“If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”
Anyone who tries to give a definite and rigid definition of jazz must not be trusted. Because jazz can’t be limited to certain technical words strung together. Jazz can not even be described by the names of its most masterful artists. It can only be felt and tasted by itself. As the jazz plays, all the feelings that pour forth and flood your mind,the sights that you see, the memories that you remember, the stories you pass on to further generations, the struggle and freedom, the expression and depression, the void and overflow, the living and dying; that is all and even more which encompasses what jazz is all about.
The birth of jazz is mostly attributed to the clubs of New Orleans in the 1920s. It was a way of expression for the much repressed African American community. Even though the slavery had ended, discrimination was rampant and the apartheid like situation prevailed in the United States. These repressed voices found an outlet, in the blow of the trumpets and saxophone, in the beats of drums and the harmony of piano and banjo, to express, to feel, to relish their culture and their lives.
Iconic jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Wellington rose from this environment and received widespread acclaim, bringing forth the jazz music to the masses. This style of raw beauty and emotion became synonymous with the voice of the black community. Persecuted by the whites in their countries, the jazz artists traveled around the world. They toured Afghanistan and India, which introduced them and their music to the subcontinent.
India became a new home for budding jazz artists. They found their freedom amongst the folks they could relate with. The oppression became the vantage point for the intermingling of the musical backgrounds of the two community. Roots of Indian and African American collaboration were thus born. It was in 1935 that Black Minnesotan violinist, Leon Abbey, formed a first all-black nine piece jazz band, to play at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai.
The Indian jazz musicians who were influenced by that kind of a promulgation started developing their own style. A resident band, consisting of Black, White and Indian members started playing at the Taj in Mumbai. Indian jazz artists started improvising by applying the concepts that they were well versed in to the western components of the jazz. They started playing on brass instead of shehnai and used western percussion instruments instead of dholki or tabla. This diversified the musical inspiration and as a result, we were blessed with some iconic musicians.
Achieving independence in 1947, the affluent in Mumbai even celebrated with jazz music.
Jazz was later even amalgamated Bollywood. The directors realized the rising popularity of the music and tried to incorporate it in the music of their movies. The person most responsible to this effect was Indian jazz musician, Antoni Xavier Vaz, also known as Chic Chocolate. With his lively spirit and stage presence, he made a good name for himself in the Mumbai jazz scene, by performing in resident bands.
He found the director C. Ramachandra and that lead to emulsion of jazz in films. The song “Eena Meena Deeka” from the 1957 film, Asha comes to mind, which was a part of Indian music but sounded much like the African American jazz.
Mumbai became home to the most exuberant musicians. During the Cold War, the US sent its jazz artists to India so as to promote American culture and interests and sway India’s allegiance. Dave Brubeck was one of the musicians to visit India by the orders of the CIA. One thing that enforced the jazz scene in India was a commonality with the Indian classic music, that being Improvisation.
Apart from the American influence, the Portuguese control over Goa till the early 1960s resulted in the rise of the jazz scene. Because the Portuguese were imbibing in themselves the western cultural values, jazz was the product of this marriage. Goan musicians like Anthony Gonsalves and Frank Ferdenand became popular in Mumbai. The former even turned out to have a namesake character in the movie, Amar Akbar Anthony. Such was the influence.
This slowly disintegrated with the rise of psychedelic and rock and roll music.But jazz also has had a power to change its form. With time, new genres like rock-jazz, funk-jazz, hip-hop-jazz, etc. came into existence and thrived. The versatility of jazz has kept its presence alive, even if in small amounts, in commercial songs like Kaliyo ka Chaman and Kajra Re.
Recently, Bombay Velvet’s Mohabbat Buri Bimari has come out to be a tribute to the older jazzy days of Mumbai.
Efforts to Revive Jazz
Jazz Yatras have turned out to be really important efforts to revive and promote jazz and its profusion in the Indian music scene. Jazz India and Capital Jazz had a great role towards that end.
In 1978 and following years the live jazz scene was revolutionized in India thanks to Jazz India. Founded by Niranjan Jhaveri and others in 1975, they sponsored the first Jazz Yatra of 1978. It showcased the transfusion of various styles including Hindustani and Carnatic classical, South American folk, gospel, etc., thereby paving the way for a new age of jazz music in the country. Since then, there had been a succession of fine jazz musicians visiting India every two years from 1978 through 2007.
The person responsible for revolutionizing the live music environment has to be Dhruv Ghanekar. His establishment, the Blue Frog has provided a platform to local as well as international artists to perform for a transfixed audience.
Bombay, Delhi, Goa and Bangalore have become centers for the groups from all over the world to perform and enjoy jazz even when they are distinguished from each others in terms of their language and cultural backgrounds. It is apparent from the recent jazz festivals that interest in jazz is growing amongst the youth who are not yet sufficiently exposed to that form of music.
Where there have been many famous jazz artists around the world ranging from Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Miles Davis and Benny Goodman to the reigning queens of their times like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and the blues mistress, Nina Simone, India has had its share of maestros. Trilok Gurtu and Ravi Shankar are the names that come to mind, alongside Merlin D’Souza, Ali Akbar Khan and Chris Perry.
Though diffused and not too mainstream, jazz survives and is here to stay. Jazz clubs are regulated in almost all the major cities. There’s though a clear distinction between the age-old and the young jazz lovers. All their tastes are catered to in many forms. An emergence of new bands like the urban and savvy, HFT, with their melodious sound and scintillating bassline offer a welcome relief from the modern pop.
There are Syncopation, who mix modern jazz with swing, bebop and swing, and Rajeev Raja Combine, influenced by Indian classical and inundated with beautiful flute renditions. New forms are coming forth and the jazz scene in India is vibrant with multiple hues of tradition and modernity.
With the powerful vocals of Shreya Bhattacharya, the Kolkata based Beer Puppets are sultry and sexy and give you a kind of a happy high. Their experiments with soul and jazz are high on technique and creativity. Similarly, there’s a kind of vitality and pleasure in the modern jazz compositions of The Jass B’stards, who proclaim that “they are not bastards”.
Jazz of course has a niche audience. The Goa International Jazz Live Festival which took place in November and the Piano Man Jazz Club in Delhi are evidently efforts towards providing an opportunity for the celebration of jazz.
The new age artists, festivals and clubs are keeping the spirit of jazz alive and taking it to new territories. The future of jazz is thus vibrant, even if it is not traditional in nature. Jazz is ever going to evolve and to continue charming audiences of all the age-groups because of its malleability and all-embracing identity.
Who says jazz is dying? Who would ever say a thing like that?