'Indian jazz not getting its due'

He had scored the popular Mile Sur Mera Tumhara. Catch veteran jazz artiste Louis Banks in a tête-à-tête with Sonam Savlani.
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Updated on Jul 05, 2007 05:41 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | BySonam Savlani, Mumbai

That a jazzman has taken to painting is unusual. How did that happen?
It’s not unusual. Miles Davis did that too. As for me, I’ve had a fascination for drawing since childhood. I did sketches and watercolours right through my school years. But the call of music was stronger.

What was your first brush with jazz like?
I was in my teens, studying western classical music (piano) and playing trumpet in my dad’s band in Darjeeling. One fine day, dad made me listen to a recording by a jazz pianist. It was the incredible Oscar Peterson on the piano.

My life changed, I was hooked. I became obsessed with it and emerged as a jazz pianist. Today, I’m even more crazy about jazz. I sincerely believe that it’s the music of the future.

It’s the most intense form of musical expression, it’s personal and original... straight from the artiste to the listener.

According to you, what did you do differently that worked well with the crowd and changed the jazz scene in India?
Whatever music I played, I did without compromise.

You've been a part of many popular bands and collaborated with several international artistes. Which collaborations are you really proud of?
At the top of the list, there’s my encounter with the great Dizzy Gillespie. I toured India with him for five concerts.

Real name: Damber Bahadur Budhapriti (Nepalese).

Louis Banks was given the name by his father after the great Louis Armstrong.

Has been playing since the age of 13 with his father at Calcutta hotels.

Hit the scene in the '70s by getting together a band - singer Pam Craine and saxophonist Braz Gonsalves and named it The Louis Banks Brotherhood.

Began composing for films with An August Requiem (1982) starring Tanuja and Jasbir Malik.

Do you think it would have been more difficult to create a stir on the Indian jazz scene without turning to fusion?
Yes, very much, because there is no mainstream jazz scene in this country. There are just pockets of jazz activity. Thanks to bands like Weather Report, Shakti and my own fusion band, Sangam of the 1980s, fusion started to gain momentum. Today, I feel the music has arrived.

But there is still a lot of work to do before making it a viable and widely popular genre in India. My total focus today is on fusion with a heavy element of jazz.

Are you satisfied with the kind of response the Jazz Yatras have received over the years?
It could and should have been better, so I suppose you could say I’m not too happy. I blame the media (TV, radio, films) for giving in to commercialism, mediocrity and baser instincts to brainwash people.

There is a terrible imbalance in the projection of music in this country. Indian classical music and jazz are not getting their due.

Music has been a family affair in your case, be it your father, your wife or your son. How have they contributed to your style and work?
By their unconditional support. They are also discerning critics of my work, making me reinvent myself all the time. My mantra is to keep going forward. I remember Michelangelo’s remark. When someone asked him how he created masterpieces out of a block of marble or stone, he said, “I chip away what isn’t important!”

Why have you stopped composing jingles in spite of the immense popularity of Mile sur mera tumhara?
I have moved on. My life has gone through many phases. I’ve done ad jingles, film scores, stage musicals and live performances. I want to be the best in whatever I do. I detest being complacent and unproductive.

When you started out performing in Kolkata, you got flak for playing jazz. What kept you going through the rough times?
Jazz has always been the step-child of the music industry. Because of its uncompromising attitude, it will always remain a niche music form, bringing incredible joy to its devoted listeners.

It was my belief in the music that kept me going. I didn’t sell my soul to the devil! And it has paid off. I will die a very happy man because my epitaph will read, “Louis was a jazzman.”

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