One day in 2007, as the historian Ramachandra Guha and I were making our way to a coffee shop in Colaba, we encountered Micky Correa outside his building on the Causeway. It was most serendipitous. The legendary musician had been the subject of the first conversation I’d had with Guha four years before, when I accosted him at a lecture at Mumbai’s Press Club.
I had just finished reading A Corner of a Foreign Field, Guha’s social history of Indian cricket, and had been gobsmacked by the breadth of his vision and the depth of his research. My admiration reached boiling point when Guha described the celebrations that followed Vijay Hazare’s triple century in the finals of the Pentangular Tournament of 1943. At a reception organized by the Catholic Gymkhana to honour their co-religionist, Guha noted that “three hundred couples took to the floor, swaying to music by Micky Correa’s band…”.
I later sent Guha a photo of Correa’s band, and the historian began taking a generous interest in my research on Indian jazz. Now here, as we sauntered past Esperança building, was Correa himself. We shook his hand enthusiastically, and peppered him with questions. At first, the 94-year-old musician looked a little befuddled as we swarmed around him, barking, “Vijay Hazare!”, “Pentangular!” “1943!”. But he soon broke into a sweet smile and said something like, “It was all such a long time ago.”
Drum and bass: Members of the Micky Correa band pose for a photograph at the Taj in the mid-1940s. Courtesy Naresh Fernandes.
It may have been a long time ago but Correa’s triumphs are easy to recall, thanks to the thick scrapbook that he and his wife Doreen maintained meticulously over six decades. The Correa family graciously allowed me to make a copy of it a few years ago and I flipped through it on 25 September after returning from Micky Correa’s funeral. He died on 22 September, just days before his 98th birthday. He was still giving music lessons the week before he died.
Correa was a witness to—and participant in—vital moments in India’s history. One menu card pasted in his scrapbook lists items like delices a l’Hindustan, poularde soufflé Independence and vacherin de peches liberation, culinary creations that were served up in the Taj Ballroom on 14 August 1947. Correa’s band was on the stage to ring in independence, along with an outfit headed by his trumpeter-friend Chic Chocolate. As midnight struck, they launched into a jaunty version of Jana Gana Mana.
The photographs and articles in his album show that Correa, like the jazz music he loved, travelled widely. His family had its roots in the Goan village of Moira, but he was born in Mombasa, Kenya, and grew up in Karachi. He fell in love with the sound of America when he heard swing on the radio and on thick shellac records. He perfected his art in Mumbai in the ranks of ensembles headed by trumpet player Crickett Smith and pianist Teddy Weatherford, African-American pioneers who had headed to India in the mid-1930s and spent much of their lives on the subcontinent. Smith and Weatherford were mentors to several members of that first generation of Indian jazzmen, teaching them techniques that couldn’t be learnt simply by listening to records.
In 1939, Correa began to lead his own band at the Taj—and stayed there until 1961. He, in turn, became an avuncular figure to a second generation of Indian jazzmen, nurturing such talents as trumpet player Pete D’Mello and saxophonist Norman Mobsby. When diphtheria weakened his lungs, he began to give music lessons. His students went on to join some of Mumbai’s hottest rock bands.
The musician who was inspired most profoundly by Correa’s ethic is his daughter, Christine, a cutting-edge singer in New York. She studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and now teaches at Columbia’s department of music. She performs frequently, often in formations headed by her husband, the pianist Frank Carlberg. Her 1993 debut album, Ugly Beauty, featured jazz versions of tunes by Bappi Lahiri and Kishore Kumar, an ode to her ancestral village titled Moira and a wordless evocation of a train leaving Churchgate station. She’s made several albums since, including Out of the Shadows last year with pianist Ran Blake. It was ecstatically received. “Each note and phrase and metaphor tells a story like a film of life unravelling…,” said one critic.
The album is bursting with a whole range of influences. It is evidence of how Christine, like so many of Correa’s students, took to heart a piece of advice he often repeated. “Be like a shark and listen,” he would say—learn from the people around you, absorb every detail and make it your own. It’s a message that’s as relevant to jazz as to writing non-fiction.
Fernandes’ book, Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, is scheduled to launch in November. To listen to samples of Micky Correa’s music, visit www.tajmahalfoxtrot.com
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