Book Review: Taj Mahal Foxtrot by Naresh Fernandes

Think of India and music and your mind conjures sublime ragas from Ravi Shankar and swirling musical whirlwinds from Bollywood.  But what about swinging hot jazz, fancy dress balls and black American jazz expatriates playing in luxury hotels on the Arabian Sea?  You are to be forgiven for never putting those things and India together in the same thought but as the new and much awarded book Taj Mahal Foxtrot by Mumbai based writer Naresh Fernandes deliciously details, India once upon a time hosted a thriving and very jiving jazz culture.

In 1935, a violin-playing jazzman from Minnesota, Leon Abbey, brought an ‘all negro’ band to Bombay for a season of appearances at the grand Taj Mahal Hotel. It was a time when African American musicians were seeking for warmer, less-discriminating audiences around the world, especially in Europe. Abbey had toured throughout the 1920s in Europe and even through Latin America, so his disembarkation in Bombay was, for him, at first, just another stop on the global jazz trail.  Abbey’s ace band, members of which had backed Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins back home, took the colonial city by storm. Abbey’s version of hot swing jazz garnered ecstatic reviews in the press and crowded the dance floors of the city’s best hotels and clubs.  One local fan, who later went on to become a prominent, somewhat cantankerous journalist, wrote of his encounter with Abbey’s jazz: ‘The music went to my head that evening and when Leon started beating up a rumba I left my table and my partner to shake the maracas that were offered me. In those few moments I forgot my whole upbringing, forgot that I was back in the land of my fathers, through which the Ganges flowed, and that the Seine was far far away.”

Needless to say, Leon Abbey’s first season in India was a smash. Several more seasons followed with an elegant, dapper Abbey playing the role of leader of a virtual black-American neighborhood in Colaba. Others quickly followed Abbey: Crickett Smith and Bill Coleman the trumpeters, Roy Butler, a sax man from Indiana who was considered the consummate sideman, singer Creighton Thomas and a Chicago stride piano player by the name of Teddy Weatherford, who is credited with being a key influence on that most distinguished of giants, Erroll Garner.  The bands played in hotels and clubs all across British India in Calcutta, Poona, Madras, Bangalore, Lucknow and the main hill stations.  They exchanged members regularly and several of the men mentioned above tried their turn as band leaders. When Weatherford was asked by an interviewer in the early 1940s, how he liked India, he smiled and said with irony, “They treat us white folks just fine!”

The jazz scene in India was definitely hot and reached a fever pitch in the first two years of WWII when the country hosted large numbers of British, Australian and American soldiers. But as the Japanese drew closer to invading the country, the US Embassy offered free passage back to the States which many jazzmen took up.  The slowdown on the dance floors was only temporary though, because the local apprentices stepped into the breach created by the departure of the masters.

Goan and Anglo-Indian young people had been instructed in Western classical and Portuguese folk music in school and had grown up with their ears glued to radios and records that featured American jazz.   Those that lived in Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta hung around the hotels and clubs vying to get a seat in the exciting orchestras.  Weatherford, Smith and others made a considerable number of recordings in Calcutta and Bombay, often with Oriental/Indian titles and themes, and called upon local musicians to fill out the studio during the sessions. Fernandes’ book comes with a CD on which some of these Indian-jazz recordings can be sampled.

With the rather abrupt departure of most American jazz players, Indians stepped forward from the back of the band to lead.  In the years leading up to Independence more than 60 jazz bands vied for audiences in Bombay alone! Almost all were led and peopled by Goan and Anglo-Indian musicians.  Indeed, one of the city’s most popular jazz bands led by the Anglo Indian Ken Mac, was flown in to Karachi expressly to help Mohammad Ali Jinnah celebrate the advent of Independence!  In the austere ‘nation building’ decades after the departure of the British, it was these indigenous jazz musicians who kept the music alive for the fans and played the decisive role of introducing western instruments, jazz beats and swing into the hitherto conservative film industry. Almost by stealth the eclectic, electrifying sound we now call Bollywood and take for granted, was born.

Taj Mahal Foxtrot traces this exciting encounter between East and West and the mingling of musical ambitions of an oppressed minority far from home with the aspirations of native ‘foreigners’ in their own land, with aplomb. The imported alien music started the jazz river that led to an entirely Indianised form of jazz, through the film studios and free jazz experiments in the student cafes of Calcutta, to the world’s first fusion music and Hindu garage rock. And that stream continues to flow into and out of the the work of such jazz luminaries as South Asian-Americans as Vijay Iyer (piano), Rez Abbasi (guitar), Christine Correa (voice) and Rudresh Mahantappa (saxophone), all leaders of the contemporary jazz scene.

The book is much more than a history of jazz in India. Fernandes has written multiple histories here: the Taj Mahal Hotel (scene, most recently of horrific terrorist attacks in 2008); a little known history of the global roamings of American jazz musicians; a musical history of Bombay and; the story of the under-regarded, forgotten names of local Anglo-Indian and Goan jazzmen and women.  The book, in a coffee table format, is lusciously loaded with archival photos of a Bombay long gone.  Chic Chocolate, the self styled Louis Armstrong of India, leading his band in an art deco dance hall, Teddy Weatherford, Crickett Smith and Roy Butler, dressed up as country bumpkins for one of their gigs and Dave Brubeck jamming with Indian classical musicians. One marvels at the networks and strings Fernandes must have had to pull to gather such historic material together.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the1930s and 1940s when African American jazz men lived and worked in India, several of who settled in and even died in the country. and which served as years of learning for the next generation of Indian musicians,  Van Shipley, and others.

The second half of the book is the story of India’s own jazz players like Chic Chocolate, Ken Mac, Sonny Lobo, Micky Correa and how they kept the night clubs, and hotels of Independent India pumping and jumping with dance music through the 1960s. To survive they moved toward the film studios. Through the 60-70s most migrated to Australia, Canada and Europe but a few stayed behind and kept working in film.

Though Fernandes attention is sharply focused on the period 1935-65, the final portion of his book revives the memory of the second generation of India’s jazz and rock musicians such as the double sax blowing Braz Gonsalves, the guitar whiz, Amancio D’Silva, chanteuse and disco queen Asha Puthli all of whom went on to receive critical acclaim for their work in the West.

This is top notch cultural history.  If you love jazz or history or India this book is for you.  In 2012 the book was awarded several literary reviews in India. Order from Amazon or Roli Books.