How Jazz Jump Started The Live Music Scene In India

How Jazz Jump Started The Live Music Scene In India
Jazz Yatra 1976

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Eastern and western acoustics are fundamentally different. While the first is based in melody (one person leads the band and the rest of the group follows), the latter is structured on harmony, where the simultaneous sounding of several notes composes one pleasant tune. Still, the cultural exchange that took place in Indian lands for hundreds of years was able to produce unique gems when it comes to all forms of art expression, music being one of them. From these encounters, Indian Jazz was born.

As Mr. Naresh Fernandes writes in his book Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, Jazz arrived in India through the Gateway, and then spread to all metro cities. Coming to India was a way for African American musicians to escape the extreme racial bias happening in the US, as here they had endless opportunities to perform. Needless to say natives were instantly hooked — Apart from imported gramophone records, no one had ever witnessed such skilled music setup.

The Taj Hotel was one of the first places where jazz aficionados and the city elite could listen to the new “hot music”. Many western orchestras performed in the hotel’s ballroom, and soon a few homegrown players appeared on the scene. Coming mainly from Goa, they had learned how to play the saxophone and clarinet, vital instruments in Christian churches and schools. Josic Menzie, Franklin Fernandes and Chic Chocolate, AKA the Louis Armstrong of India, are notable examples. Story tells that after Frank Fernand (as he liked to be called) met Mahatma Gandhi, he found purpose in his life: To play jazz, Indian style.

These talented musicians learned the basics with the Yankees, and shaped the emerging jazz wave for more than twenty years. Still, Bombay is an expensive city. Jazz players were the only guys who knew about harmony, and found jobs as assistants in movie sets; working in Bollywood during the day and performing at night was a way to pay the bills. As a result, boogie sounds of trumpets, saxophones and clarinets took over the black & white screens that until very recently were silent, incorporating the genre to Indian cinema. Listen to this tune from the box hit Aasha and you will recognize the american swing quickly.

During the 1960s, the scene shifted from Mumbai to Calcutta. Teddy Weatherford, a famous American pianist, moved to the town after some time leading the Taj’s Orchestra, and a whole new set of Indian jazz players emerged in West Bengal. The city was on fire: You could hear Jazz coming from every club in Park Street, where names like the renowned bebop guitarist Carlton Kitto, and pianist Louis Banks jammed six days a week.

The next years were a highly fruitful and productive period for Jazz in India. Festivals popped up across the country, where international musicians from Brazil, Japan, Switzerland, Germany and USA would perform. The Jazz Yatra in 1978, first one of its kind, gathered jazz maniacs in Rang Bhavan for a week long fest. Willis Conover, American producer who didn’t played any instrument but was considered a kind of Jazz Ambassador worldwide, was the master of ceremonies.

In one excerpt from Susheel Kurien’s YouTube channel findingcarlton, Conover can be seen thanking the presence of his friends Sonny Rollins and Don Ellis, along with expressing his concern on whether or not the festival would be a success. But “(…) they were all filled [the seats]. Every night. Seven nights, in fact, they were over filled. People standing around, sitting on the walls in the back, and people outside trying to get in.”, Willis says.

Jazz Yatra

Finding Carlton is also the name of a documentary that uncovers the story of Jazz in India through the eyes of Carlton Kitto, describing the Kolkata scene during the golden years of Park Street. Along with Banks, who still plays regularly, Kitto also jammed together with Bras Gonsalves, considered India’s best saxophone player. Gonsalves’ LP Raga Rock is a portrait of this creative era — The soulful western vibe combined with Bras exotic Indian horn makes it a classic. Literally, you should stop everything you are doing right now and hit play in this hardcore Indian jazz right here, rated 5 starts in Discogs.

With the increasing Bollywood popularity, Jazz began to fade. But, while India’s taste on Jazz was diminishing, American musicians were still discovering the country vast background and complexity. Curiously, although coming from distinct origins, Jazz and Indian Classical have a lot of similarities: Both work around scales and rely upon improvisation, making the mash up very easy.

Largely due to Ravi Shankar in the 70s, the west started to incorporate Hindustani elements in their music. Shankar is the one of the most relevant figures when it comes to spreading Indian music abroad — With gigs at Monterey Pop Festival (side by side with Jimi Hendrix) and Woodstock in his resume, he reached myth status after his association with Beatles guitarist George Harrison. Apparently the beatle was very fond of Indian classical music, and took lessons of sitar with him. His influence ramified to Jazz, creating a new voice: The Spiritual, or Indo Jazz.

Indo Jazz emerged both as a genre and path to transcendence. Not only interested in Indian music, many jazz musicians were caught by yoga and Indian spirituality. These explorations forged a whole new era of jazz music in the seventies and eighties, leaded by icon John Coltrane, his wife Alice, Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry and many others. In fact, you can clearly hear the relationship of Indian Jazz with late Coltrane’s music (see this record by Gonsalves and this song by Coltrane). Visits to India were common, and many jazz players were involved with Hindu swamis.

As Ravi Shankar successfully does in his album Jazzmine, the fusion between Occident and orient has flourished rare treasures in world music. Cultural interchange allowed the freedom of expression, and pushing all constrains new forms of art were born. Jazz, a western concept, came to India through foreigners only to be rediscovered right here, years later. It’s easy to think that modern and ancient customs won’t match, but history proves this idea wrong — From this interesting and uncommon clash of cultures, legendary tales are created.

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