Clockwise from top-left: Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong
JOURNALIST and writer Naresh Fernandes has done extensive research on the Bombay jazz scene that existed from the 30s to the 60s, documenting his findings in the book Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age. So when he sent a Facebook invitation to an audio-visual presentation on American jazz greats who visited the city some 50-odd years ago, the temptation to attend was hard to resist, even though it was Sunday siesta time.
Held at the mCubed library next to Bandra Gymkhana, the event was called Battleground Bombay: Hot Jazz and the Cold War. Through an audio-visual presentation, the focus was on how the US State Department used jazz as a weapon to try to win hearts and minds in Bombay in the 50s and 60s.
Now, a lot of people from my generation, born in the 60s, would have been exposed to foreign jazz bands primarily through the Jazz Yatra, which has, after being started in 1978, featured greats like Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Clark Terry, Stephane Grappelli, Henry Threadgill, Illinois Jacquet, Charlie Byrd, Abdullah Ibrahim, Sadao Watanabe and a host of others. The enterprising Niranjan Jhaveri of Jazz-India had played a pioneering role in bringing these luminaries to India.
Naresh’s reference was, of course, to those who had come much earlier, when the Cold War between the US and Russia was at its peak, and the Americans had sought to use cultural diplomacy to attract people in different regions. And jazz, being the most important American genre at that time, found obvious favour.
Those days, some of the popular venues in Bombay were the Taj Mahal Hotel ball room, the now defunct Rang Bhavan and the earlier avatar of Shanmukhananda Hall. The three real legends to visit the city in that period were pianist Dave Brubeck, bandleader Duke Ellington and singer-trumpeter Louis Armstrong. In his presentation, Naresh also made references of trombonist Jack Teagarden and trumpeter Red Nichols.
Brubeck came here with his famed band, comprising alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello, in 1958. He didn’t remember much about his tour as such, but when Naresh interviewed him for his book, Brubeck recalled that his piano had got warped by the heat, and he found a replacement in a local music store (possibly Furtados). However, the new piano had to be carried to the venue at Eros theatre by porters who had to march in proper step to ensure that this one didn’t go wrong either.
On that visit, Brubeck also played at a local industrialist’s house, jamming with Indian percussionists and even with sitar maestro Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan (reference of which was made in my earlier blog ‘Instruments from India – 2/ Sitar’). He was reported to have quipped that everyone got so deeply fascinated by each other’s styles that either his band members would end up playing Indian music, or the Indian musicians would switch to jazz.
Brubeck used that visit as an inspiration to write some tunes on the album Jazz Impressions of Eurasia. And specially dedicated to our country was a piece called ‘Calcutta Blues’.
Interestingly, even the great Duke Ellington used his visit to India (Bombay, Madras, New Delhi) to dedicate tunes called ‘Bluebird of Delhi (Mynah)’ and ‘Agra’, which were featured on the album Far East Suite. His orchestra, which came here in 1963, included such master-musicians as pianist-arranger Billy Strayhorn, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves and trumpeter Cat Anderson.
On that visit, even the young, 18-year-old sarod player Amjad Ali Khan got a chance to play with Ellington, though the newspaper report erroneously described his instrument as a sitar.
As part of this US state department series, the iconic Louis Armstrong visited India the following year, 1964. His shows at the Rang Bhavan and Shanmukhananda were packed to capacity, and the songs ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’, ‘Saint Louis Blues’ and ‘Hello, Dolly!’ were received with tremendous applause.
Naresh concluded his session with a mention of the jazz opera The Real Ambassadors, featuring Brubeck, Armstrong, singer Carmen McCrae and others as a kind of spoof on the government’s policies. The song screened opened with the lines ‘Who’s the real ambassador?”
After these visits, the popularity of jazz came down, and the US State Department switched to soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues, even bringing the legendary singer Mahalia Jackson.
The session lasted an hour. And though one hoped he had extended it by half an hour and played more music by the featured artistes, Naresh came out with enough rare gems of trivia to keep everyone in rapt attention.
The good thing about such presentations is that they bring like-minded fans together. The jazz-listening community in Mumbai isn’t too large, and today’s youngsters who follow the genre are more into later styles like jazz-rock fusion and modern jazz. Though the older legends are recognised by their popular songs, events like these and artiste-specific listening sessions help people get deeper into the music, besides providing great nostalgia.
While regular concerts are one way to keep things alive and kicking, one would welcome more such presentations and listening sessions to jazz up the scene even more.