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Review: Taj Mahal Foxtrot

books Updated: Feb 17, 2012 14:21 IST
Amitava Sanyal, Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Taj Mahal Foxtrot

Naresh Fernandes

Lustre/Roli Books

Rs 1,295 pp 192

At the stroke of the midnight hour, when India was coughing awake to light and freedom, the charmed people of Bombay and Karachi were celebrating in swing time. In Bombay’s Taj Mahal Hotel, jazz bands led by saxophonist Micky Correa and trumpeter Chic Chocolate were playing the new national anthem with a young JRD Tata and Vijaylakshmi Pandit in audience. At the Karachi Club a night later, Ken Mac’s band played a special request by Muhammad Ali Jinnah — Paul Robeson’s ‘The End’, which the Quaid-e-Azam apparently used to hum while visiting his wife’s grave in Mazagaon, Bombay.

Such vivid snapshots take Taj Mahal Foxtrot, Naresh Fernandes’ book on jazz in Bombay, to a field larger than either jazz or Bombay. Fernandes’ eight-year transcontinental research gives the American-born genre of music a new historical home this side of the Suez. His doggedness at getting close to the likes of Ken, Chic and Micky leads to a unique portrait of Bombay musicians. In the middle is the sketch of a fad-following Brilliantined society — one that worried more about slowing down the quicksilver ‘Paris speed’ to ‘Bombay speed’ than about the morning after — that Fernandes projects as jazz loving Bombay.

Much like the music itself, Fernandes’ research goes on inspired dot-joining sprees. He dives into chapters as diverse as the role of jazz musicians in the nation-building project; on Blue Rhythm, the only Indian magazine on jazz, published by diamond merchant Niranjan Jhaveri and friends in 1952-53; and on the playing up of colour as a signifier of authenticity in bands like the Plantation Quartet. At times, the collected trivia would fall between the dots and need to be parked in footnotes or in the eponymous blog. From one such aside we learn that C Lobo, leader of the Bengal governor’s marching band around 1900, grudgingly taught western notations and violin to his neighbour, a young boy named Allauddin Khan.

The three musicians in the August 1947 postcards loom large because of their stellar roles in the history. In Finding Carlton, a documentary researched by New York-based artist-entrepreneur Susheel Kurien at about the same time as Fernandes’ book, Ken Mac is identified as the musician who brought jazz to India in the 1920s, a time the self-proclaimed ‘pioneer of European dance bands’ was playing 40 engagements a month.

Micky Correa provided generations of musicians sustenance through his Taj band during 1939-1961.

Chic Chocolate, on the other hand, was a shape-shifter who showed others how to survive. A Goan born as Antonio Xavier Vaz, Chic first styled himself after Louis Armstrong at the time the African American was emerging as the biggest name in swing, the jaunty form of jazz that stands for the larger genre in the book. After 1947, Chic and several other jazzmen found jobs in the burgeoning orchestras of Bollywood because of their skill with harmonies and western rhythms. In that phase, Chic helped composer C Ramchandra with some of the biggest film hits of all times: ‘Shola jo bhadke’ in Albela and ‘Eena meena deeka’ in Aasha.

Independence signalled another kind of watershed, too. After 1947, jazz masters such as Max Roach, Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington would come by, but they would never hover for more than few weeks. Gone was the era when jazz musicians, some of them frontiersmen travelling from the racially-segregated US, would spend half a year in residence in Calcutta or Bombay.

One such travelling salesman was Teddy Weatherford, who had the most impeccable jazz pedigree in India at the time. Weatherford had mastered the piano in New Orleans, the US port where ragtime and blues blended into jazz. In Chicago, he had played with Armstrong in a pit orchestra accompanying silent films. His rendition of the Armstrong hit Basin Street Blues is included on the six-song CD that accompanies Fernandes’ book.

The burly American shifted to ‘the Orient’ in 1926. Between his first stint in Shanghai and his last in Calcutta, he played in Singapore, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Surabaya and Colombo. In Calcutta’s Grand Hotel he set up India’s best regarded jazz band of the 1940s. Among the people he hired was Nepali trumpeter Pushkar Bahadur Buddhapriti a.k.a. George Banks, whose son Louiz is a survivor of the itinerant jazz ages that followed.

During one of his Bombay stints, Weatherford was called in to record a song written by Menassch David Silas, a Baghdadi Jew born in Shanghai and settled in Bombay. The ethno-geographic mash was all too jazz-like. As was the song: a paean to the Taj Mahal Hotel, set in foxtrot.