Obituary: Attila Zoller

Click to follow
Attila Cornelius Zoller, guitarist, born Visegrad, Hungary 13 June 1927; married; died Townshend, Vermont 25 January 1998.

"I could only stay three weeks on my first visit to the United States in 1956," said the guitarist Attila Zoller. "But it changed my views of jazz completely. I found out the point of the music on that trip when I heard Clifford Brown on trumpet."

Zoller was born in Hungary in 1927. "My father was a music teacher and he started me on violin when I was four," he later recalled. "When I was nine I started to like the trumpet better than the violin so I practised in secret on a borrowed horn. When he found out, my father didn't mind, and so I played trumpet for seven years in my high school's symphony orchestra."

At the end of the Second World War, the 17-year-old went to Budapest to find work as a musician. "It was hard to find work as a trumpeter, so I switched to guitar and taught myself the chords from piano music." In 1947, still unaware of jazz, he joined one of the top commercial bands in the capital and it was then that he first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on the radio.

"Like most things, records were very hard to get in Hungary then. So, in 1948, just before they closed the border with Austria, I walked across the mountains with nothing but my guitar and some changes of underwear stuffed in the case."

In Vienna he met Vera Auer, who at that time played jazz on the accordion. "We formed a quartet together - and then we heard records of the George Shearing Quintet which included a vibraphone." It was impossible to buy such an instrument, so Zoller decided to manufacture one himself. "I moulded the keys myself in a foundry. The tuning was terrible!" This feat of engineering was typical of Zoller's ingenuity; he later patented several musical devices in the United States.

Zoller and Auer worked together for five years, winning first prize at a jazz contest in Vienna in 1951. They played for US Army clubs in Turkey and then in 1954 Zoller went alone to Holland, and saw his first American jazz musicians - the Jazz at the Philharmonic unit and Lionel Hampton's band.

He settled in Frankfurt, where he met the pianist Jutta Hipp and the trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff. For two years he worked with Jutta Hipp and they joined the band of the tenor player Hans Koller. He met the American alto saxophonist Lee Konitz in 1955 when the two shared a concert bill in Cologne, and Konitz remained a friend for many years.

When he returned to Hungary from a second trip to the US in October 1958, Zoller formed his most famous trio, which included the expatriate Americans Oscar Pettiford (on bass) and Kenny Clarke (on drums). However, Zoller and Pettiford were injured in a car crash; the group broke up and the guitarist went back to America, to stay, in March 1959.

On arrival, thanks to the pianist John Lewis and the guitarist Jim Hall, he was awarded a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts. He joined Chico Hamilton's esoteric quintet, leaving when he got married, because he wanted to stay in New York rather than tour, and formed the International Jazz Quartet with the Belgian tenor player Bobby Jaspar; they returned to work in Germany and Belgium for a few months. In 1962, Zoller won an award for the soundtrack music of the German film The Bread of Our Early Years.

Jaspar became ill and Zoller returned to New York and joined a group led by the flautist Herbie Mann. "I was pretty much restricted to certain things" was his way of saying that Mann didn't let him play much jazz, but he stayed until 1965. He formed an alliance with the band's pianist, Don Friedman, and they worked as a duo both in the United States and on a trip to Germany between Mann's bookings. The European trips became annual and Zoller worked on European television and radio, on recordings and at concerts. He also played briefly for Red Norvo in 1966 and for Benny Goodman in 1967. In 1968 he became co-leader of a trio, "Zo-Ko-Ma", made up of himself, Lee Konitz and Albert Mangelsdorff. They backed Astrud Gilberto when she toured Japan in 1970.

Settling in Vermont in 1972, Zoller started the Vermont Jazz Centre. He made some remarkable duet recordings in Frankfurt with the guitarist Jimmy Raney in 1979 and 1980. Despite ill-health, Zoller continued to play and record until last month.

He was particularly moved by a special celebration put together by 45 of his jazz peers at the American Guitar Museum in New Hyde Park, New York, to commemorate his long service to jazz. The fourteenth of April is now officially Attila Zoller Day in New Hyde Park.