In tune with jazz’s unexpected syncopated rhythms, the 1960s saw the US government use an unusual diplomatic tactic by deploying the all-American music form to boost its relations with India. Bombay, according to journalist Naresh Fernandes, became the stage for this ‘jazz diplomacy’.
On Friday, tracing the roots of this cultural exchange in his presentation, ‘Battleground Bombay: Hot Jazz and the Cold War’, at Literature Live, Fernandes said that in 1956, the US Congress sanctioned funds for a President’s Special International Programme to showcase American culture as “vibrant and attractive and far superior to that ballet stuff” peddled by the Soviets.
America’s “musical missiles” included jazz greats such as trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Red Nichols, pianist Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and ‘Satchmo’ Louis Armstrong.
The presentation stemmed from Fernandes’ research for his book, Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, which will be released later this month. Peppering his talk with trivia and sound clips, Fernandes spoke of the warmth with which Bombay embraced the musicians, although some believed that the jazz appreciation workshops “were a sort of CIA puppet theatre”.
Interactions with local musicians left Duke Ellington enthralled by the sarod, played by Amjad Ali Khan, who had turned 18 then, and his band jammed with local bands at Volga and Venice at Astoria Hotel.
Recalling an interview with Brubeck, who turned 90 last year, Fernandes said the composer had one strong memory of his India tour: His piano had become warped in Bombay’s tropical heat, and he found a Bosendorfer at a local music store. “Several porters came in, put the piano on their heads and carried it through the streets” to the venue, marching in perfect rhythm as a misstep could cause it to fall, Brubeck told Fernandes.
“Do you know where that Bosendorfer piano is now?” asked Dr Fareed Curmally, co-owner of Rhythm House, during the audience question round. “The city has only one concert-worthy Bosendorfer. I now own it. I’d love to know where it came from,” he told a stumped Fernandes.