Eastern Europe. In the liner notes of ‘Jazz Jamboree 1961 Vol. 1’, Lech Z. Zoledziowski recalls the first time he saw Jancsi Körössy: “One night, back in 1960 in one of Warsaw’s jazz clubs where there was a regular weekly jazz session, one of the best Polish modern pianists and composers presented his latest composition. He improvised three choruses, then switched back to the theme and finished. A tall man in dark glasses, whom nobody of us knew, stood up from among the audience, approached the stage, sat at the piano and… repeated note by note [the] three-chorus improvisation of the Polish pianist. We looked at him as though he was a magician. Thus we met for the first time an outstanding Hungarian (sic) pianist, Jancy Koeressy.”
In 1965, things started to change for jazz in Romania. More precisely on the 4th of August 1965, “a lucky date for Romanian jazz”, as Władisław Misiak once wrote: “It was the day of the broadcasting of the first jazz program on the Romanian Radio. Ever since, articles on jazz have begun to appear in the music magazines and notices about concerts are printed in the dailies. A whole series of concerts by outstanding groups was started by Louis Armstrong and his All Stars who toured the country in 1965 and ‘blazed the trail’ for other excellent groups.” (1)
And so, in august of 1965, after many years of performing and recording abroad, Jancy Körössy finally had the opportunity to work in his home country again. He recorded the first album in the Seria Jazz, a series of jazz recordings by the state owned Electrecord label, that released 24 albums between 1965 and 1989, including works by Richard Oschanitzky, Friedrich Gulda, Guido Manusardi, Johnny Raducanu, Marius Popp and others.
On this record, Körössy returns to a trio setting, performing a mix of standards and originals. If he was originally influenced by pianists like Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, this album shows more influences of the new generation of pianists like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano. In the liner notes, Mihai Berindei
describes Körössy’s style as being “very personal; his inspired phrases, subtly harmonized in a specific manner, create a particular atmosphere.”
Despite his many travels in Eastern Europe and to the USSR, it lasted until 1969, when he recorded his free jazz album ‘Identification’ for the MPS label in West Germany, that Jancy Körössy was able to work in the West. Yet, this could have had been different if it wasn’t for Romania’s severe regime. Körössy: “The organizers of the Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival in France have invited me, since 1959, every year until 1968. But the Romanian authorities who received the official invitations have never let me go.” So when Jancy Körössy was in the West for the first time, he realized that it could also be the last. He had to choose between returning to Ceausescu’s Romania or stay in the West forever. “[If I would have gone] back to Romania, there would have never been another possibility for me to go to the West. Starting with 1965, Romania became a very tough communist country so it was just impossible to be allowed to go to the West”, says Körössy, who moved to the USA. “It was an opportunity for a better life for my children and a chance to finally see the land of jazz – land of my dreams.”
This profile is based on an interview with Jancy Körössy, conducted through e-mail in May 2012. Many thanks to Ramona Horvath, who kindly helped with the interview.
(1) “Jazz In Rumania”. Jazz Forum N°3, 1968