'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. 

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Fernandes: Jazz as a genre appeals to people across all age lines. There are people in their 80s who remember some of the things I write about in the book. And sometimes their grandchildren or great-grandchildren say, “Aaah! This is what grandpapa was talking about.” And, then, of course, there are younger musicians who were able to discover that jazz is as old in India as it is in Europe — the fact that it’s a genre of music that is four generations old and has been in India for three generations, that discovery seems to have delighted a lot of people.      

NN: But, considering you grew up in Bandra I’m sure you must have had somewhat of an idea that there was an unexamined history of local jazz in the city.

Fernandes: Not really. I stumbled upon it after hearing older men play this music. And I began to talk to them about how they learnt it. And that opened up this astonishing story about the fact that, you know in the '30s, African-American musicians came to Bombay and taught these men how to play this stuff. And, you know, I dismissed these musicians as journeymen who were not very good. But it turns out that some of them, particularly this guy called Teddy Weatherford, stayed in India for a decade. So it’s not like these guys were jetting in and out; they rented apartments and stayed for significant periods of time. The other thing was that these guys were fairly significant musicians of their time. Teddy Weatherford, for instance, had played with Louis Armstrong in Chicago and was thought of as one of the young lions of Chicago. And they came here because they had good reasons; they wanted to escape racism in America. Another thing that astonished me was that the year the first African-American band came to India was the year the first political delegations representing the African-Americans were coming to India to meet Gandhi, looking at how Satyagraha could be used in their struggle for equality. So the ideas weren’t flowing one way; there was a circularity of culture and politics.          

NN: People scarcely have any idea that there were strong political undercurrents to the popularization of American culture, particularly jazz, in the years after World War II. The United States — you’ve very pertinently pointed this out on several occasions — would send contingents of traveling jazz troupes to non-aligned countries.

Fernandes: So, before that was the '40s — the period bringing Colonialism to an end. And, at this time, a lot of jazz musicians began to migrate to the film studios and this was an astonishing moment because they played a very important role in creating what we now recognize as the classic sound of Bollywood wherein, essentially, the composers were mostly Hindu, the lyrics were provided by Urdu-speaking chaps but the orchestration, the arrangements and the guys playing the instruments were Roman Catholics, often from Goa. And so these groups, which often had very little to do with each other in real life, were sitting down to dinner every day and creating the sound that was the modern sound of Independent India. And then, towards the end of that period, in the '50s, the Americans started using jazz as a Cold War weapon. And these newly independent nations in Asia and Africa were weighing in over the ideals of America and USSR. Both these political blocs unleashed a cultural bombardment on the Third World. So, while the Americans sent us jazz, the Russians sent us ballet and those cheap translations of Tolstoy and Turgenev.  

NN: I was able to find an academic paper online which said that Nehru was acutely aware of their motives and, in 1956, actually cancelled a show by Dizzy Gillespie, who was slated to perform in Mumbai.

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