Until a few weeks ago, Mickey Correa, who would have turned 98 on Monday, continued to teach music to students a quarter his age.
In the living room of his Colaba apartment, he taught them to strike the right notes on the saxophone or clarinet as he accompanied them on his Schiedmayer piano.
Physician Farhad Kapadia, 51, Correa’s last regular pupil, who plays the saxophone for an all-doctors’ band in the city called Friends, swears by his teacher’s unerring sense of rhythm even at his age.
“I could find a piece of music in any key and he accompanied me on the piano straight off,” he says.
“In one piece, I changed the key for just one or two bars but he was on to it right away.”
Correa was essentially an autodidact, teaching himself to play the saxophone, violin, piano, clarinet, guitar, banjo and accordion.
In 1939, he became the resident bandleader at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Colaba and remained so for a record 21 seasons, until 1960. He played in an era when the city’s numerous cafés and clubs, such as Bistro and Berry’s, Volga and Venice, sizzled with live jazz music.
A highlight of Correa’s career was in 1947, when his orchestra played at the Taj on the evening of August 14.
As Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru finished delivering his stirring Tryst with Destiny speech in Delhi, the tricolour rose behind Correa’s orchestra as it played bars of free India’s national anthem.
Correa leaves behind many students, many of who have become confident performers contributing to the city’s music scene.
“He demanded diligence, he was a stickler for getting it right,” recalls Nakul Mehta, 53, a saxophonist for the Mumbai-based groups Junckt and Kontraband who trained with Correa in the 1990s. “He made me imagine that I was playing with a band — ensemble-playing pushes you to hit absolutely precise notes. He was what I would call ‘constructively critical’.”
Nakul’s sister Avanti, who learnt to play the clarinet from Correa, adds, “He was marvellously patient, although far from happy if you hadn’t practised.”
Correa leavened his rigorous instruction with stories of his jam sessions with jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Paul Desmond, Jack Teagarden and Dave Brubeck.
“Mickey’s quirky style and theories have stayed with me and flash in each time I’m at a gig,” says Ryan Sadri, 27, the saxophonist of the band Something Relevant. “He’d say things like, ‘Be like a shark, the senses alert at all times to grab hold of everything good around you.’”
Just how beloved of his students he was became apparent four years ago, when Mehta and Sadri organised a show at the Ravindra Natya Mandir in Prabhadevi in honour of their teacher.
After their bands Junckt and Something Relevant had finished playing, Correa received a thunderous standing ovation from the hundreds of youngsters that made up the audience.
“Mickey taught you small tricks that made you feel like a master of the keyboard,” says Zia Hajeebhoy, director of a Mumbai-based yachting company.
“Each chord to him was almost a person. He talked about adding this little key in here, that double chord there so that each note became richer.”
Foremost among his students perhaps is his daughter Christine, a jazz singer who trains vocalists at Columbia University and is a member of the Frank Carlberg Quintet in New York. Correa’s other daughter Patricia and son Marc are also accomplished singers.
Christine remembers how her father, who owned several violins, used to make her sit in another room as he played the same phrase on each instrument.
“I had to rank every violin in terms of its sound,” said Christine, in an email interview. “It was my earliest aural training.”