Opus Jazz Club in Budapest: a catalyst for musicians’ creativity

“I don’t wake up feeling like the owner of a jazz club. There is the club, and then there is me” – says László Gőz, the founder and owner of  Opus Jazz Club, a venue which cannot be discussed without it’s maternal institution, BMC – a music center in Budapest with the most characteristic programming and sound, where catering to the audience is only second to catering to the artists. Although the employees, musicians, and music professionals never miss a chance to praise László Gőz’s merits, the founder is quick to declare: “This is not a place for the ego – this is a place for musicians to meet between Western and Eastern Europe. A place that provides a public service while curiously being run by a private person.”

It all started with a website

Budapest Music Center – or BMC for short – is a record label, music information center and music network which was founded in 1996 with the mission to connect the past and present of Hungarian classical music and jazz. In the Nineties, after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dissolution of the National Concert Agency, a need arose for a database which would provide information of the contemporary repertoire, performers, and composers. BMC, which started as a website, was quick to capitalise on the Internet’s potential, but already back then it was clear that László Gőz had bigger plans on his mind. Soon after the music information center, the label BMC Records was born. One of the label’s first releases was Péter Eötvös’s orchestral piece, Atlantis, performed by the WDR Symphony Orchestra. The CD garnered considerable international recognition in 1999. Three years later, BMC Records marked its spot on the European jazz map with the album Orthodoxia by the Gábor Gadó Quartet, receiving praise from French critics among others.

The first two dozen BMC Records releases already outlined the distinctively renegade image of the label, reflecting both the management’s taste and the freedom that characterized the culture of the post-Soviet country in the Nineties. To name just a few projects from the catalog’s early titles: a classical string quartet paired with the Amadinda Percussion Group, the works of Bach revisited, Hungarian folk and gypsy music, acknowledged free jazz pianist György Szabados, world music and European avant-garde. In fact, it is not difficult to find a common denominator between these records: they are connected by their quality. From the beginning, BMC Records was a brave independent label, which foreshadowed that Opus Jazz Club, which opened later, would be a similarly exciting place.

A music center rises from a building condemned to demolition

As László Gőz’s empire grew, it was necessary to rent more and more premises in the 9th district of downtown Budapest. “We were like an octopus, expanding in all directions,” says the founder. – “At the beginning of the 2000s, we definitely needed a house where we could continue all our activities under one roof.” The property selected for this purpose was a dilapidated building not far from the Danube bank and the Freedom Bridge, once a merchant’s southern fruit shop, from the corner of which the owner could keep an eye on incoming cargo ships. The house, which was built in 1890 and had an excellent location, was already well past its prime, and the district city administration wanted to demolish it. That’s when the BMC team showed up to fill it with life again. Seven years passed between the purchase of the property and the opening of the Budapest Music Center, as the construction was delayed for years by the 2008 global financial crisis. Gőz later came to believe that the obstacles gave him the opportunity to think carefully about what kind of music center BMC wanted to create: “We adapted the house to the content, and not the other way around.”

We adapted the house to the content, and not the other way around.

The Budapest Music Center finally opened its doors in March 2013 with a concert hall on the ground floor, a library and recording studio upstairs, guest rooms for artist residencies, and a professor’s apartment where the senior Hungarian composer György Kurtág currently lives. “When the building was finally completed, we had already been operating for seventeen years. In a sense, BMC almost reached the adult age with a lot of experience and relationship capital, my colleagues and I having visited many places in Europe. We understood how to operate a concert venue and a jazz club, and of course we have also seen examples of how not to do it.” The design of the house is clean, the classicist facade is only decorated with a modern corner element, designed by László Gőz’s daughter, architect Dorottya Gőz. The two-storey Opus Jazz Club, which can accommodate about one hundred and fifty people, is located in the basement and on the ground floor. Its dominant colors, black, white and oak, are complemented by colourful album covers hanging on the wall, which were created by László Huszár, who died two years ago, and more recently by Anna Natter.

According to László Gőz, a jazz club can only be opened out of a sense of cultural ambition, or a healthy dose of artistic exhibitionism. Anyone who ventures into it in the hope of profit is soon forced to bring the curtain down. “You can’t charge a high entrance fee and serve an expensive dinner. In order for the club to function, we needed a sustainable way of operation.” For BMC, the financial footing is event management, which was already an important source of income for the company before the building was opened. Every penny of the profit has been devoted to the operation of the cultural center ever since. As one musician put it: “László Gőz is an unusual figure. He doesn’t want another car or a luxury villa. To him, BMC really means everything.”

The club with a tuning fork as a logo

Tourist guides recommend Opus Jazz Club for its great à la carte selection, but if you enter the Mátyás street entrance at noon, you will be surprised to find that people from the nearby university and other offices also come here for lunch. The club, which is a restaurant by day, is occupied by up-and-coming ensembles in the evening. Most of the concerts feature European musicians and Hungarian players affiliated with BMC Records. While most jazz clubs want to cater primarily to their audience, the management of Opus thinks the other way around. They want to create an environment for musicians to create and play music without compromise. Club manager Csenge Hamod says: “I inherited the distinctive programming policy of Opus Jazz Club from my predecessor, György Wallner. While other concert venues in the city allow more space for mainstream versions of the genre, we are also happy to accommodate productions that seek new paths.” How rewarding is this? According to László Gőz, the creation of the BMC also served to ensure that the best and most original performers pay their respects in Hungary, and that the Hungarian jazz scene is connected to the European circulation. “Our way of thinking is similar to that of the Venetian merchants of the 17th century, who spent the profits from sea trade on opera houses. We even allow ourselves to lose money” – he says, and he certainly knows he’s being provocative. – “Venice has become the cradle of European culture, and we hope that something will come of our activities as well. We want to send a message to the 21st century. And to the 22nd as well.”

A place for musicians by musicians

The international reputation of the Opus Jazz Club gained a considerable boost when BMC hosted the European Jazz Conference in 2015, which was attended by about a hundred music industry professionals, journalists, and booking agents. The participants, for whom László Gőz played seashells at the opening event, not only got to know the building, but also the Hungarian jazz scene. The title of the three-day program is ‘Make It Happen’, which well reflects the house’s mission: BMC, as it was said at the time, catalyses for collaborations of all kinds.

“This is a place where it’s good to be a musician,” says Veronika Harcsa, the versatile Hungarian singer and songwriter who has made several records and has given even more concerts in the house. She tells you right away what a perfect week looks like here: the artists come, rehearse, record an album in the superbly equipped studio, with the process culminating in a record debut concert. “All the conditions are provided for our work in terms of music, but also beyond music: rehearsal rooms, of which at least one is always available, guest rooms so that you don’t have to look for a hotel, and there is a kitchen and a restaurant where you can have lunch and coffee. For freelance musicians who live a nomadic life, it’s a wonderful gift to feel at home for a week, and only focus on creating.”

All the conditions are provided for our work in terms of music, but also beyond music: rehearsal rooms, of which at least one is always available, guest rooms so that you don’t have to look for a hotel, and there is a kitchen and a restaurant where you can have lunch and coffee. For freelance musicians who live a nomadic life, it’s a wonderful gift to feel at home for a week, and only focus on creating.

Many important meetings and memorable concerts have taken place in the jazz club over the past nine years. Regular artists include guitarist Gábor Gadó, the saxophone players Mihály Borbély, Mihály Dresch, and István Grencsó, cimbalom player Miklós Lukács, trumpeter Kornél Fekete-Kovács and his big band Modern Art Orchestra, and the saxophonists of the middle generation, Kristóf Bacsó, and Viktor Tóth. Hungarian musicians often bring their foreign musician colleagues here, who then regularly proclaim that they would very much like to move in to the club. This is how bassist Mátyás Szandai’s record, Sādhana, was made in 2019 with Brazilian, Cuban and French partners, or guitarist Csaba Palotaï’s disc with British percussionist Steve Argüelles.

László Gőz believes that since jazz is a constantly evolving genre, it is impossible to say in which direction it will develop. “There are projects that are dreams come true, and there are many experimental records. But that’s how it is in the life of every label and jazz club.” When asked about successful projects, he mentions the records of the legendary Hungarian pianist Béla Szakcsi Lakatos, who passed away this year., at the age of 79. “He made his last record here in our studio.”

“It is obvious to me that there would be nothing here without László Gőz,” says Veronika Harcsa, when she talks about the founder of the house, whom she met when she was a student at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. – “He was teaching ear training at the jazz department, but instead of merely teaching the recognition of intervals and complex harmonies, he actually taught listening to music. My most deeply felt impression was that he can see what is important and what is not. He is a perceptive and insightful person.”

International connections

“Budapest is a small city, it doesn’t take an hour to walk through the downtown area,” says László Gőz when he talks about the importance of the club. Müpa Budapest, better known as »The Palace of Arts« and the National Theater are located near Opus Jazz Club, and the Franz Liszt Academy of Music is not far away either. But close relationships with cultural institutions such as the Austrian Cultural Forum (Österreichisches Kulturforum), the French Institute (L’Institut français), the Goethe Institute (Goethe-Institut), the Israeli and Dutch embassies and FinnAgora, and other venues and institutions of the French, German or Belgian jazz scene are in fact much more important.  Cooperating with jazz clubs in neighbouring countries also serves environmental aspects: “Hungary has great rail connections with Austria, the Czech Republic, and Poland, so musicians can occasionally use this mode of travel. However, we also look at the issue from the musicians’ point of view,” says Hamod Csenge. It is also no coincidence that Opus Jazz Club is able to promote Hungarian musicians abroad thanks to its extensive connections. “This is not something we strive for professionally, but informally it often happens.”

When I ask László Gőz about the future of the jazz club, he deflects the question: “How has La Scala in Milan changed in the last hundred years? I like to think of this house as a museum, with the task of preserving its treasures for future generations. Of course, we have a responsibility to keep Central European culture alive, and other cultures as well. But only a food canning factory can have a clear future, which must increase its productivity year after year. BMC’s future lies in the musicians who can create here.”