b: March 8, 1936. d: February 26, 1982.
At the Berklee School of Music (now the Berklee College of Music), Szabo studied composition and arranging. But, as it had for many others before him – notably, Miles Davis – the promising musical breeding ground of Berklee exposed the young guitarist to other talented musicians on their way to fruitful musical careers.
Szabo met and played with talents ranging from pianists Toshiko Akyoshi and Bob James to reedmen Charlie Mariano and Nick Brignola and composers such as Gary McFarland and Michael Gibbs.
He was invited that year to participate in the historic 1958 Newport Jazz Festival as part of a group of international musicians and was recorded for two Columbia recordings, Newport 1958 and another from the same event featuring Louis Armstrong.
He also had the opportunity to participate in two Berklee student recordings, Jazz In The Classroom, Vol. II (1959) and Jazz In The Classroom, Vol. IV (1960). The fourth volume found Szabo in a more significant role than before; with a sophisticated arrangement of his own composition “Dilemma” and a more pronounced confidence in his metallic, mellifluous guitar sound.
While attending Berklee, Szabo also performed in the groups of fellow student Toshiko Akyoshi and Boston-based lounge singer Joe Merlino. During a performance with Merlino’s trio, Szabo met Alicia Solari, a Boston native he wed on July 18, 1959.
With no money and little hope of a scholarship, Szabo felt he could no longer continue to stay at Berklee. After four terms, he took his young wife to Los Angeles with him. Again, he found it hard being a professional musician on the West Coast and was forced to accept a job in property management.
He soon met up with Chico Hamilton in Los Angeles. Szabo had met Hamilton backstage at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in between sets. At that time, Szabo made an impression on Hamilton for expressing admiration for the drummer’s revolutionary jazz group; which, in 1958, featured the fiery reedwork of Eric Dolphy.
Coincidentally, Hamilton’s guitarist at the time, John Pisano, was preparing to leave the group and recommended Szabo to Hamilton as his replacement.