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Jazz Corner: Random Thoughts and Reflections

From Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize to Marvin Gaye influencing a generation, and more

Sunil Sampat Nov 17, 2016
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Bob Dylan, Aust Ferry, England 1966. Photo: Paul Townsend/Flickr

Bob Dylan, Aust Ferry, England 1966. Photo: Paul Townsend/Flickr

I have been listening for the past hour or so to some ethereal music—ballads from the magical saxophone of John Coltrane. One wants to hear it over and over because it just sounds better each time. Then a thought emerges that this sound should be framed and mounted like a masterpiece by a painter. This music is a masterpiece and I would like to symbolically put it on permanent display! It doesn’t have to be Coltrane. Everybody should have some music in their lives that is worthy of such reaction and emotion and I am sure we all have some masterpieces to mount on our walls.

The conferring of the Nobel Prize in Literature on Bob Dylan is, for me, a sign that the world is not mad, after all. It is a very significant, thrilling endorsement of contemporary music. Upon getting the news, we spoke to Susmit Bose, arguably India’s leading urban folk musician, a man who has been influenced greatly by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Dylan. He also composed the song “Man of Conscience” in honor of Nelson Mandela and sang it for the great South African leader on his first visit to India. He was thrilled that “it is the recognition of the impact of lyrics that has been recognised. People are otherwise looking at the music and taking the lyrics for granted”—a shrewd observation from a man who pens impassioned lyrics for the songs he sings to connect with his listeners. With the many social issues in India, Bose has found a way to get his views across.

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For a musician to get the Nobel Prize is such a bolt from the blue that it reminds me of a great performer from another field: cricket. England fast bowler Fred Trueman, who played test cricket in the Fifties and Sixties was also a true ‘character’. When he became test cricket’s highest wicket-taker (307), he was asked if he expected a knighthood. His reply was typical of the man. He said, “Only batsmen get knighted—the last bowler to be called ‘sir’ was Francis Drake.” Trueman never got knighted but it is a wonderful feeling to know of Dylan’s achievement.

Musicians and lyricists have forever been singing messages of deep social impact, although not always in English. Mirza Ghalib and Faiz Ahmad Faiz are two examples of writers using powerful lyrics in their shairi. Of course, Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali has a strong, emotional national message as does Jana Gana Mana. In America, songwriters like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin among several others created lyrics worthy of literary recognition. Marvin Gaye’s great album, What’s Goin’ On has also been a strong influence on a whole generation, decrying both war (read Vietnam Nam) and the inner city (ghetto) problems. Dylan represents the entire genre of lyricists that have preceded him and his honor is symbolically conferred on several others as well.

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The power and punch of music was brought home once again at the film festival MAMI in Mumbai. On the opening day, a documentary film from Russia, made in 1929 and directed by Dziga Vertov was screened. This film, A Man with a Camera is a silent film. The completely restored version was screened with a live band playing in the ‘orchestra pit’. This jazz quartet from Kiev, led by Vitaly Tkachuk and comprising of a soprano (and tenor) saxophone, guitar, bass and drums brought the film to life, perhaps exceeding the expectation of the original film maker. The stresses, accents and nuances from the music were perfect. In the end, the music was the equal of the great film.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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