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Jazz Corner: Whither ‘Indian’ Jazz?

Recently, we have seen the emergence of young talent from all parts of the country

Sunil Sampat Sep 01, 2020

Mumbai-based pianist Louiz Banks. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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Bombay 1950 to 1970: If you strolled down the Churchgate area starting at Marine Drive and walked via Flora Fountain upto the Gateway of India, you would have gone past a dozen restaurants and hotels featuring live jazz music on most evenings. These venues would even have a “jam session” on Sunday mornings. Live jazz bands, comprising typically of a female vocalist backed by a piano, double bass, drums and possibly a saxophone, trumpet or guitar would be entertaining a full house of guests, enjoying a dinner or a non-alcoholic drink (prohibition was in effect). The scene was energetic and vital and people were having a good time.

The scene was as vibrant in the Park Street area of Calcutta, at least until the mid-60s or in the Connaught Place area in Delhi. Perhaps Bangalore and Madras too had their share of jazz venues. At least 200 musicians were involved in playing their form of jazz in these venues.

From all accounts, jazz arrived in India in around 1935 at the Taj Mahal Hotel. The newly arrived Americans played the contemporary jazz of the time, essentially music to dance to and from all accounts were very popular.

Soon, Indian musicians were inducted into the mix in bands, entertaining dinner guests at the Taj and other hotels in India. In time some very fine Indian jazz talent surfaced from these bands; Dizzy Sal and saxophonists like Rudy Cotton and Mickey Correa were prominent examples of homegrown talent.

Cotton, in fact, was honored by being invited to be the very first act of the week-long iconic Jazz Yatra in1978 in Bombay. The master of ceremonies for the festival was the legendary jazz announcer (RJ) Willis Conover. Conover has been a household name in every part of the world for his Voice of America Jazz Hour broadcasts – a U.S. government initiative to reach audiences worldwide and spread the message of jazz. Cotton was introduced by Conover, who paid him a rich tribute. It was indeed a proud moment for Indian jazz.

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By the 1950s, a community of Indian jazz musicians were playing jazz in the metro cities of India. They were playing, largely cover versions of the popular jazz they had heard from the trickle of records then available, or from shortwave radio broadcasts picked up largely from American sources – such as the Voice of America or the American Armed Forces network.

Over time, prominent jazz artists made their mark on the jazz scene. Prominent among them were bandleader Chic Chocolate, vocalists Pam Crain, Marie Wilson and Lorna, several fine pianists and stylists like saxophonist Braz Gonsalves and pianist Louiz Banks among very many others.

The popularity of jazz in India was based largely on bands performing versions of popular songs or tunes which were often played in the style of a jazz musician from America. It is not unusual to hear a singer saying that she or he is singing, say “Misty” or “Summertime “ as sung by Sarah Vaughan or Carmen McRae.

The essence of jazz is to have one’s own style and to tell the story of the song in one’s own words, as it were. This particular aspect of originality has been, sadly missing in a majority of jazz performances in this country. This might be one of the contributing factors for jazz not growing as an art form (as opposed to a form of entertainment). Jazz thrives with the originality of composition and performance; these are intrinsic factors for its growth.

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Also, with a few exceptions – Louiz Banks and Braz Gonsalves are two examples, the jazz baton has not been passed on to the next generation in any significant way. After the closing of the restaurants and other venues that patronized live jazz, several musicians veered towards “fusion” after the success of the group Shakti. Fusion has been an offshoot of the jazz form and is not a building block for the music.

However, the news of the local jazz scene is not at all bleak. We have seen the emergence of young talent from all parts of India. Whereas earlier jazz musicians came from Goa and Calcutta for the most part, we have today a crop of brilliant jazz musicians from previously unlikely places like Vidarbha, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Pondicherry, Punjab, the North East states among other places. This crop of young musicians play jazz of an international flavor and give the jazz community something to look forward to.

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

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