Louiz Banks performing during his 75th birthday celebrations in Mumbai on February 10, 2016. (AFP via Getty Images)
Louiz Banks performing during his 75th birthday celebrations in Mumbai on February 10, 2016. (AFP via Getty Images)

Review: Louiz Banks: A Symphony of Love by Ashis Ghatak

A biography of Louiz Banks that brings out the musical personality of the ‘godfather of Indian jazz’
By Narendra Kusnur
PUBLISHED ON APR 02, 2021 10:07 PM IST
242pp, ₹595; Rupa Publications
242pp, ₹595; Rupa Publications

Jazz maestro Louiz Banks has always believed that divine intervention has shaped his destiny. Just like fate had got him together with saxophonist Braz Gonsalves, singer Pam Crain, and guitarist Carlton Kitto to form a band, he thought his interaction with film composer RD Burman was nothing short of a providential occurrence.

Burman was visiting Blue Fox, the popular Calcutta nightspot, when he was so impressed with the pianist that he invited him to play in his films. The rest, as they say, is history. Banks not only began a parallel film music career after shifting to Bombay in 1978, but eventually also got into other fields like advertising jingles, musical theatre and Indipop albums.

At Film Centre: (L-R) Franco Vaz, RD Burman, Sunil Kaushik, Louiz Banks, and Bob Christo. (Euphony)
At Film Centre: (L-R) Franco Vaz, RD Burman, Sunil Kaushik, Louiz Banks, and Bob Christo. (Euphony)

Described as the ‘godfather of Indian jazz’, Banks has many anecdotes to tell. His life is captured in this engrossing biography Louiz Banks: A Symphony Of Love written by Kolkata-based Ashis Ghatak. Besides talking extensively to the musician, the biographer has interviewed many who have worked closely with him, whether it was in jazz, film music or anything else. Appropriately, the book was released on Banks’ 80th birthday on February 11.

Jazz has, of course, always been Banks’ first love. Having seen his father George Banks play trumpet and piano, the youngster spent his childhood in Darjeeling absorbing different sounds. His biggest influence was jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, and it was clear that he wanted to play like him. And though he also played trumpet and guitar, the piano remained his favourite.

Following a stint at the Soaltee in Kathmandu, Banks moved to Calcutta, which had a very vibrant scene. After playing in five-star clubs, Banks landed up in Blue Fox, which was more informal. By that time, he had also begun to be influenced by the great pianist Herbie Hancock, and had begun playing a mix of traditional fare and more adventurous sounds. The group Louiz Banks Brotherhood became a huge draw.

Ghatak describes the maestro’s growth in lucid detail. The book has a foreword by Ustad Zakir Hussain, who says he himself has learnt much from Banks about “finding my way through jazz forms, composing for a jazz ensemble and many other facets of being a performer of music from all parts of the world.”

Early days in Darjeeling: (L-R) Peter Banks on bass, Manbir Singh on drums, Louiz Banks on guitar, and George Banks on piano. (Courtesy the publisher)
Early days in Darjeeling: (L-R) Peter Banks on bass, Manbir Singh on drums, Louiz Banks on guitar, and George Banks on piano. (Courtesy the publisher)

The book has 15 chapters, of which the first four are about his birth under the name Dambar Bahadur Budapriti, his boyhood, his time in Nepal and his days in Calcutta. While his early performances shaped his jazz career, his teaming up with Burman added a new facet to his musical personality. Ghatak recalls that, an avid jazz enthusiast himself, Burman “could foresee an untapped potential in the young man’s piano-playing.” Once in Bombay, Banks made friends with many musicians who were in Burman’s team. These included saxophonist Manohari Singh, drummer Ranjit Gazmer, multi-instrumentalist Kersi Lord, guitarist Sunil Kaushik and bassist Tony Vaz.

One thing led to another, and Banks spent his evenings playing at the prestigious Sea Rock Hotel in Bandra, Bombay. The International Jazz Yatra began in Bombay in 1978, and that was when the idea of forming the fusion group Sangam came up. Featuring vocalist Rama Mani, saxophonist Braz Gonsalves, percussionist TAS Mani, bassist Karl Peters, and drummer Ranjit Barot, it gave Banks a chance to create new sounds blending Indian and Western elements.

At Sea Rock Hotel, Bombay: (L-R) Ozzie Fernandes, Yvonne Gonsalves, Braz Gonsalves, Lou Hilt, and Louiz Banks (Courtesy the publisher)
At Sea Rock Hotel, Bombay: (L-R) Ozzie Fernandes, Yvonne Gonsalves, Braz Gonsalves, Lou Hilt, and Louiz Banks (Courtesy the publisher)

Banks also composed advertising jingles, working with well-known personalities Alyque Padamsee, Prahlad Kakkar and Kailash Surendranath. One of his huge projects was the national integration video Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, which featured many musicians, with Ashok Patki organising the language dubbing.

While describing these developments, Ghatak uses a good mix of quotes by Banks and anecdotes by those he worked with. There are interesting stories of his sudden opportunity to perform with the legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and the making of the multi-artiste, Grammy-nominated project Miles From India, which had Indianised adaptations of Miles Davis’s tunes.

Biographer Ashis Ghatak (Courtesy Rupa)
Biographer Ashis Ghatak (Courtesy Rupa)

Banks’ work with the groups Silk (featuring vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, bassist Karl Peters, drummer Sivamani and mridangam exponent Sridhar Parthasarathy), and the Matrixx Trio (with his son, drummer Gino Banks, and bassist Sheldon D’Silva) has been captured in detail. There is also a reference to the groups Ganga Shakti and Guitar Synergy, where he worked with younger musicians.

Besides Banks’ musical achievements, the book also talks of him as a dedicated family person, and captures personal traits like his love for Chinese food. Special box items provide interesting trivia, and rare pictures are used. However, one wishes more care had been taken with names and spellings. Fusion group Shakti’s violinist L Shankar has been called L Srinivas and singer Vivienne Pocha becomes ‘Vivian’. Likewise, singer Carmen McRae goes as Macraine, and Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim as Jobin.

The good thing is that the narrative flows. Ghatak has a reader-friendly style of writing and explains musical terms in a simple manner. This is a fascinating document on the growth of western music in India that brings out the musical personality of one of its most innovative and prolific exponents.

Narendra Kusnur is a veteran music journalist

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