Jazz is a word that means different things to different people. Before it became a word used by one to trail off in a conversation they are rapidly losing interest in, it was actually a form of music. Not just any form of music, but the kind of music that started all that we know as popular music now.
That’s right, if you find yourself bopping along to ‘Girl Like You’ by Maroon 5 or any other song on the charts nowadays, you would not really pay mind to the fact that all these chart-toppers trace their lineage to jazz music.
Born in New Orleans, as an amalgamation of European and African music which itself gave birth to the American blues and ragtime music, jazz entered the American public consciousness in the roaring 1920s era. Its roots, however, go further back to the late 1800s, when African-Americans began to develop new forms of music.
They created blues music from the gospel music and field hollers from their years in slavery. These were traditional rhythms that the jazz performers fused with written-down classical music, often adding their own flavor to it. This art of improvisation is what sets apart jazz music from other styles to this day.
Gandhi himself played in the early popularization of the music in India. The Mahatma was a great lover of music and definitely took to the spirituals and gospel music, to which he was exposed in South Africa, recognizing their ability to bring people together. He observed that in music there wasn’t a place for communal differences and hostility. It could be used as a platform for the cause of early national integration, as Hindu and Muslim musicians would join together at musical concerts. This greatly influenced his use of music and Indian spiritual bhajans to spread his message himself.
The feeling was reciprocal. It was the 1930s, when groups of African-American musicians coming to terms with a history of persecution, turned to the Mahatma and his ‘satyagraha’ movement for inspiration. and in turn, they inspired the local musicians to create a unique blend of their music. It followed that this blend of influences would seep into the Indian cultural zeitgeist of the time. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the jazz music that played in the myriad bars of ’20s and ’30s Bombay and Calcutta.
Bombay, in particular, became a major port-of-call for the visiting African-American political activists and artists. It was a time just before Independence that one of India’s major global cities would come into its own and forge its own vibrant, sophisticated identity, under the aegis of the freedom movement. The essence of jazz, its improvisational identity, came to be embodied in the city’s blooming Art Deco architecture movement, its embrace of modernity, and the quintessentially Bombay ‘attitude’ of doing things one’s own way, all took root in this time.
The iconic Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay is where the birth of Indian jazz took place. It became the bridge between East and West and host to plenty of cultural evenings for the city’s elite, the lounges of the Taj were witness to the golden age of Indian jazz from the ’30s until the ’50s. In these years, India became a cultural refuge and safety of jazz as an art form, leading some to believe that the country was indeed at the high-roller table, in terms of preserving the music’s identity and taking it into new, interesting directions.
The 1940s witnessed a growing penchant for the music form. Mainstays in the Paris scene such as Leon Abbey and renowned names in the international circuit such as Teddy Weatherford, Roy Butler, Ken Mac and Crickett Smith, all had made personal appearances in India. This was a phenomenon most people born in the 90s would be unfamiliar with, acclaimed musicians from the mainstream music of the time making India a pitstop on their world tours.
Although jazz in India began as an elite art form, it made its way to the masses and Bollywood of course. Goans, who had learned western music from the Portuguese introduced jazz and swing music to the movies. Musicians such as Chic Chocolate, Frank Fernand and Anthony Gonsalves (after whom the well-known Bollywood song was named) not only infused the sound of western music into Bollywood, but tied it with the industry’s predominantly Indian classical tradition.
These kinds of collaborations had actually commenced in the 1940s itself, leading to a new genre of music called Indo Jazz, which fused classical jazz and Indian influences. Ravi Shankar, John Mclaughlin, John Mayer (not the ‘Your Body is a Wonderland’ pop crooner) and John Coltrane all added to this genre. Conversely, Indian classical music also bore an offshoot with jazz, named free jazz.
Bombay and Calcutta remained major hubs for jazz with Connaught Place in Delhi representing a smaller scene up north, and by the ’60s, legends such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong had both come down for a taste of India. This would be a cultural tipping point for jazz’s acceptance in India.
The paradox of a movement of note is that once it reaches its zenith, the only way to go is down. This is what really happened to the Indian jazz scene, as the ambivalent mainstream music adopted its tropes but left the original art form on the sidelines.
Also, the dollars took precedence over creative drive. The ‘business’ spelt the death knell and the advent of rock ‘n’ roll music made jazz look dated. It is worth noting that the nature of the music industry beast ensured rock music itself went the way of jazz, to make way for EDM and hip-hop.
So will jazz free itself from the straitjacket of nostalgia, make its presence felt outside of late 50s music box-sets and find its way onto a public stage? One thing is for certain, the future of jazz will play out just like its past-it will be made up as it goes along.
The writer is Senior Editor at Qrius. He writes about business, history, culture and the arts.
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