'Taj Mahal Foxtrot' author riffs on Mumbai's forgotten jazz age

Naresh Fernandes speaks at the Indian Summer Festival July 18 about India's history of jazz, a Cold War propaganda tool of the U.S. 

Naresh Fernandes, author of 'Taj Mahal Foxtrot', at home.

On the night of Aug. 14, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India and the patriarch of its most intransigent political dynasty, took the stage at Red Fort in New Delhi. He gave one of the most epochal speeches of the 20th century, and India, after spending close to 200 years under the suzerainty of the British Empire, was catalyzed to independence. 

While hundreds of thousands assembled below the ramparts of the fort, the legions of poor squatted outside homes that could afford transistor radios and journalists across four continents furiously typed their late-edition copies. The famed Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai (then Bombay) reached a crescendo as the city’s cosmopolitan elite watched a jazz band belt out the country’s national anthem.   

This is the story of Taj Mahal Foxtrot, journalist and editor Naresh Fernandes’ masterly account of Bombay’s jazz age.

Sonny Rollins in Powai. Photo courtesy Taj Mahal Foxtrot website.

It was Winston Churchill who said that history is written by the victors and, ironically enough, the re-telling of modern India’s history to a western audience is almost always over-shadowed by fawning platitudes about its non-violent leaders. But Fernandes’ investigation into Mumbai’s neon-bathed jazz age is a complex interposition into this staid narrative. Through this book, he dredges up a glittering mise en scène of the port city that was of a piece with Chicago’s fabled jazz ensembles or the decadent, Fitzgeraldian soirees of 1920s Paris. 

That Teddy Weatherford, Louis Armstrong’s pianist and one of the lions of the Chicago scene, sat behind the grand piano at The Taj during the peak of his career is a singularly astonishing fact. But Fernandes’ startling rediscoveries go further, unearthing the existence of a vast musical firmament that followed after African American musicians began shipping out to Bombay’s shores in order to escape Jim Crow-era laws in the Deep South. The city then became a crucible for jazz, spawning not just the talents of local musicians such as the delightfully named Chic Chocolate but shaping the melodies of what would later become the distinctive sound of Bollywood.

Fernandes will be speaking at Indian Summer Festival at The Imperial, 319 Main Street on Saturday, July 18. He spoke about the genesis of the book by phone from Mumbai:    

Nitant Narang: Will this be your first time in Vancouver?

Naresh Fernandes: I’ve never been to Canada. I was in America for five years and the closest I’ve been to Canada is Detroit. But everyone talks about how beautiful Vancouver is and I’ve seen pictures so I’m really looking forward to it. And, of course, like all Catholics from Mumbai, I have about 35 cousins at Mississauga — on the other side of the country (chuckles). 

NN: I know from speaking with friends that younger jazz listeners were astonished to find that while India’s freedom struggle was in full throes, world-renowned jazz greats were performing in its backyard. 

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