What’s the jazz about?

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New kind of groove  Ariadna Castellanos, Piotr Wojtasik, at the Delhi Jazz Fest
New kind of groove Hungarian pianist Norbert Kael and Kamal Sabri at the Delhi Jazz Fest

Acknowledging the ability of jazz music to bridge people across barriers of ethnicity and race, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) designated 30 April as International Jazz Day. Over 600 events spread across 185 countries across the globe marked the celebration of the historical, cultural and educational contribution made by this popular music genre last week.

The celebrations took on a different form in New Delhi and the National Capital Region with various pubs featuring jazz bands. Cocktails and Dreams, and Speakeasy, were some of the pubs in Gurgaon that hosted such bands. Cashing in on the growing popularity of the genre, these pubs also organised post-show jam sessions. Drift the Trio, Neue Jazz Collective, Samadhi and Kitchensink were some of the bands that were roped in on the occasion for performances.

Jazz has always been an object of fascination in India but the surging interest being seen in the national capital and surrounding areas is relatively a new phenomenon.

The Oxford dictionary defines jazz as, “A type of music of black American origin which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, characterised by improvisation, syncopation (off beats) and usually a regular or forceful rhythm.” However, defining jazz in a sentence would be doing grave injustice to the genre. Undeniably, it is a format of music that allows freedom of expression; the experimentation with tunes allowed therein being unmatched.

Since its inception, jazz has seen many transitions ranging from African-American spirituals, rag time, New Orleans jazz, swing and jazz ballads to broadway jazz. The most ubiquitous aspect of jazz music is the scope for improvisation for musicians and element of surprise for its audience. It allows the musician scope to interpret melody drawing on his creativity and leanings. The avenues for creativity in the genre are endless allowing it to transcend cultural barriers and bring ethnic music from various parts of the world into its fold.

Hungarian pianist Norbert Kael
Ariadna Castellanos

Only a discerning listener can appreciate the joy of jazz, as one needs to apply thinking skills to relish its nuances. Legendary Indian jazz musician Louiz Banks during a festival in Delhi once said, “Only by giving an ear to the many kinds of jazz musicians can one learn to appreciate this form of music.”

It is surprising that jazz which has its origins in the cotton fields of America where African-American slaves used it as a means of communication should hold a sway over an Indian audience at large.

India’s first tryst with jazz happened way back in the 1920s and ’30s when a group of all-African-American musicians, led by violinist Leon Abbey, toured India, South America and Europe. Making the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai their base, they gave multiple performances familiarising India to the musical format. The jazz clubs in Calcutta showed love for the genre with their renditions in Park Street clubs such as the Blue Fox and Trinkas. Jazz then took a hairpin turn when the Goan musicians tried blending it with Hindustani music. This trend found reflection in Bollywood songs from the ’50s and ’60s like Kishore Kumar’s Enna Meena Deeka and Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo from the film Howrah Bridge. As years passed by, Indo-Jazz made its presence felt in the form of the influential Mahavishnu Orchestra led by guitarist John McLaughlin along with Billy Cobham (drums), Rick Laird (bass), Jam Hammer (piano) and Jerry Goodman (violin). Musicians such as Louiz Banks, Lew Hilt and Amyt Dutt have played an important role in keeping the spirit of jazz alive despite minimal and sometimes no appreciation.

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