The Life and Career of Louiz Banks: Godfather of Indian Jazz
Much like his music, the 76-year-old pianist’s own journey has been full of extraordinary improvisation
In the early Eighties, veteran Indian jazz pianist Louiz Banks visited the United States for a holiday. While he was in Washington, D.C., he got word that the legendary American jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was playing a gig in town, so he headed to the venue with a friend to catch the show. “The place was packed,” recalls Banks. “I noticed there was no piano player.”
Banks would later find out that Gillespie’s pianist was unwell that night. When Gillespie took a break in between sets, Banks approached the trumpeter for a chat and mentioned that he was a jazz pianist from India. “Dizzy was looking at me and said, ‘Jazz pianist from India!’ He couldn’t believe it,” says Banks.
When Gillespie returned to the stage, he announced, “There is a guest in the house who is a jazz pianist from India. I want him to come and play with us.” “Suddenly, to play with Dizzy out of nowhere–without rehearsal–I didn’t know what to do,” Banks says. “Literally, my knees were knocking against each other and my heart was thumping.” Gillespie asked the pianist if he was familiar with the jazz standard “Stella by Starlight.” Luckily, Banks was. “I played through the second set with him and it went off great,” says Banks.
This wasn’t the last time that Gillespie and Banks would perform together. In 1985, Gillespie played a multi-city tour in India and specifically asked for Banks to be his pianist for the tour. Banks jokes that offstage, Gillespie was “very childlike.” Once, Banks recalls the trumpeter almost refused to play a show in New Delhi because the airline lost his baggage and he didn’t have a shirt to wear to the gig. “He’s sitting on the steps … he was like a child, whimpering and all that,” chuckles Banks. The band ended up buying Gillespie a bunch of fancy new shirts to choose from. “When he saw the shirts, his eyes lit up, and wow, he was so excited. These qualities he had, but onstage he was something else.”
Such charming and yet flooring anecdotes are a mainstay for Banks, who has in the five decades of his colorful music career established himself as one of India’s most iconic, most venerated jazz musicians. His influence runs so deep that the man is often credited with introducing jazz to India, earning him the nickname ‘Godfather of Indian Jazz.’ These days, Gillespie isn’t the only big name that 76-year-old Banks can drop. For his latest fusion-jazz project, Cross Currents, he’s joined forces with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, British bassist Dave Holland, American saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarist Sanjay Divecha, Shankar Mahadevan on vocals and Banks’ own son Gino on drums. The group is all set to tour the U.S. and Canada this coming autumn.
It’s not surprising that Banks’ son Gino has taken up his father’s career: music has always been a mainstay in the Banks family. Banks’s grandfather and father were both talented musicians. George Banks, Louiz’s father, moved to India from Nepal in the late Thirties to pursue a career as a trumpeter—“seeking greener pastures,” jokes Banks. Banks himself was born in Kolkata in 1941, and in the mid Forties, his father relocated the family to Darjeeling and set up his band there, where they would perform regularly at a local gymkhana club.
It was in Darjeeling where a young Banks took his first step into music. He initially took up the trumpet under his father’s tutelage, but soon moved over to the piano. Both he and his father were able to switch deftly between the two instruments. “Around the age of 13, [my dad] asked me to sit in with his band and get some hands-on training,” says Banks. “It was good for me because youngsters that age never get a chance like that.”
By the time Banks went on to his Bachelors in Education, however, his father George had moved back to Nepal. Banks stopped investing as much time in music and took up a teaching job in Darjeeling. Everything changed, however, when he heard a recording of jazz piano legend Oscar Peterson, which was what ultimately inspired Banks to pursue music as a career. “I said to myself, ‘I want to play like him,’” remembers Banks.
During the winter months, Banks would visit his father in Kathmandu. One night, the manager of Kathmandu’s Soaltee Hotel happened to come into a restaurant where Banks was jamming with his father’s band, and offered Banks a job playing as the head of his accomplished in-house band. The pianist accepted the offer and resigned from his teaching job in Darjeeling.
Banks believes that leading a jazz quartet at the Soaltee was what really formed his skills as a jazz musician. “We played lunch and dinner [sets] and since there was nothing else to do in Kathmandu, we would practice the rest of the time,” says Banks. “This was the beginning of my jazz career.”
After spending three years at the Soaltee, Banks received and accepted a lucrative offer to move to the Hindustan Hotel in Kolkata and lead another band. “Cabaret acts used to come to Kathmandu and one singer, Laurie Pereira said, ‘You’re good, but there are 10 other pianists in Calcutta better than you,’” says Banks. “That prompted me to go to Calcutta.” After moving back to India in the late Sixties, Banks played—and lived—at the Hindustan for a few years, building up a country-wide name for himself. He would participate in the yearly, now-legendary Jazz Yatra festivals in Bombay. He took on a brief stint playing at the Oberoi in New Delhi before returning to Kolkata to lead the house band at now-closed venue Blue Fox. “It was the best band I ever had,” says Banks. “We called ourselves the Louiz Banks Brotherhood.” The band featured the legendary vocalist Pam Craine and saxophonist Braz Gonsalves. It was at Blue Fox that Banks started writing his own music. “I used to write a new tune almost every night,” says Banks. “I was notorious [for] changing arrangements of pop tunes; I used to feed in jazz even in pop tunes.”
When renowned film music director R.D. Burman walked into Blue Fox one evening, Banks didn’t yet know who he was. “He was quietly sitting down and watching me play,” remembers Banks. Burman approached Banks and offered him a role to play the piano parts for the 1977 Shashi Kapoor starrer Mukti. Banks was game to try anything at that point, and took Burman up on his offer. Upon completing work on the film in Bombay and returning to Kolkata, Banks found his beloved city’s music scene dwindling due to nightly power cuts, so he packed his bags for Bombay.
In 1979, Banks boarded a train to Bombay with his huge electric piano and only Rs.300 in his pocket. “I boarded a train with that piano in second class,” says Banks. “People were complaining.” Upon arriving in Mumbai, Banks approached Burman, who was delighted to see him and asked him to join his team. The pianist also managed to bag a nightly slot playing at Mumbai’s Searock Hotel. The gig with Burman paid excellently, so the Searock money was just a bonus. Banks earned in a day in Bombay what it would take him a month to earn in Kolkata. “My wife [had] never seen so much money,” Banks remembers. “Every time I came home I brought money.”
When Burman’s popularity declined, Banks began to write jingles for ads; his first was for the cult cigarette brand Four Squares. “Made a lot of money, made a lot of friends,” says Banks. “Some real, some fake.” But despite his newfound financial success, Banks never neglected his passion for jazz. Jazz Yatra, the festival he’d played through the late Seventies, offered him a spot on a tour of Europe with a classical fusion band called Sangam. “This was another new experience for me,” says Banks. “I wasn’t into Indian classical [before] at all.” After playing over 50 tour dates in Europe, the band returned to India and split up—but Banks’ passion for fusion continued. In the late Eighties, he formed a fusion band called SILK alongside bassist Karl Peters from Sangam, drummer Anandan Sivamani and vocalist Shankar Mahadevan. The group went on to play festivals in Singapore and the U.S. “The thing is, I was lucky,” says Banks. “People came to me.”
In the present day, now that Banks has established himself as one of the most influential figures in the Indian music scene, the pianist has a more curatorial purview. He began curating the International Jazz Day gigs on April 30th in Mumbai five years ago and has been doing so ever since. He also formed his rock-influenced jazz group Guitar Synergy last year with his son Gino, bassist prodigy Mohini Dey and guitarists Kush Upadhyay and Rhythm Shaw, which he hopes will reach out to a wider, younger audience. “Traditional jazz playing is almost passé,” says Banks. “[People] want something more contemporary. Youngsters cannot relate [to jazz] so it doesn’t hit them where it matters.”
The pianist was also involved with the British Council global music project Mix The City and featured in their Mumbai edition with 11 other artists. “They told me to play in the key of D and gave me a rhythmic bass and a tempo. It is amazing they got this concept of taking music to different cities and using the experiences of music from each city which culminates into a composition eventually.”
“The jazz I like to play today is very progressive,” Banks says. He already has six solo albums, with his eyes on releasing plenty more. “So many are still in the pipeline,” he says. He also has plans to start a music school, which he wants to name “Hands-On Music Education”—HOME, for short. He intends to teach students his own personal approach to jazz and playing the piano.
“I’m always looking for something new to do and exciting new projects,” he says. “Young musicians that seem to have great potential … I want to groom them, and use them in a band format, and explore their talent, and teach them the process. I learn a lot from there, and their energy levels are more than mine, so they energize me.” The young man who was willing to try anything when he first moved to Bombay is still very much present in Banks today.
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