The Indian jazz age

Published : Apr 06, 2012 00:00 IST

A history of jazz from the point of view of the performers, musicians who lived humble lives and often died as unknown workers in the trade.

AT the heart of Naresh Fernandes' Taj Mahal Foxtrot are the ordinary musicians who worked for long hours in the ballrooms of five-star hotels and in the nightclubs of major Indian cities. As nationalism swept the country, these venues became the refuge of the European and Indian elite, the aristocrats, the moneyed and the public servants. It was not as if they were oblivious to the changes afoot in the country. They had to deal with the threats and the opportunities posed by Indian nationalism every day. They came to hear jazz in the night time, when they left their cares behind and came to dance and drink. In solidarity with the naval mutiny in 1945, masses of people took to the streets of Bombay (now Mumbai). The police opened fire on them and killed several.

The journalist Dosoo Framjee Karaka wrote two years later: That weekend in the ballroom of the Taj Mahal Hotel, Sonny Lobo and his orchestra played as usual and the dancers encored a new Calypso number. No one was perturbed about the firing in the city because skirmishes like these had become a normal feature of Indian life ( I've Shed My Tears, 1947).

For years I had read this comment for its irony. In the previous page, Karaka had described going to the horse races at Mahalaxmi. The Governor of Bombay, the Scottish Liberal John Colville, arrived in a gilded, horse-drawn carriage with an escort of bodyguards and flunkies in attendance. He arrived in state as in the days before the War. The horses ran, Sonny Lobo played on and a beggar boy lay dead on the streets with Jai Hind on his lips.

Karaka, who offers Fernandes some of his best vignettes, is not drawing the obvious comparison that the colonial elite played the fiddle while Rome burned. The colonial elite did not know how to play the fiddle. They either imported that talent from Europe or the United States, or else from the Portuguese colony of Goa and from the world of Anglo-India (the community of Indians who had some European ancestry). Fernandes sets aside the carousing on the dance floor and in the dining area. This is not his domain. That was the interest of colonial administrators such as David Kincaid (who wrote British Social Life in India, 1608-1937). Fernandes is interested in those on the bandstand and in the music they played. Who were these performers, and what inventiveness did they bring to their work? A history of jazz from the point of the view of the performers is not a history of the elites who would have danced to it; it is the history of the musicians who came from humble backgrounds, lived humble lives and often died as unknown workers in the music trade.

Where the musicians came from

The first set of musicians who came to these hotels and clubs in the 1930s left Jim Crow America for more salubrious climates. Some went to Europe after the First World War and built their jazz careers in what the late scholar William Shack called Harlem in Montmartre (in his 2001 book of that name). Bandleader James Reese Europe and dancer Josephine Baker formed the heart of this enclave of Paris, which thrived until the 1930s when the rise of fascism made life harder for black artists. Trumpet player Buck Clayton, from Kansas City and soon to be a regular with the Count Basie Orchestra, built his career in the ballrooms and small clubs of Shanghai. From Paris and Shanghai, and from New York and Kansas City, black musicians found their way to Bombay and Calcutta (now Kolkata), bringing their bands, and pushing against the staid ballroom sounds of the brass and military bands (one article from 1913 extolled the regimental band for its daily programmes of light and lively music which acted as a wholesome tonic to the community).

The musicians did not thrill everyone, but they certainly livened up the scene with their inventive hot music. And the African-American musicians experienced less racism in India than in the United States: Roy Butler, who spent 11 years in India, wrote to his mother in 1933 saying as much and bragging that he had a servant and a butler (this letter to Amanda Wylie is in the Roy Butler Collection in the Chicago Public Library).

In 1930, W.E B. DuBois, the towering African-American intellectual, wrote in The Crisis, At last India is rising again to that great and fateful moral leadership of the world which she has exhibited so often in the past now again in the life of Gandhi. The black folk of America should look upon the present birth-pains of the Indian nation with reverence, hope and applause. This call to look to India sent a stream of African-American political activists to visit Gandhi and to tour the country (a story told in Nico Slate's Colored Cosmopolitan, Harvard, 2012). A decade later, large numbers of African-American troops came to India as part of the effort in the war against the Japanese (a story told by Gerald Horne in The End of Empires: African Americans and India, Temple, 2008).

When Creighton Thompson, Cricket Smith, Ken Mac, Leon Abbey, Roy Butler, Rudy Jackson and Teddy Weatherford took the stage at The Taj Mahal Hotel, it was likely that Howard Thurman would be giving a lecture at the University of Bombay or Private Herman Perry's ship would dock in Bombay and he would be placed on a train to Calcutta and sent off to fight the Japanese on the Burma Road. This was the context of Bombay's hot music and its African-American players.

To concentrate on the African Americans is not to neglect the polycultural world of Indian jazz in the inter-War years. Fernandes' book is named after one of the earliest jazz records pressed in India, a 1936 track written by Menas Silas (from Bombay, whose family formed part of the Baghdadi Jewish migration a generation earlier), sung by Signe Rintala (a Finnish singer who could sing in 25 languages) and performed by Cricket Smith and his band. Naresh Fernandes reminds us that alongside the African American performers were the Cuban drummer Luis Pedroso, the Spanish trumpeter Luis Moreno, the Paris-based South American bandleader Joseph Ghisleri and the Italian pianist Beppo di Siati.

The foreign musicians played not only for their audiences. They also played for their sidemen and jazz aficionados some Goan, some Anglo-Indian, some Parsi. The education of these Indian musicians in the new hot music was not only through the gramophone or the radio, but also by playing next to these experienced musicians who shared their wisdom on the bandstand and in their homes.

Taj Mahal Foxtrot introduces us to these remarkable characters, people such as Frank Fernandes, Hal and Henry Green, Josic Menzie, Micky Correa, Pamela McCarthy, Rudy Cotton and the Indian Louis Armstrong, Chic Chocolate. These musicians often played at five-star hotels, but they were regulars at the second level, at the Ambassador Starlight Roof Gardens, the Bristol Grill, the Dadar Catholic Institute, the Greens Hotel, the Ritz Roof Garden, the West End Hotel Roof Garden and the YMCA. By the late 1930s, these Indian musicians became central players in the bands led by people such as Teddy Weatherford. A decade later, the band was entirely Indian with Fernandes and Chocolate now as the bona fide leaders.

Drawing from scholars such as Bradley Shope and others, Naresh Fernandes' book pivots away from the musicians themselves to make an important claim. Jazz might have begun its career to anaesthetise the elite, but it would soon slip through these working-class musicians into the world of mass Hindi cinema. Many of these musicians would help orchestrate the early Bollywood sound or, as with Albela (1951), bring jazz into the film.

The language of Indian nationalism and the events of the 1940s marked musicians such as Frank Fernand, who, in Naresh Fernandes' words, grew determined to find a way to give jazz, the music he loved, a uniquely Indian expression. Fernand went after Hindustani classical musicians and learned from them. I was fascinated by the rhythm, he said. It was far in advance of the jazz I was playing. In the Bollywood studios worked the jazz trio ARP (AB Albuquerque, Ram Singh and Peter Dorado), who would be soon joined by Chic Chocolate, whose trumpet echoes through Amirbai Karnataki and Lata Mangeshkar's voices in Gore Gore O Baanke Chhore (from the 1950 hit Samadhi). The master of the jazz-filmi collaboration was Anthony Gonsalves (yes, the same man immortalised by Amitabh Bachchan in the 1977 Amar, Akbar Anthony). Gonsalves not only threw the world of jazz into Bollywood, but in the 1950s he spent his own time and money trying to develop an authentic foundation to link the world of jazz with that of Indian classical music (predating Jazz Fusion by a generation).

By the time the U.S. State Department decided to send jazz musicians around the world in the 1960s (a story told in Penny Von Eschen's Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, Harvard, 2006), jazz was already ingrained into the musicians and the popular music of India. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington thrilled their fans, certainly, but they simply contributed to an ongoing conversation. That is perhaps why Fernandes chooses to concentrate rather on a forgotten and tragic genius, the jazz pianist Edward Dizzy Sal Saldanha, who was feted by a visiting Dave Brubeck, who went to study jazz in Boston, cut a well-received album in the U.S. and then returned to India into self-enforced exile. Brubeck and his drummer Joe Moreno, meanwhile, experimented with the Goan drummer Leslie Godinho and the percussionist Narayan Koli, from whom, some say, Moreno learned the unusual 5/4 time signature that informed Brubeck's classic, Take Five.

Fernandes' book ends in the 1970s, in the more rebellious world of Asha Puthli (who sang on Ornette Coleman's 1971 Science Fiction) and of India's first rock band The Savages (with a very young Remo Fernandes). This is the world chronicled by Ved Mehta in his essay Jazz in Bombay ( Portrait of India, 1970), which takes us for a ride along with Asha Puthli, the painter Vivan Sundaram and the Alto saxophonist Braz Gonzalves. But Ved Mehta is wrong in saying that jazz is having its first stirrings in India. Naresh Fernandes has given us the proper history, and without the condescension of Ved Mehta, who too quickly suggests that this restaurant-club The Venice, where the jazz is as pure as any, is nothing but a barricade set up against the sights, sounds and smells of the India outside.

Braz Gonzalvez came from those sights, sounds and smells. A fan of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, Braz first played in the Kamala Circus and then moved on to The Venice. When Biddu told the owner of The Venice that college authorities were very angry that students bunked class to settle in for a Braz session, the owner, Prem Krishen Mehra, laughed: What are you saying? They are studying at the University of Venice. The professors should be damn bloody grateful the students are bunking classes. This was a master class not only in jazz, but also in technical inventiveness and cultural polyphony. It is an example of how culture remains alive and fresh, building off inheritances from many origins, taken seriously by dedicated people, and offered to a restless population.

Naresh Fernandes' book reminds us not only of a lost history, but equally and perhaps more importantly of how vital it is not to allow social suffocation to break our imagination.

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