Pianist Kris Tokarski honors the traditions of keyboard masters from New Orleans to Bop. Though he is only 31, Kris has already performed extensively in venues and festivals across the U.S. In addition to his musical talents, he possesses some enviable kitchen skills!
Hal Smith: You speak Hungarian, and—as the musicians in New Orleans can attest—you are also a gourmet Hungarian chef. What is the background on that part of your heritage?
Kris Tokarski: I’m happy to hear my musician friends enjoy the cooking at my parties! My mother was born in Hungary and came with her parents as part of the wave of “56ers” after the revolution. Most of my family on that side is still there. Anyone who has a couple Hungarian-American friends is aware of their patriotism. Hungarian folk music and cooking have long been interests of mine and love to share it with friends.
What was the first recording or performance you heard that interested you in jazz piano?
The first recording that got me on the track that I am was really a double LP set of mostly Joplin rags recorded by Max Morath. The first jazz piano records that I heard that made an impression on me were Jelly Roll Morton’s 1923-24 Gennett records. Some favorites were “New Orleans Joys,” “King Porter Stomp,” and “Kansas City Stomp.”
Did you experiment with other instruments before you decided to concentrate on piano?
Piano was my first instrument at 5 years old and has always been my main focus. In middle school through high school I played trombone and cornet in concert and pep bands. I also studied violin for a year at the end of high school.
You are studying drums at the present time. Who are some of your favorite drummers of the past?
My favorite pre-bebop drummers include Zutty Singleton, Paul Barbarin, Dave Tough, and Jo Jones.
Do you have any interest in going back to trombone or cornet, or trying any other instruments?
At the present time I don’t have an interest in picking up these instruments as the piano alone can seem overwhelming!
When you were starting out, you did a significant amount of playing at the Jazz Corner in Hilton Head, SC. How did you wind up in Hilton Head, and how did you get involved with the Jazz Corner?
My family used to vacation in Hilton Head, SC every summer. In 1999 Bob Masteller opened his world class venue, The Jazz Corner. My mother saw an ad in the paper advertising their monthly “Dixieland Jazz” afternoon jam session hosted by the Low Country Dixieland Jazz Society. I started sitting in with them for a tune or two when I was about 12 and then playing with the various bands in the jazz society in my teens.
Which music school did you attend?
In High School I attended the Garden Academy of Music. I completed my undergrad at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and went on to complete a masters degree at the University Of New Orleans.
What convinced you to move to New Orleans?
My friend Sam Wiseman (a great drummer) who I knew from my years in Boston moved to New Orleans to attend UNO a year before I did. He invited me to stay with him to visit the school and the city to get a feel for it, and with a little arm twisting he convinced me. He was right.
What are some of the highlights of your involvement in the New Orleans scene?
Being featured at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the French Quarter Fest, Snug Harbor, and a performance at Preservation Hall are all honors for me. For about five years I curated the music program at the Bombay Club which brought them the best musicians in New Orleans jazz. I also had the opportunity to bring in and play with the top musicians in the national circuit in this idiom (Jon-Erik Kellso, Vince Giordano, Dan Levinson, Jonathan Doyle, Evan Arntzen, and others).
It was an opportunity to explore new repertoire from different eras. We would host Bix Beiderbecke themed nights, a Blue Four style band, Riverside Jazz Collective played the early music of New Orleans, Chicago style groups with the interviewer, and the Great American Songbook with Meryl Zimmerman (a talented vocalist the traditional jazz circuit needs to hear more from). I am proud of the cast of local musicians I have had the opportunity to work with regularly around town, like Tim Laughlin, Duke Heitger, Evan Christopher, and Jason Marsalis—to name a few.
You have performed extensively at swing dance events with some of the best-known groups such as Michael Gamble’s Rhythm Serenaders, Jonathan Stout’s Campus Five, and Jonathan Doyle’s Swingtet. Do you view the swing dance “scene” as an important part of your playing situation?
Playing with these bands in particular is an absolute joy. Their enthusiasm for this style comes through in their approach to playing and also in the immense work put into their arrangements and thought into programming. The dance scene is a unique opportunity for jazz musicians to play their original practical role as providing the music for social dancing. I also value these events because they attract thousands of young people who are now jazz fans keeping this whole thing moving into the future!
Who are your favorite pianists, in the various jazz styles?
New Orleans style: Jelly Roll Morton; Chicago: Earl Hines and Joe Sullivan; Harlem: James P. Johnson; Swing: Teddy Wilson; Bebop: Bud Powell and Barry Harris. Both Don Ewell and Hank Jones are favorites who encompass and naturally mix elements of the broader jazz piano tradition (Jones has a more modern bent than Ewell).
What are your current musical activities?
My most current musical activities on Coronavirus lockdown have been working on classical music, in particular Bach’s two- and three-part inventions. However, before this outbreak and hopefully after this is over I will go back to playing with the On The Levee Jazz Band and Jason Marsalis’ Benny Goodman Quartet style project.
I will look forward to continuing my sideman work with various bands put together for the Redwood Coast, San Diego, Jazz and Heritage, French Quarter Festivals, swing dance events and performances at the Jazz Corner. I also will continue working on my solo piano repertoire (stride and original arrangements of Great American Songbook standards), and presentations at the New Orleans Jazz Museum.
Another project I have been developing is live performances which focus specifically on the piano music of New Orleans Storyville District. It has been a way for me to perform the music recorded on my Ragtime – New Orleans Style CDs Vol 1 & 2, in addition to plenty of Morton, barrel house blues, light classical music, and pop tunes from the first two decades of the 20th century.
Are there any musical projects you would like to work on in the future?
I would like to revive the horn-piano-drum trio project I was working on a few years back; featuring different horn players and exploring different styles under the traditional jazz idiom. I would also like to slowly start writing down and compiling teaching materials for the piano in this idiom. Currently there is very little material a teacher and student can benefit from. We have some great modern jazz pianists in New Orleans who have become institutions in the field of teaching (i.e. Michael Pellera and the late Ellis Marsalis), however at the moment we don’t have the “early jazz” equivalent of these men. Someone will have to fill that gap in the future to develop talented young pianists in New Orleans that might be interested in the early musical roots of their city and culture.
For the foodies who will be reading this interview, would you be willing to share one of your Hungarian recipes?
Jókai Bableves (Bean Soup named for Mór Jókai, a famous Hungarian writer and revolutionary in the 1848 Revolution who was apparently a big fan of this dish).
-1/2 lb of smoked pork ribs
-1/4 lb of pinto beans
-1 celery knob (peeled and diced)
-1 medium onion (peeled and chopped)
-1 tbsp lard
-1 tbsp parsley (chopped)
-1 tbsp flour
-1/2 tbsp sweet hungarian paprika
-1 clove garlic (mashed)
-1/2 lb smoked hungarian kolbasz (sausage) or closest substitute
-salt to taste
-sour cream to taste
-1/2 cup flour
-pinch of salt
• Soak dried pinto bean over night.
• Fill large Dutch oven with 2 quarts of water and cook the ribs until the meat is tender. Pull meat off the bone, and set aside
• Add beans and celery knob to the meat broth you just made. (I’ve left celery knob out of this recipe when it is hard to find, and it will come out just fine. Alternatively use carrots and/or parsley root and add these about an hour after cooking the beans). Cook until beans and vegetables are soft.
• Fry the onion in lard on low heat. When the onions become translucent add the chopped parsley and flour to begin making a roux. Do not let it burn and stir often. Once this is light brown, take it off the heat and mix the paprika and garlic and 1 cup of cold water. Mix this until it is smooth and pour into the beans.
• Cut the smoked sausage into bite sized rounds and add it to the pot. Lightly salt the pot and cook on low for another 10 minutes.
• Meanwhile begin making “csipetke” (pinch dumplings) in a mixing bowl. Mix together 1/2 cup of flour, 1 egg, and a pinch of salt until you have a firm dough. Let it sit for about 10 minutes. Begin pinching off small pieces of dough about the size of your finger nail. Sprinkle the dough with flour since it may be sticky while you do this. In a pot of boiling water, drop the pinched dough and let them rise to the surface. Once they have all come to the surface they should be done and drain them into a colander. Add these to the soup.
• The soup is ready to serve and is often done with a dollop of sour cream.
* Translation: “Swing on the piano”
(All recordings are available in compact disc format)
BACD 701 On The Levee Jazz Band “Swinging New Orleans Jazz For Dancing – Or Just Listening”
BACD 702 (Trio) “Ragtime – New Orleans Style, Vol. 2”
Tim Laughlin: New Standards
Kris Tokarski Music
(Trio) “Drop Me Off In Harlem”
Riverside Jazz Collective
(Trio) “Hot Classicism”
SACD 171 (Trio) “Classic Rags New Orleans Style”
TOP 165 “Twerk Thompson Plays Unpopular Songs”