Long before Jazz By the Bay came about, the row of clubs down Churchgate was where you’d go to listen to some live jazz in Mumbai. In Delhi, at about the same time, Lagoona, Alps, Volga and York in Connaught Place were the clubs where now veteran musicians would perform to a dedicated audience of sahibs—white and brown. Karachi, another cosmopolitan centre in pre-Partition India, had its jazz hub in the Saddar area, inhabited primarily by the Goan community. In Kolkata, as early as 1926, there was a thriving jazz studio near Dum Dum airport where international jazz bands would play, performing at the Great Eastern and Grand hotels too.
Contrary to the common perception of jazz in India being a fairly recent phenomenon (festivals often talk of “reviving” the form), there are accounts of musician families that show it’s been around for almost a century. “An article from a New York magazine in 1922 describes the Indian and Sri Lankan jazz scene as not being ‘evolved’ and ‘too rag-time’. While this is a critique of the jazz scene in those times, it also shows that there was a jazz scene to begin with,” says Astri Ghosh, journalist and board member of Capital Jazz, which organizes the annual Jazz Utsav every winter in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Recording the oral histories of these families, she is presenting “Portrait of Jazz: Musicians in India”, a talk tracing 90 years of jazz in India.
Tuning in: Braz Gonsalves with his grandson Jarryd Rodrigues.
“The Goans and Anglo-Indians were greatly into the jazz scene and since these communities populated the jobs in the railways (the Anglo-Indians had an unofficial quota in these jobs), the railway colonies, for years to come, became the place where the jazz movement grew,” says Ghosh. She mentions musicians such as Gurgaon-based Llewellyn “Lew” Hilt, a member of the jazz band Hard Fucking Times, who grew up in a railway colony in Shillong, and used to stay up late every night to listen to his drunk neighbour come home and play the piano.
Although the railways helped build the jazz community, it never provided employment, and this is where the film industry, never far from the action, stepped in. Both the film industries in Mumbai and Lahore started employing jazz musicians as arrangers, especially since most of the Goans and Anglo-Indians had gone to Catholic schools and could read music, Ghosh adds. Chic Chocolate, another Goan arranger, worked on many films, including Aakhri Khat (1966). “Most of these musicians would work in the films during the day, and at night play at jazz clubs, the row of them, in Churchgate,” says Ghosh.
Many of them continue to play today.
“Oral history is a rare resource and can reveal an extraordinary range of material that textbook history cannot,” says Ghosh.
Gandhi and jazz
One of Gandhi’s lesser known facets, as journalist Naresh Fernandes mentions, is his association with the Indian jazz scene. Fernandes, who has written extensively about the history of Indian jazz, will give a lecture on “Gandhi and Jazz Musicians” at the Mani Bhawan, Mumbai.
His talk will dwell on the 1930s and 1940s when groups of African-American musicians looked to Gandhi and ‘satyagraha’ as inspiration. “In 1935, the first African-American jazz band came to Mumbai, which is the same year the first African-American delegation came to meet Gandhi. Gandhi was much inspired by Negro Spirituals, a form of music that forms the building bricks of jazz,” says Fernandes. “Inspired by Gandhi, and his ideas that influenced the jazz scene, the 1940s saw the rise of Indian jazz musicians such as Frank Ferdinand, who wrote jazz songs, and sang in Indian accents,” says Fernandes.
3.30 pm, 8 April, Mani Bhavan, 19, Laburnum Road, Gamdevi, Mumbai (23805864).
The talk “Portrait of Jazz: Musicians in India” will be delivered at 6.30pm, 8 April, India International Centre, Max Mueller Marg, New Delhi.
In addition, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations is holding the first edition of its three-day Jazz Festival in Delhi (see the Delhi listings)