Belgian jazz vocalist, songwriter and actor Sascha Ley came to Mumbai four years ago to study classical Hindustani vocal techniques. During her stint, she found herself jamming impromptu on stage at an Indian jazz festival then called Jazz Yatra.
Ley’s love of music from the US’ 20th-century South and India’s 13th-century North made sense. Indian music lovers say the similarities are glaring, even to an untrained ear, once this basic principle is understood: Jazz and Hindustani classical music are based on structured scales (or raga) that allow for infinite improvisation. Both musical art forms are grounded but free, spontaneous and moody—far from the rigidity of Western classical music, or the consistency of verse-chorus-verse pop music that can be about love or anger, but not both.
From 23 November in Mumbai and New Delhi, jazz and India will come together again for their 29th festival, now called Jazz Utsav. Forty-year-old Ley will return to perform Travelling Light with a global band that will play for a crowd that could swell to 1,800 in Mumbai and 600 in New Delhi. She will be joined by Switzerland’s Martin Dahanukar, who will be playing with India’s Louiz Banks, Germany’s Café du Sport, US’ Paula Jeanine, UK’s Jake Fryer & the London Bebop Collective, India’s Ramamani with Amit Heri Group and Madhav Chari Trio, Poland’s Krystof Herdzin and a Norwegian group’s tribute to acclaimed American trumpeter and jazz singer Chet Baker.
“(Jazz is) a music to bring out perfectly what India nowadays stands for,” Dahanukar says. “Tradition and innovation, spirit and the pulse of movement. It’s music for the young, ambitious, and the older, who are experienced with life.”
Vipul Patel, a 32-year-old sales manager in Mumbai, says he discovered jazz in a Yahoo chat group dedicated to fans of his hero, Bollywood music composer R.D. Burman. “We analysed his music,” he says. “He would compose songs based on jazz.” Bollywood music has been influenced by jazz since the 1940s and 1950s, when American jazz musicians played on Mumbai’s jazz scene. Patel will come to the festival for the third time this year, and hopes to see another gem such as last year’s Maria Sadowska of Poland. “She had set the stage on fire.”
Since 1978, the festival has been bringing together Indian jazz musicians such as Asha Puthli and Indian jazz fusion group Shakti with contemporaries from around the world such as French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli or American jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. It started at Mumbai’s Rang Bhavan, selling tickets at Rs4,000 for the week-long event.
That first year, the emcee was Voice of America’s Willis Conover, who also produced jazz concerts at places such as the White House. “His soothing voice and charming demeanour on stage won over everybody,” says festival committee member Prakash Thadani, whose office is lined from floor to ceiling with blue binders labelled “Jazz Yatra 1980” or “Jazz Yatra 1995” and Mario Miranda’s cartoons of performers. “Whoever came to that (first) concert was converted into a jazz fan for the rest of his life. I mean it was something that India probably had never seen.”
Niranjan Jhaveri, known as the father of jazz promotion in India, conceptualized the festival after seeing such events abroad (and also started Mumbai’s Jazz-India Vocal Institute). Jhaveri gathered sponsors, invited musicians well known in the US, or just from a cafe in France. He got the festival off the ground. Since then, a committee of more than a dozen has organized the festival each year in the members’ spare time, with former attorney general Soli Sorabjee leading the team in New Delhi.
Today, opportunities for live music in India are still few—but they are growing in number.
Gaining sponsorship is more competitive—and has dried up for this festival. There was a time when airlines would bring over the musicians, hotels or diplomats would host them and there would be jam sessions after hours at hotels. Now, bands must get their own funding.
But the music goes on, for now. Jazz festival veteran and music selection committee member Banks says, “I am very optimistic about a great renaissance for jazz music in this country and other parts of the world. More so in India, because of the closeness of Indian classical music to jazz.”
Jazz Utsav will be on from 23-25 November at Ficci Auditorium, New Delhi, and at the Amphitheatre, Bandra Bandstand, Mumbai. Visitjazzutsav.comfor details.