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The Jazz Scene in India

September 2008
The Jazz Scene in India

By Soli J. Sorabjee

Jazz in India made its presence felt in the thirties in Calcutta, where it was played at the Grand Hotel. In Bombay jazz bands performed at the Taj Mahal Hotel and at Greens next door.

The top Indian jazz musicians during that time were Rudy Cotton and Chic Chocolate. Rudy was a member of the great Teddy Weatherford’s band and is featured on the tenor sax in Columbia recordings of Weatherford’s band in Calcutta in May 1943 and May 1944. Some of the finest music Rudy made was with his legendary band at Hackman’s in Mussoorie. He had with him Pat Blake, Danny Salvador and Frank Fernand on trumpets, Johnny Gomes on alto, George Bennet on tenor sax, Solo Jacobs on piano, Carl Evans on bass and Leslie Weekes on drums. All of them have departed from this world.

Rudy had the honor of opening the first Jazz Yatra [international ‘Pilgrimage’] in Bombay on 12th February 1978 by blowing the first note of his composition, which was an adaptation of what was at one time the signature tune of All India Radio.

In the seventies Rudy played at the ‘Tavern’ in the Imperial Hotel. The accompanying musicians were Mosin Menezes, Tony Quadros, Ronnie Bush, Carl Evans and Russel Menezes, who fortunately are still with us except Carl Evans and Russel Menezes who have passed away. Rudy died in January 1985.

Chic Chocolate had a fine musical personality. His dark complexion and his trumpet solos and vocals were reminiscent of the great Louis Armstrong. He was a master of the instrument and was comfortable in any key. He was terrific in his improvisation.

John Baptiste was a superb clarinetist who also doubled on the alto. He died prematurely in the 1980s. A talented jazz musician Joe Santana died in Delhi at a young age thanks to neglect of his health. His brother Babush Santana is a fine drummer. His blindness has not affected his musicianship. Percy Dias despite his old age thrills audiences with his vocals. One of the creative current jazz musicians is Madhav Chari, who is both a pianist and a composer, and what is more, a thinker.

Today Mosin Menezes is one of India’s most accomplished musicians. He is an excellent pianist, and an innovative arranger and composer. He is very much on the jazz scene. Louis Banks has been on the jazz scene for a long time and is well known for his proficiency as a pianist and for his original compositions. Braz Gonsalves is a first rate jazz musician whose alto sax solos are excellent. Of late he is in semiretirement and does not give public performance.

Many leading jazz musicians have passed away in the last two decades. Sebi Sarrao was one of the finest amongst them. His tenor sax solos were brilliant. Unfortunately the tribe of jazz musicians is dwindling. Pop and rock musicians are in demand. Besides, a few jazz musicians have Bollywood engagements which are lucrative. And Bollywood music played by them is not jazz. Jazz musicians working at 5-star hotels play music which is popular and to the liking of the customers but which is certainly not jazz.

Despite the different styles of jazz one basic feature which is the essence of jazz is Improvisation. The greatness of a jazz musician lies in his or her creativity. No jazz musician would play the same tune in the same way except the melody in the beginning. This is most evident in jam sessions.

One of my most unforgettable musical experiences was an informal jam session in 1952 at a small house in Chembur, which was then a quiet, undeveloped part of Bombay. It started around midnight after the All Star Swing Concert was over at the Taj. It was an exclusive event and there were in all about 30 of us occupying every available inch of space. There were Chic Chocolate (trumpet), Johnny Gomes (alto), Lupus Theodore (bass), Solo Jacobs (piano), Eddie Jones (drums) and the great Rudy Cotton on tenor sax. Rudy had flown down from Calcutta to Bombay for the swing concert. He was tremendous. At times one felt that Lester Young himself was there blowing the tenor. Each tune lasted between 40 minutes and an hour. The tune was just an excuse for expressing the individuality of the performers. It became clear that there were no jazz compositions, only jazz musicians who played them. A jazz musician does not express the musical thoughts and ideas of the composer. He is his own composer. Improvisation is singularly missing in pop and rock music where the emphasis is on the same beat constantly, which leaves no scope for improvisation. I have nothing against rock and pop as such. My real concern is that this form of music should not be confused or equated with jazz. Jazz is to be listened with attention. People who are fond of jazz sit at a table and follow the music, not get on to the dance floor and indulge in acrobatics.

Efforts to revive jazz have been made by Jazz India and Capital Jazz who organize jazz yatras. In 1978 and following years the live jazz scene was revolutionized in India thanks to Jazz India. There has been a succession of fine jazz musicians visiting India every two years from 1978 through 2007. Groups from different countries who could not speak to each other in a common language have played in Bombay, Delhi, and also in Goa and Bangalore. It became clear that jazz is a universal language transcending national frontiers and geographical barriers.

It is apparent from the recent jazz utsavs [festivals] that interest in jazz is growing amongst the youth who are not yet sufficiently exposed to that form of music. The problem is that young musicians are not willing to learn and practice the basic jazz instruments like the clarinet, alto, tenor sax and trumpet. They would rather play the not so difficult instruments like the synthesizer, bass guitar and the electric guitar. This trend needs to be reversed.

In the end the ultimate question is: What is jazz? It is difficult to define jazz exhaustively. The best description of jazz has been given by that inimitable compere Willis Conover: “Jazz is a language. It is people living in sound. Jazz is people talking, laughing, crying, building, painting, mathematicizing, abstracting, extracting, giving to, taking from, making of. In other words, living.”

[Soli J. Sorabjee is the former Attorney General for India and President, Capital Jazz. Reprinted with the permission of India Perspectives.]

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