IN 2007, when director Denzil Smith and playwright Ramu Ramanathan dreamt up a play called Jazz — set in 1950s Bollywood — one Bandra boy was their go-to guide and adviser. Journalist Naresh Fernandes’ friends knew that among his wide-ranging Mumbai flâneur interests, one had become a special obsession — Bombay’s jazz age. The play progressed, reeling happily under the largesse Fernandes offered in the form of characters and lost recordings. Smith is said to have turned to Fernandes and told him, “You should write a book.” Eight years later, what has resulted is the delightful Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, chockfull of perfectly pitched anecdotes and archival photographs. With the arrival of the book and its excellent online companion, Fernandes, 42, currently a consulting editor at Time Out India, has been warmly embraced by the small kernel of the jazz-lovin’ subculture in India (who write to him saying “Thank you, thank you. Come to Bangalore next. Come to Calcutta”) and by a wider readership who are pleasantly surprised by this forgotten history of flair. He tells Nisha Susan the story behind the book.
Edited Excerpts From An Interview
How has working on Taj Mahal Foxtrot for eight years changed you?
It taught me to spread the net as wide as possible and also to wait for things to fall into place. I contacted as many people as possible and they spread the word about my project. By the end, I had people writing to me from four continents with information and photographs. I realised that the project couldn’t be rushed — that I’d have to wait for the stories to come to me. There was a great deal of serendipity involved.
What has been the most difficult process of your research?
The lack of databases and searchable public libraries in India really irked me. It was impossible to even check the library of The Times Of India, which was the paper of record for the period I was writing about, because their microfilm had been sent off to be digitised and wasn’t available for the three or four years I was researching this most intensely.
How has the discovery of this rich and particular history of jazz changed you as a listener?
It made me realise how rooted the tradition is in the subcontinent, that we can claim it with the same intensity as someone from Paris or New York. For a music that is essentially four generations old, India has third-generation jazz musicians. That’s quite an impressive history.
The book is filled with extraordinarily colourful musicians and band leaders — from Chic Chocolate to Ken Mac. Which of these historical figures do you feel the most affinity for?
Among others, I was very taken with Frank Fernand’s yearning to give jazz an Indian voice. He was transformed by an encounter with Gandhi in 1945 and was performing Indo-jazz by 1948 — decades before Americans like John Coltrane, who are usually credited with bringing Indian elements into jazz, actually did so. Fernand represented an Indian internationalism that I greatly admire.
After drowning in the details of this period for eight years, what trait of the jazz age of Bombay still appeals to you the most?
The impulse towards inclusiveness that seemed to have flourished at the time. That was so obvious, both in the music, which became a part of the mélange of influences for Hindi film soundtracks, and in the art deco architecture of the age, which refracted the style for the subcontinent using Indian motifs and themes.
You once wrote that the Goan jazz musicians drew on their bicultural heritage to give Bollywood music its promiscuous charm, slipping in slivers of Dixieland stomp, Portuguese fados, Ellingtonesque doodles, cha-cha-cha, Mozart and Bach themes. What has been your most startling discovery about the relationship between Bombay’s jazz musicians and Bollywood?
Though the music that came out of those sessions completely captured the imagination of the nation, I was surprised at how indifferent most jazz musicians were to those songs. To them, this was just another way to make a living.
How do you write a book like this without being swamped and buried by nostalgia?
It wasn’t an attempt to look at the past as a golden age but to see what lessons contemporary Bombay could learn from that history. Among other things, I think it’s clear that what made 1960s Bombay such an attractive place to live, at least for the middle classes, was that neighbourhoods such as Dadar and Bandra were the creation of a well-thought-out planning process. These Town Planning Schemes, like a jazz theme, laid down the basic structure while allowing ample room for improvisation. The plans also aspired to make room for workingclass people. Present-day Bombay would do well to reconsider these bits of its past.
‘Jazz can’t make a comeback. Today’s Bombay isn’t a jazz city but a heavy metal city with sharp edges ’
Some of your most fascinating anecdotes are of the particular and carefully negotiated positions that the Goan jazz musicians occupied in Bombay society. How has notions of class and colour changed in Bombay over the decades?
I think that since the 1990s, Bombay’s upper classes have turned their backs on the city’s aspiration to be an inclusive place, open to all, and are packing themselves away into climate controlled bubbles. Where the city once celebrated its public spaces — the Gateway of India, Marine Drive — the city’s elite now seek out spaces that are exclusive, in the literal sense of the term. There’s a conscious attempt to pretend that we don’t live in a city that’s 60 percent slum, and that the elite don’t have a responsibility towards the less fortunate.
In your epilogue you talk about how jazz in its heyday fed off the city. If it were to make a comeback today what qualities of Bombay today would shape it?
I don’t think jazz can make a comeback because it was all the rage when it was the world’s pop. Bombay (and India) have always moved with the times, always seeking out the new thing. Today’s Bombay isn’t a jazz city. It’s more a heavy metal city with sharp edges and little need for nuance. It’s a city that loves the singular drone of a guitar on overdrive, not the diversity of horns and strings in harmony. But then, new circumstances need new sounds
Nisha Susan is Features Editor, Tehelka.