It is about ALL THAT JAZZ

Posted on 8 May, 2017 by Team Wishberry

What we play is life.

Louis Armstrong

Jazz music in India has had a rich history and its legacy is one to reckon with even today. A lot has been written about the era of jazz brilliance in the 1940s to its steady as well as inevitable decline later years. From the Bombay Swing Club to Louis Banks, jazz found its way into popular imagination, despite being centred in erstwhile Bombay and Calcutta, and being patronized by the upwardly mobile progressive crop of the new-age Indian.

Therefore, rather than focusing on the history of jazz in India and where it stands today, we decided to take a look at how this mellifluous form of music actively moulded itself and found itself discovered and re-discovered — over and over again...

The beginning

It is a well-established fact that the West and its overriding influence (courtesy colonization!) have played instrumental roles in establishing jazz as one of the most popular forms of modern music in India. The ‘30s witnessed Leon Abbey, Crickett Smith, Creighton Thompson, Ken Mac, Roy Butler, Teddy Weatherford and Rudy Jackson making their mark in the country, with Taj Mahal Hotel Ballroom becoming the epicentre of all things ‘jazz’.

Image Source: Taj Mahal Foxtrot

However, considering the history of jazz (with roots in Western African rhythm, European military band music, African-American as well as Blues influences), it was not long before jazz found its way to Indian classical music and Bollywood as well.

Sample this:

Set in the jazz-style swing rhythm of the nightclub culture, famous in the US of the '30s, this song from Shakti Samanta’s Howrah Bridge (1958) is one of the many examples that display how jazz permeated mainstream Hindi cinema.

One has to talk about Goa when it comes to jazz music in India and especially Hindi cinema. A lot has been said and written about Mumbai and Kolkata, but even today, when these cities are slowly giving way to other more popular forms of music, jazz finds its true home in Goa. Chic Chocolate, Sebastian D'Souza, Chris Perry, Mickey Correa and Anthony Gonsalves are just some of the names of the incredible jazz talent, who aided the music that is today, synonymous with being some of the best music that Bollywood has ever had to offer.

Indo Jazz

Not only did jazz find its way into Hindi cinema, it also found its way into classical Indian music — when Pandit Ravi Shankar tutored John Coltrane and Don Ellis in classical Indian music, it marked the beginning of the maestro’s incredible association with jazz. Improvisations (1962) featured Bud Shank and Jazzmine (1980), even today, remains one of his most underrated LPs. Along with Pandit Ravi Shankar, Dr. L. Subramaniam made jazz’s confluence with classical Indian music a well-known phenomenon. His albums such as Fantasy Without Limits (1979), Indian Express (1984) and Mani and Co. (1986) witnessed his collaborations with Stephane Grappelli (jazz violinist), George Duke (keyboard), Stanley Clarke (bass), and Tony Williams (drummer), to name a few.

The downs and the UPs

Although the legacy of jazz in India is rich, the fortune of its most significant names is mired in tragedy — many of the incredible jazz artists of India died penniless and without any real recognition. That says a lot about how we, as a social fabric, treat our artists. Along with this collective amnesia that plagued the future of jazz, the rise of rock ‘n’ roll also contributed to the decline of jazz in India, which in turn, was fuelled by two other factors: The exit of many Europeans post India’s independence and taxes such as the Entertainment Tax that were levied and which came down heavily on live jazz clubs in both Bombay and Calcutta. To top it, was the nationalist impression that associating with musical forms such as jazz, rock ‘n’ roll (etc., etc.) would lead the youth astray! What contributed to this notion was the assumption that jazz was meant for the elite (Oh, how history was ignored, which testifies to the fact that jazz rose to its dizzying height in the US from the lowest economic strata of the country — a strata, which found hope in strumming the guitar, and getting lost in the symphony of the trumpet).

However, its revival was not far behind. What we today cherish as indie music is something that jazz music continued to thrive in, despite a tidal wave of opposition. Louis Banks is a name that most of us know. This man is also credited with keeping the flame of jazz alive in India. His accomplishments range from collaborating with musical legends including Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, to live acts that continue to amaze and enthral audiences. Another important figure in this revival is Niranjan Jhaveri whose efforts led to the first Jazz Yatra in 1978 — that journey continues even today.

Image Source: Events High

There are other significant players as well: Derek Julien of the progressive rock brand Waterfront started his music studio in Pune in 1996. He nurtured the love of classic jazz there. Apart from him, there’s Arjun Sen. He rose from Shillong, the Mecca of music in India today, and didn’t look back. From solo acts to playing with bands to composing music for numerous TV shows and jingles, to working with big record labels such as Sony, AJ as he fondly known, really held the fort for jazz in India along with his other compatriots.

Where does it stand today?

It will be fallacious to say that jazz is slowly losing its firm-footing in the heart and mind of the Indian music lover. Yes, there have been setbacks: Mumbai’s iconic Rhythm House at Kala Ghoda shut-shop in 2016 and the iconic Blue FROG, which was dedicated to jazz, blues and world music, shut its doors in the same year.

However, what ensures jazz’s longevity is its fluidity, along with the genius and willingness of true jazz believers to keep this wonderful music’s allure well and alive in our minds.

The YouTube comments on this video bear testimony to the fact that jazz does have an active audience in India.

What we witness in the form of jazz today is a healthy mix of purely jazz traditions with popular forms of music. Bollywood has embraced jazz through films such as Bombay Velvet and the plethora of independent jazz artists is a heartening fact — from child prodigies such as Mohini Dey, to established names such as Vasundhara Vee, The Radha Thomas Ensemble, and finally, with the help of bands such as Drift!, The Bodhisattwa Trio and HFT, jazz will continue to transfix us in times to come.

Bonus Track!

P.S.: Did you know that Chic Chocolate is also known as the Louis Armstrong of India?

Feature Image Source: Pixabay

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