Mood FoxtrotLooking back at the golden age of Indian Jazz - the musings of a young woman
There are but a handful of seminal moments in our lives when we pause; viscerally overwhelmed by the deep knowledge that something has shifted in the very nature of our being. For most of us, the first of these moments is that innocent crush at fourteen or the consequential misery of unrequited love. Then comes separation – from home, from friends, from the familiar streets of our childhood. But for me, it came on a cold English evening, as I sat in a dark, damp, wood panelled cinema still standing from the fifties, watching the great Louis Armstrong swiping his forehead with a sodden white handkerchief. It was unmistakable; it was the first tremor of adulthood.
Louis Armstrong, Jewel Brown and Eddie Shu at the Shanmukhananda Hall, Bombay in 1964.
Ten years later, a lot has changed but I will forever be grateful to that friend who dragged me along to see Ken Burns’ exceptional documentary series on Jazz. In a fortnight, I went from a casual rock enthusiast, to a woman who sat in empty libraries in the middle of the night, listening to sad melodies, and complex syncopation with visions of smoke filled rooms and empty glasses of bourbon. From Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday to Chet Baker and Mingus, I devoured them all. Intime I even began to fancy myself as some sort of jazz connoisseur, who went around sneering at those who were still listening to teen pop idols.
But then something else happened, just a few months ago. Stuck in peak Delhi traffic, as I turned on the radio, I came upon an old Hindi song I hadn’t heard since my infancy. I sat up, my fingers tapping with the swing, the old ragtime groove, the lush trumpets and playful voice of Kishore Kumar. The influence was undeniable, I could easily picture Jelly Roll Morton bashing out this tune in a New Orleans nightclub. The song was EenaaMeenaDeeka and as it ended, I knew I had stumbled into a black hole.
The Gramophone Company of India’s factory at Dum Dum in Calcutta manufactured a whole range of records, including many jazz titles.
It took me a few weeks to hunt down a copy of TajMahal Foxtrot, a book that has completely transformed my views on music. As a young person when I first came upon jazz, I had assumed like many do, that this was a secret cult, open to only a privileged few. But as I flipped through the pages, reading about Leon Abbey, Mick Correa, Chic Chocolate and their immeasurable impact on Bollywood music, I had to moan over my own ignorance. And even more surprising were the rare pictures of everyone from Dave Brubeck to Louis Armstrong himself, standing on a Bombay stage with a garland around his neck. It was astounding to see that India has played just as big a part in the shape of international jazz as jazz has contributed to the musical ambitions of post-independence India.
The Plantation Quartet of Crickett Smith, Teddy Weatherford, Rudy Jackson and Roy Butler.
In a world that is currently obsessed with nationalism and paralysed by an irrational fear of the ‘foreigner’, TajMahal Foxtrot gives us a glimpse into the unstoppable currents of culture that refuse to be contained by imaginary lines in the sand. For it is at these points of confluence, either in New Orleans or Bombay, that wandering artists, merry makers and weary souls from around the world come together to create something remarkable, something that fills our lives with colour and magic. And even though Thelonius Monk once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, I applaud Naresh Fernandes for not only capturing the blurry history of Indian jazz on paper but also re-introducing us all to forgotten heroes like Crickett Smith and Teddy Weatherford who gave us the eponymous tune, Taj Mahal Foxtrot.
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