Sax and the City: How jazz in Mumbai is on a comeback trail

  • Soma Das, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 18, 2015 13:16 IST
In 2012, Russian saxophonist Igor Butman performed at the Jus’ Jazz concert and remains a regular visitor. (HT file photo)

In the book Taj Mahal Foxtrot, Naresh Fernandes’s ode to the golden era of jazz in erstwhile Bombay (’30s to ’60s), the author recounts how, in 1935, Minnesota violinist Leon Abbey brought the first African-American jazz band to perform at the Taj Mahal Hotel. It was a historic moment. Jazz, essentially a form of dance music, was gaining popularity around the world. The sounds were infectious and, by 1947, there would be more than 60 jazz bands in Mumbai. “The optimism of jazz became an element in the tunes that echoed the hopes of newly independent India,” Fernandes writes.

Of course, it remained an aspirational genre, accessible only to some. “Jazz was played in big hotels and restaurants. It was the ‘rich man’s music’, appealing to the elite,” says Sidharth Bhatia, journalist and author of India Psychedelic: The Story of a Rocking Generation. For the large part, jazz remained niche. It was the live entertainment that accompanied a fancy dinner, along with cabaret artists, limbo dancers and, in keeping with India’s ‘exotic’ reputation, magicians. “It remained cloistered in hotels which could be accessed only by the well-off. There were no small joints for jazz,” Bhatia says.

South Mumbai was the cultural heart of the city. Naturally, in the ’50s and ’60s, iconic restaurants such as Gaylords, Berry’s and Astoria, as well as hotels like Natraj and Ambassador housed jazz bands. And with big-ticket international performers like Duke Ellington visiting, besides Indian musicians like Chic Chocolate and Ken Mac gaining popularity, it was the high point of jazz in the city.

Then came the pop-rock bands of the ’60s. It was the era of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It instantly became more accessible, and found patronage among young people across the world. “By the early to mid-1960s, the younger crowd was more interested in pop. Early pop bands did play in restaurants, but took their music to colleges. That made it more democratic than jazz. By the end of the 1960s, as rock became popular, jazz was pretty much dead,” says Bhatia.

Russian vocalist Polina Zizak performs with the Igor Butman Band. (HT file photo)

From then, through the late ’70s to the ’90s, there were sporadic efforts to sustain jazz. For instance, 1978 saw Jazz Yatra concerts being organised at the now-defunct Rang Bhavan in Fort. It featured Indian performers such as Louiz Banks and Braz Gonsalves, and brought in international names such as American trumpeter Don Ellis. The ’90s also saw eateries turning into jazz venues — Just Desserts (run by AD Singh, the man behind the social hotspot, Olive) and Jazz By The Bay (later renamed Not Just Jazz By The Bay), Marine Drive.

But as the venues dried up, so did the money and the patronage. The definitive nail in the coffin for a long-struggling genre came with Not Just Jazz… shutting in 2010. Veteran performer Louiz Banks, referred to as the ‘godfather of jazz in India’, says of the present scenario: “There aren’t enough avenues for jazz, and that’s why musicians explore other genres such as pop, rock and Bollywood music to make ends meet.”

The resurgence
Saxophonist Ryan Sadri says jazz has always seen upswings and downswings. “Musicians love jazz, but they don’t get to do it for a living… But there is an untapped audience, and it needs venues and sponsors.”

Evidently, Sadri isn’t the only one who believes that jazz has an audience. Several new-age, upscale venues are now counting on this untapped audience, by introducing jazz nights. In mid-August, AD Singh kicked off jazz nights every Wednesday at Olive Bar & Kitchen, Bandra. “We want to bring back jazz lovers, and reach out to newer audiences to turn them into jazz lovers as well,” Singh says. Olive, of course, caters to the kind of who’s who of Mumbai high society that the haloed places of Fort once did. Still, you might think it’s a one-off move, a token gesture. Besides, Singh has always been a bit of a patron himself — Just Desserts proved that.

Saxophonist Ryan Sadri. (HT file photo)

That theory, however, may not be true, for Singh isn’t alone in this sudden support for jazz. From September 3, Café Zoe at Lower Parel restarted their Zoe Live Sessions. The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) has just started a collaboration with the True School of Music (TSM) to host monthly concerts titled Blues N’ Jazz, featuring international musicians. But the biggest fillip might be yet to come: the just-launched St Regis Hotel (Palladium Hotel officially opened as St Regis on September 1) is set to turn the cocktail bar Li Bai into a jazz bar, called The Astor Bar, in November.

Not surprisingly, at the invite-only high tea event that took place to celebrate the launch, as guests air-kissed and sipped on cocktails, it was a live jazz band that provided the ambience. Deepti Dadlani, director, marketing and communications, St Regis, says they are finalising the line-up. And the brand has roped in Ranjit Barot (composer, singer, drummer) and Ryan Sadri to pick the artistes. “We are elevating the stage and modifying the seating. There will be private seating for an intimate experience; to be close to the band people can sit near the bar,” Dadlani says.

Just like St Regis, Singh, too, has roped in experts as curators — drummer Benny Soans and Sunil Sampat, co-founder of Jazz Addicts. Singh says the audience comprises young people, who are well-travelled and keen to explore new sounds.

Sheldon D’Silva. (HT file photo)

Co-owner and chef Viraf Patel at Zoe feels that jazz goes with the “vibe of the café”. He says that such performances will help bands build an audience over time. Sadri, who plans these sessions too, says that their earlier effort had been thwarted due to lack of sponsors. “But with Budweiser on board, sessions are on track for the next year,” he says.

International acts also tour regularly. In 2012, Russian saxophonist Igor Butman (former US President Bill Clinton called him “my favorite living saxophone player”) performed at the Jus’ Jazz concert (organised by Jazz Addicts) and remains a regular visitor. His shows, too, are sell-outs.

Gen next
The new wave of jazz may be fuelled by several factors. Besides keener venues and sponsors, there is also the next generation of performers, who are ready to bear the mantle. It is spearheaded by the likes of drummer Gino Banks (son of Louiz Banks) and saxophonist Rhys Sebastian D’Souza (son of pianist Merlin D’Souza). Banks Jr says there is more young talent around: “Young guys like Ron Cha and Karan Joseph are doing gigs at clubs. With quality music and venues supporting them, the audience will come.”

Drummer Gino Banks. (HT file photo)

Besides, institutes like TSM, Whistling Woods International (WWI) and Furtados School of Music (FSM) are preparing a newer generation. Recently, the prestigious Berklee College of Music in the USA showed interest in collaborating with local music schools and introduced a scholarship program to study there from 2016.

AD Singh says, “Over the last three months, there have been several concerts at places like The Willingdon Sports Club, and that is a sign of overall change.” Farrahnaz Irani, general manager, Western Music Programming, NCPA corroborates that by saying that they’ve seen full houses at every recent jazz concert. “For a while, fusion and electronic music started taking audiences away from jazz, but it’s getting back on track,” he says.

Shedding the ‘elite’ tag
The success of jazz may depend on how accessible it can become. Bhatia says, “Somehow, the impression has gained ground that jazz is elitist and ‘difficult to understand’. What’s difficult to understand about Miles Davis or Brubeck?”

Double bass player Gianluca Liberatore (in the centre) was part of the Blues N’ Jazz session at the NCPA on August 14. (HT file photo)

Olive, in a bid to give it wider exposure, has created an affordable menu where rum and coke/beer/whisky is available for upwards of Rs 150. Venues like Phoenix Market City mall also host free events. Of course, jazz is unlikely to rival popular forms like EDM anytime soon. Fernandes believes that jazz is “art music as opposed to popular music”. “Jazz is sophisticated and something for the concert hall. In places like The Iridium in New York, they don’t allow people to talk or clink cutlery during performances.”

The other worry is that international acts might overshadow local talent. Sheldon D’Silva feels that foreign artistes are given better platforms, while Indian artistes wait for months. “From an organiser’s point of view, it’s lucrative to promote foreign acts which attract larger audiences,” he says.

But think of it using a sports parallel and the mixing of big star names with smaller names may not be a bad thing. The Indian Premier League (cricket) has actually given local talent more exposure. And as Sadri puts it, “International acts motivate you to work harder. You have to be on top of the game. They encourage us to raise our standards.”

(The writer tweets as @SomaRKDas )

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