If one needed to know a musicians who brought jazz to India, Bombay Jazz, a musical play staged in the city a few years ago with saxophonist Rhys Sebastian and Denzil Smith, gave you an insight into the swinging city of the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. It showcased how Goans and Anglo Indians left Goa and Calcutta (now Kolkata) and migrated to the city of dreams.
Taking us back in time through his book Taj Mahal Foxtrot, author Naresh Fernandes recounts how the jazz age arrived in Bombay through the Gateway and entered the music halls of the Taj Mahal Hotel. It was Leon Abbey, a violinist from Minnesota, who in 1935 brought African American jazz musicians to India to escape the extreme racial bias happening in the US, as here they had endless opportunities to perform. The locals, who heard the sound of jazz, a genre that originally came from New Orleans, lapped it up. Thus, the roots were set for the next three to four decades where young musicians took on the baton to play jazz and later used the genre in Hindi film music.
Jazz bands stuck around for some time from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, playing regularly at a few hotels by musicians like saxophonists Braz Gonsalves, Chris Perry, ‘Jazzy’ Joe Pereira, trumpeters Bosco Monserrate, trombonists Anibal Castro and Blasco Monserrate. And the genre gradually paved way to a new sub-culture — pop music, another gift from the West.
“I first heard jazz in 1964 on my uncle’s stereo system. My interest was piqued, but did not progress because of lack of availability (only place to buy jazz then was at The Rhythm House which was too far from my Khar residence,” recalls Ashok Gulati, former Secretary of Jazzindia and capital jazz Mumbai Chapter. “The scene changed in 1978 when I attended the first Jazz Yatra. I had not only rediscovered jazz, but more importantly I had found a group of like-minded people. I immediately joined Jazz India (organisers of The Jazz Yatra) and the next year stood for the managing committee elections. Now, I had access to a huge amount of jazz music and also the opportunity to discuss it with people who were very knowledgeable (and passionate) about jazz. My jazz journey had started.”
Gulati was responsible for the logistics of the Jazz Yatra festival, which was held every alternate year between 1978 to 2002 at the Rang Bhavan. However, due to problems within the team organising the Yatra, the festival folded in 2002, only to re-merge in a new avatar in 2003 with three festivals that year (the Indian Jazz Yatra, The Asian Jazz Yatra and The International Jazz Yatra). After the 2010 festival, the music stopped due to various problems including lack of sponsors, licenses and other issues.
But the days of jazz were far from over. Many restaurants in the city took a liking to the genre and gave musicians a chance to showcase their talent. “In the early 1990s, you had AD Singh’s Just Desserts, and as the name suggests, only served desserts and jazz. Jazz by the Bay came after that, which later changed to Not Just Jazz by the Bay,” states Fernandes nostalgically. “In the early 2000s, Soul Fry in Bandra did a monthly jazz night that was energetic and gave younger listeners a chance to listen to musicians, who had since retired. Blue Frog in Lower Parel in 2007 was the most ambitious effort to bring high-quality creative music back to Bombay, which had a great run. More recently there was The Quarter at the Royal Opera House. A couple of years ago, Bluebop cafe in Khar featured bands on the weekend. I hope it can get back on its feet after the pandemic.”
But, the best of jazz was yet to come. And, came it did, in the form jazz legend Louis Banks, who left Calcutta on the invitation of RD Burman to explore Bollywood. Over the years, Banks has seen jazz music adapt to the changing times. The curator of the annual International Jazz Day for the last 10 years, states. “There is a resurgence of jazz in India where restaurants, clubs, hotel venues and live concerts are welcoming jazz groups. This is mainly due to the variety of jazz fusion that is being experimented by innovative musicians. This is jazz with a twist rather than just straight jazz, so it appeals to a wider audience mostly from among the younger generation. A savvy jazz musician can fuse various elements with jazz and can call it new jazz, the birth of jazz fusion, which has become very popular these days.”
Merlin D’souza |
Jazz has been a part of Bollywood’s DNA since the ’50s and it’s known for its harmonies that represented the new India, with songs that targeted the young while maintaining the traditional aspect of the genre. You had songs like Eena Meena Deeka (Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar — Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi), Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo and Aaiye Merherbaan (Asha Bhosle — Howrah Bridge) and many others.
There are also various music schools like True School of Music and others that have opened in the last few years and are creating opportunities for young people to be professionally ready for live performance. In fact, there are many noted jazz instrumentalists like Shirish Malhotra, Rhys Sebastian, Ryan Sadri among others, who are fine saxophonists and help in keeping jazz music alive. “Young Mumbai musicians are exploring newer areas of jazz. I think the jazz scene in Mumbai on the whole is quite positive and looking good for the next few years,” says Sunil Sampat, jazz historian and co-Founder of jazzaddicts.
There are quite a few female jazz vocalists ruling the roost, says music composer Merlin D’souza, as she reels out names like Sonia Sehgal, Samantha Noella, Sanjeeta Bhattacharya, Isheeta Chakravarty, Shreya Bhattacharya, Vivienne Pocha, Tipriti Kharbangar, Keisha, Pam Crain of the yesteryear to Mohini Dey, Vasundhara Vee and Radha Thomas who have given the genre a new meaning, in a landscape driven mainly by classical or Bollywood music.
Today, Rang Bhavan is shut, Bombay is Mumbai, the restaurants have stopped jazz nights, but jazz music has survived the test of time due to the efforts of a few dedicated musicians. The younger musicians are also taking up the genre seriously. And when we say that, one cannot forget one of the funkiest bands in Mumbai, Bombay Brass. It is an Indian instrumental band led by saxophonist Rhys Sebastian and his bandmates Ramon Ibrahim on trombone, Robin Fargose on trumpet, I.D Rao on the sax and others, who perform high energy instrumental music inspired by the sounds of Bombay. They often spin their songs with a western arrangement, with wind instruments as its lead element. It’s no wonder that one of their original compositions, Quegdevelim Sunset, was picked by Mira Nair for her web series, A Suitable Boy.
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