Bartók’s Surprising Influence on Jazz

There are some fascinating connections between jazz and the music of Béla Bartók. Both have a pristine, highly-ordered sense of structure. Both are built on complex rhythmic grooves which grow out of a folk tradition.

Jazz pianist Dániel Szabó delves into this subject in a recent article where he writes,

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.

This motive from the first movement of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra emerges as a ghostly echo in Gil Evans’ arrangement of the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart song, Wait Till You See Her. This is from the 1963 album, Quiet Nights, featuring Miles Davis and Gil Evans:

In practice sessions, John Coltrane is said to have improvised on the tenor saxophone over a recording of Concerto for Orchestra. The harmonic changes of Coltrane’s Giant Steps have been compared to Bartók’s axis system of harmonic and tonal substitution.

Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs were inspired by Bartók’s 153 progressive piano etudes, Mikrokosmos. Corea intended the music “to convey simplicity as beauty, as represented in the Spirit of a child.”

Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock play Bartók

Here is a 1979 recording of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock performing an excerpt from Volume 6 of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. This etude is titled, Ostinato. This usually implies a simple, repetitive bass line. The repeating line Bartók gives us is exhilaratingly complex and filled with Hungarian folk rhythms:


  • Miles Davis and Gil Evans: Quiet Nights iTunes
  • John Coltrane: Giant Steps iTunes
  • Chick Corea: Children’s Song iTunes
  • Bartók: Ostinato, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock iTunes

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

2 thoughts on “Bartók’s Surprising Influence on Jazz”

  1. Charlie Parker admired Bartok, top bassist Dave Holland took a year out to study Bartok. The folk music aspect is part of it, but it’s what Bartok took from it in terms of harmonic and rhythmic freedom that appealed to the bebop (and post-) generations, who were doing similar things.

  2. Jazz comes from the French Modernists (popularly called the “Impressionists”), started by Gabriel Faure and continued by McDowell, Debussy and Ravel. Bartok is just one of those who seems to have been inspired by them, and probably inspired those who later were termed “Jazz” in the US.
    Bartok’s 7 Sketches contains number 1- Portrait of a Girl, and number 4 – Non troppo lento, and these are musically far more advanced, like the French masters, than anything in the US at the time. They are examples of jazz developing, even post-Faure and Debussy, in classical music, and specifically with Bartok. But it is the Paris scene that is very much the origin of American jazz, and almost certainly where Bartok’s jazz ideas came from. Bartok isn’t even the only Slavic-world composer in that year or two (decades after Faure, McDowell and Debussy start developing jazz) who was writing jazz before the Americans. Listen to The Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi, by Vladimir Deshevov, from 1911. This is jazz, but there is no reason to think he was inspired by Scott Joplin’s ragtime either.
    At the end of the day, these truths don’t come out, despite being obvious, because people are terrified to suggest that – unlike the Blues – Jazz was actually not a “Black” invention, but a French one.


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