If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know,” famously said the gravelly voiced vocalist, trumpeter and one of the most influential figures in jazz, Louis Armstrong. The good news is that as International Jazz Day (April 30) approaches, even embarrassed novices needn’t ask this question — the day is being celebrated with a feast of jazz curated by Louiz Banks and NCPA that is sure to throw up some sound answers. From jazz standards to jazz fusion, some of the finest musicians and singers in the country will engage a packed house over a span of three hours. Veteran jazz musician, Banks is naturally gung-ho about the impending show. “The projection of the music in a one day festival setting in incomparable,” he says, adding, “The fact that people are entertained by various artists one after another in a span of couple of hours will help in promoting jazz to a wide spectrum of listeners. This will go a long way in popularising jazz. Annual festivals staged consistently every year featuring talented jazz musicians will create a landmark event for people to look forward to.”
Pointing out that the International Jazz Day event, which is being staged since the past eight years, has always had 90% to 100% attendance, Louiz maintains, “It’s a very encouraging and positive response. Jazz has arrived in a big way!”
This declaration may be slightly coloured by the passion of a man who fell “head over heels in love with jazz” as a teenager when he heard a recording of the great jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson. Even then, it is heartening to note how jazz still remains a beloved if niche genre in India, from the time it was probably first performed regularly in Calcutta and Bombay of the early or middle 1920s. The so-called Golden Age of jazz in India which lasted from the 1930s to the 1950s is long gone, but Naresh Fernandes, Scroll.in editor and author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, finds no reason to despair. “One of the things about music is that it is never static, it’s always becoming something else,” he says, pointing out, “And jazz is now a niche form of music even in America. Western Classical music is also a niche music in that way, just like a lot of Indian Classical music is. There are always new kinds of popular music emerging, and that is the nature of what culture should be — we can’t be frozen in moments. These moments need to evolve.”
Fernandes’ description of the fluid nature of culture rings particularly true for jazz, which has come a long way since it originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. “The thing about jazz is that it has proved remarkably adaptive in that specific people around the world have found ways to play jazz and make it their own. It came out of New Orleans but there is a specific unique kind of French jazz, Chinese jazz and in India people have found ways of making it a very Indian thing. There’s something unique and beautiful about people playing with something, whether it’s music, language or film,” he muses.
From early Bombay musicians like Chic Chocolate, Frank Fernand, Micky Correa, Rudy Cotton and Chris Perry, many of whom shared Goan roots, to musicians like Ravi Shankar, John Coltrane and John McLaughlin who went on to blend jazz and Indian classical music, the genre has taken on varied hues. It is entirely in keeping with British jazz pianist George Shearing’s definition of jazz’s inherent quality of imitation, assimilation and innovation. “I’m fascinated with this music that is played differently every time,” explains Naresh. “It has a basic structure but it is a structure that is loose and it basically allows you to make it your own, to tell your own story through its broad framework. To me, it’s sort of an opportunity for abstraction yet grounded in a reality, which I find quite interesting. Everybody talks about how music and culture reflect life, and in a way that is true—the way you play jazz, learn jazz, the way you listen to jazz, is in a way a reflection of the way life goes.”
A nice bit of that improvisation will be on offer as the line-up at the International Jazz Day concert blends an interesting mix of artistes, from Sanjay Divecha and Vinay Kaushal, to Gino Banks and Shreyas Iyengar. “This year’s highlight at the NCPA is the participation of the one and only tabla maestro Ustaad Zakir Hussain. Zakir will perform with myself along with some of the finest musicians of our country. It’s going to be a great treat for the audience. The music repertoire that he has planned is very exciting,” pipes in Louiz Banks, who has ensured to select talented and deserving artists who will project their individual styles.
Speaking of his own style, he shares that his discovery of jazz at a very young age thanks to his musician father’s teaching, has been singularly responsible for his growth and development as a musician. “The biggest lesson I have learnt from jazz is that there is freedom in music. This element of freedom is what I have been exploring over the years and I apply this knowledge to all the genres of music that I am involved in. Of course it’s not unlicensed freedom; it is freedom judiciously applied across the whole spectrum of music composition and performance.” Banks concludes, “I am still learning and discovering the infinite depth of jazz. To me, jazz is the greatest music on earth!”
Go on and rouge your knees if you will, and catch that Ja-yazz…
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