Born in New Orleans in the 1920s, jazz has had a much longer association with India than is commonly known.

Earlier this year, a stage in suburban Mumbai played host to a jazz-fusion concert headlining Niladri Kumar, a fifth-generation sitar player. The depth of Kumar's association with Hindustani classical music was satisfying, but it wasn't as surprising as the long family connection one of his sidemen had with jazz. Gino Banks, the drummer at the performance, is a third-generation Indian jazz musician — a rather astonishing fact considering that the musical form was born in the faraway port city of New Orleans merely four generations ago.

Many fans know Gino as the son of the keyboard player Louiz Banks, the most prominent personality on the Indo-jazz fusion scene, but only a few realise that the Banks' links with Western popular music stretch back to the 1940s, when Gino Banks' grandfather, George, was recruited to perform alongside a visiting African-American pianist named Teddy Weatherford.

Though jazz has now become a niche interest in the subcontinent, Gino Banks and other third-generation Indian jazz musicians continue to perform fairly regularly, living proof that our country is heir to a tradition that it can claim as its own with much passion as the citizens of France or Japan, two other nations that took to jazz early.

Laying the foundation

George Banks' mentor, Teddy Weatherford, arrived in India in the mid-1930s, part of a wave of African-American jazz musicians who had fled the harsh segregation of the U.S. South. Weatherford would spend a decade in India, and when he was asked why he liked the subcontinent so much, he had a standard reply: “They treat us white folks fine.”

Though jazz enjoyed a vogue in India for three decades from the mid-1930s, the first “all-negro” band to visit the country in September, 1935, caused some disconcertion. Led by a violinist from Minnesota named Leon Abbey, the group threw dancers at Mumbai's Taj Mahal Hotel into disarray after their first performances.

“His style was so new when Leon first played for us that many of the die-hards insisted on simpler tunes and popular numbers,” The Times of India reported. Abbey's boys were forced to make some adjustments.

“Their quicksteps have slowed from Paris speed — the fastest in all the dancing world — to Bombay speed,” The Times noted. “They have toned down their ‘hotting' to meet the less sophisticated taste of Bombay. One old-timer recalled Abbey chuckling, “First they swore at my music, then they swore by my music.”

The foundation of India's jazz scene was laid by the outfits that followed Abbey after he left the Taj at the end of the 1935 season (his bandmates found the heat and humidity difficult to take). He was replaced by a band led by a trumpet player named Crickett Smith. Weatherford was a pianist in Smith's band and he later began to front bands himself.

The bands of Crickett Smith and Teddy Weatherford played a vital role creating a jazz culture in India. Though Indian musicians had been performing the genre since the mid-1920s, they had learnt to play the style by reading music scores and listening to records. Having these great African-American musicians in town completely energised the scene. Both Crickett Smith and Teddy Weatherford recruited Indian musicians to play with them, teaching them how to “to play like negroes.”

By that, their Indian sidemen meant that the African-Americans taught them to improvise fearlessly, to go out on a limb for their art, to play straight from the heart.

Some of the tunes

From early in its history, the Indian jazz scene has spawned restless mavericks who attempted to reinvent the musical form. Among them was a trumpet player named Frank Fernand, who received a jolt after hearing Mahatma Gandhi addressing a gathering in Mussoorie in 1946. Fernand returned from that discourse determined to give jazz an Indian voice. Two years later, his efforts bore fruit as he performed a tune called “Prabhat” at a concert in Mumbai.

In Bollywood

Over the next few decades, others would follow in Fernand's footsteps. In the mid-1960s, a guitar player named Amancio D'Silva began to perform Indian-influenced jazz during his shows at Mumbai's Sun-n-Sand hotel. In a few years, he would find himself in the U.K., making records with some of Britain's leading jazz musicians. Shortly after, one of D'Silva's sidemen, the mercurial saxophonist Braz Gonsalves, would attempt to fold his Mumbai experiences into the music he was making. Among the tunes fans remember is “Karim's Blues,” named for the owner of the speakeasy just past Flora Fountain that musicians would visit after their Prohibition-era concerts. Gonsalves also composed “Down the Back Bay,” inspired by the reclamation project in the area that would later come to be called Nariman Point.

But away from the rarefied stages of upper-class restaurants and luxury hotels, jazz found a more organic expression on India's streets.

By the 1950s, jazz became an intrinsic element in the compositions of such Hindi film music directors as C. Ramchandra, and syncopated tunes such as “Ina Mina Dika” caught the imagination of the subcontinent with their infectious energy. The instruments employed to create these masterpieces — squealing clarinets, wailing trumpets, throbbing drums — wouldn't have seemed out of place in American jazz orchestras of the time.

Today, the audience for jazz has shrunk in India, as it has all over the world. But there's no reason to be sentimental for its passing. Jazz was popular in India when it was the world's pop music. With each passing decade, contemporary styles have swept through the subcontinent and have been adopted — and adapted — with glee and creativity. Though a group of die-hards continue to swear by it, jazz has almost faded. But India has found new tunes to dance to.

(Naresh Fernandes is the author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay's Jazz Age (Roli Books). He is a consulting editor to Time Out India.)


On jazzApril 11, 2012