The People At The Forefront Of India’s Jazz Resurgence

The People At The Forefront Of India’s Jazz Resurgence
Vasundhara Vee

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My first taste of Jazz was purely incidental. I heard the tunes of an intoxicating saxophone being played on a friend’s CD player. The then 16-year-old me went home with a copy of John Coltrane’s Blue Train and by the time I returned it, I was listening to just about anything that was jazz influenced. To someone who had grown up on Bollywood classics, jazz seemed like an exotic creature, a far-flung non-relative to anything local i’d ever heard before. It wasn’t long before I found out that this was far from the truth. Jazz not only had deep cultural roots in India but was also responsible for jump-starting the live music scene here too.

The Golden Age

As 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 the metropolitans. Locals were instantly hooked — apart from imported gramophone records, no one had ever witnessed such a skilled music setup. The Taj Hotel was one of the first places where jazz aficionados and the city’s elite could listen to the new “hot music” played by artists from the likes of Josic Menzie, Franklin Fernandes and Chic Chocolate AKA the Louis Armstrong of India. The soundscapes were infectious and by 1947, there would be more than 60 jazz bands in Mumbai. During the 1960s, the scene shifted from Mumbai to Calcutta. 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.

Though despite jazz’s skyrocketing popularity it still remained a niche and was considered as the ‘rich man’s music’- sequestered in high-end hotels, there were no small joints for it.

Image Credit: Taj Mahal Foxtrot
Image Credit: Taj Mahal Foxtrot

A Sudden Demise

Sidharth Bhatia, in his book India Psychedelic: The Story Of A Rocking Generation, writes, “By the early to mid-1960s, the younger crowd was more interested in pop whose bands not only played in restaurants but also took their music to colleges. That made it more democratic than jazz. By the end of the ‘60s, as rock became popular, jazz was pretty much dead.”

From then, through the late ’70s to the ’90s, there have been efforts to sustain the genre through organised efforts like the week-long Jazz Yatra that played to packed audiences with artists like American legend hard-bop saxophonist Sonny Rollins alongside Indian purveyors like Rudy Cotton. Ultimately, most jazz festivals and venues saw their funding and audiences wither away as other genres like rock, metal and electronica took over. Jazz wasn’t in the spotlight but it managed to survive on the fringes.

A Concerted Comeback

In the past couple of years, however, jazz seems to have made its presence felt strongly in the country like never before, including for the very first time in Chandigarh. A string of venues for jazz have gradually cropped up in Indian metropolitans allowing audiences more opportunities to listen to the music. When I spoke to various programmers and musicians in the country they all agreed that there has been a ripple effect of increased education, exposure and audiences, that has paved the way for a much-awaited Jazz resurgence.

Mastering The Music

For the longest time, getting a proper jazz education in India was not an easy task. Coming under the wing of one of the older masters still practicing their craft in the country, or paying the big bucks to get an education abroad were your only options. Consequently, there have only been a handful of local, exceptional jazz musicians. In the past decade music schools like the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music (2009) in Chennai, the Global Music Institute (2011) in Delhi and the True School Of Music (2013) in Mumbai have opened up to give larger accessibility to those wanting to pursue western music. These are first of their kind institutions, with structured courses that are taught by an international rotating faculty. Tarun Balani - a professional jazz musician who began his career at 17 and is one of the co-founder’s of the Global Music Institute told India Today, “Believe it or not, most of the students who are enrolled at my institute come from relatively smaller places like Ahmedabad, Kerala and Chandigarh. There is an immense potential in these territories…”

Image Credit: Tarun Balani And Red Bull

Spaces Pushing The Music

For Ashutosh Phatak, founder of The True School Of Music and co-founder at The Quarter that is the host to Mumbai’s first New York styled live jazz bar, the venue is an “extension” of his school. Since it opened doors last September, The Quarter, has hosted no less than 50-60 live acts that have seen Homegrown talents and international Jazz giants like Erik Truffaz. “I want the students of the school to have an exposure to the industry through the club; both playing and listening to professionals perform,” confesses Phatak. Ranjit Barot, one of India’s most talented drummers and music composers who is also a co-founder at The Quarter says, “my ultimate goal is that when I go to the club and play I want the kids [the young musicians] kicking my ass.” Barot who is a longtime associate of A. R. Rahman and is now touring with John McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension believes that a “renaissance” of jazz has begun in the country and that is why for him The Quarter is “about nurturing new talent as opposed to just running a business.” Phatak feels that jazz is a way to give impetus to the live music in the city which in the past decade has been sidelined by digital music. “For all musicians jazz’s improvisational skills lends itself as a way to attain mastery in their art. We want to push that,” says Phatak who was also one of the founder’s of the iconic Blue Frog. The Quarter isn’t the only one at the epicentre of the live music revival in the city though. Presently The Bandra Base, The Finch, The Little Door, The Stables and other venues in the past have been collectively pushing more organic music options with jazz more often than not taking centre stage.

Image Credit: The Quarter

In Delhi, rallying the cause of live music with jazz as the canvas is The Piano Man Jazz Club, which opened in September 2015, to give the country its first venue where you could listen to jazz almost every night of the week-yes, you heard that right. Apart from international acts everyone from Delhi’s iconic Drift!, Artistes Unlimited and Nik & Nat to homegrown innovators like the Aditya Balani Collective, the Ron Cha Trio and Mumbai’s own Karan Joseph, whose alleged suicide last September shook the community at its core, have all headlined here. Arjun Sagar Gupta, an engineer and founder of The Piano Man says, “The club has a two-fold ideal; focusing on giving a platform to independent music and in that way giving audiences a larger cultural exposure that they don’t necessarily get from mainstream entertainment.” The franchise also has its own annual festival in November; Giants Of Jazz , that began around the same time as Delhi’s other jazz festivals like Jazz Utsav and Delhi International Jazz Festival .

Image Credit: The Piano Man Jazz Club

The newest jazz kid on the Delhi block is The Bar Cat - a1920s themed bar. For Karan Nambiar, one of the co-founders of the bar along with Ashwin Venkatraman and Rachit Goel says, “Jazz at our venue was incidental. It perfectly complemented our idea of creating a space that had an intimate, old-school charm about it, instead of becoming just another bar that turns into a rave den by the end of the night.” Designed like an amphitheatre the two-floored venue has a 60-seater music studio downstairs while the rooftop is for those who would like to engage in conversation without disturbing the performances. The music here ranges from Blues and Brazilian to the more new-fangled ‘Bolly-Jazz.’
“What’s important for me is keeping jazz new and fun. This has worked because I can see people talking about it and coming back again and again. There is a market for it, it just needs to be harboured,” says Nambiar who also co-runs Trunk It, India’s largest platform for homegrown independent music.

Image Credit: The Bar Cat

All You Need Is (Audience) Love

The jazz gigs at The Quarter have been sold out night after night; whether it was Parekh And Singh accompanied by Indian wind instruments, conceptualised performances that incorporate Cuban and Brazilian sounds with jazz or their Sunday sundowners that sticks to heady Blue notes. For Phatak, seeing youngsters from their early 20s at the club has been a surprise. “I really thought jazz only appealed to a much older people, it’s wonderful to see this change. Moreover, each time a new group of people seems to turns up.”

It’s not just in Mumbai where Jazz is catching up with a diverse crowd, the genre seems to be rapidly working its seduction in other parts of the country as well. Nishit Arora’s initiative Jamsteady, which is responsible for Kolkata seeing an upsurge in live music over the past few years, has been hosting weekly Jazz gigs; Thursday Jazz Encounter since 2014, presently hosted at the Phoenix Bar/Club. “There has definitely been a resurgence [of jazz] with regular gigs. This year we even booked the maximum number of jazz artists for private events. I think is a clear sign, people enjoy jazz,” says Arora’s who is also the man behind Smoke Inc- a platform that aims at building a culture of independent arts and music.

At the Piano Man Jazz Club, where you can hear traditional Welsh to Brazilian melodies using dynamic jazz improvisations, nights aren’t just over-packed but audiences are more conscious of the art than ever before. “The pockets of noise during performances are much less than what they were before, sometimes audience members themselves ask the ones disturbing an act to respect the artist. This kind of auto-correction is great!” says Gupta who has worked hard to cultivate a sense of mutual responsibility between artist and audience, a rare industry standard in India.

The Crossover

This popularity is perhaps an indication that jazz is gradually shedding its tag of being “serious music” with vignettes of suited-up, grey-haired middle-aged fans listening to a slow sax solo. The very improvisational structure of jazz (which it shares with Indian classical music) lends itself to assimilate with global sounds including genres like pop, rock, and electronica that eclipsed it in the first place. There is clearly no place here for ‘purists’.

“Heart of Darkness” (2016) Bodhisattwa Trio’s, (a jazz-rock outfit) second album was deemed as “too experimental for appreciation” by many people in the Kolkata music fraternity. To everyone’s surprise, their music gives a “tumultuous sonic trip that swerves unpredictably between jazz, experimental rock and lo-fi” went on to make it to the top album lists in many publications and “the audience cheered on” whenever it was played. “I am quite positive that there is an audience willing to listen to and patronise experimental jazz music…” says Bodhisattwa Ghosh the founder of the band.

French émigré Emmanuelle de Decker who headed live programming at Blue Frog Mumbai from 2008-2012 and curates a number of Jazz festivals in India including the four-year-old jazz/funk/soul-oriented Nariyal Paani in Alibaug couldn’t agree more. “In the age of the internet, people are more curious and excited about different kinds of music today, because they have instant access to such a vast variety of sound textures. All the international artists that I have invited here always leave having thoroughly loved the audience energy during their performances,” says de Decker who also heads Gatecrash - an independent music consulting agency that has a special focus on supporting jazz initiatives in India.

Image Credit: Nariyal Paani

The Challenges And The Road Ahead

Though for Stefan Kaye keyboardist-percussionist of Delhi-based bands The Ska Vengers and punk-jazz bandThe Jass B’stards (though they claim they don’t play jazz) India has a long way to go before truly transcending traditional boundaries. “As there are more venues than musicians, each artist seems to be in multiple bands. So they tend to produce a kind of homogenised music,” says Kaye a versatile performer whose work shows influences from Western classical music to ska, punk, and pop. Comparing the highly evolved experimental jazz meets psychedelic circuits of New York, Kaye also feels that musicians here must “stop emulating their heroes” to tap into the potential of contemporary jazz. While in an ideal world art should matter solely for itself in the 21st century with diminishing human attention spans, Nambiar from The Bar Cat feels that musicians need to work on their “stagecraft” and “performance presentation” to keep audiences engaged. “This is not just from a business point of view but a responsibility that artists must have towards their audiences as well.” At the musicians’ end, unfortunately they must still look at other avenues like corporate projects, films, ads, and weddings to make jazz monetarily viable. To meet these challenges the jazz culture still needs greater education, along with sponsorship and collaborations with International artists (all of which must work in sync) for it to see itself thrive in times to come.

Image Credit: Verve

So is Jazz here to swing and stay? With a handful of strongly committed programmers, musicians and venues making it more and more accessible and diverse along with evolving audiences, jazz in India can only flourish in the future. Ryan Sadri, one of the country’s leading saxophonist vouches for its eternal survival. “Jazz will always have a role to play, purely because of its depths. It’s up to the musician to hone and apply this wealth of musical knowledge in each age that exists and is continuously being born through Jazz music,” he says with the confidence that comes from having performed in jazz-influenced band ‘Something Relevant’, one of the first to be producing original independent music in India. As for me, I find assurance in my first love, Coltrane; one of the pioneers of Indo-Jazz who once said, “Jazz and India, I’m convinced, will always go together very well.”

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