With the passing of the reedman Joe Pereira this morning, Bombay’s jazz age has truly come to an end. Jazzy Joe, as he was known fondly to three generations of Indian fans, was the last of the musicians from the swing era. He was 86.
Pereira started performing in 1941, aged only 14, in a band in Lahore’s Stiffle’s Hotel fronted by his cousin, the legendary Sebastian D’Souza. After spending much of his career in Lahore, Delhi and Calcutta, Pereira returned to Bombay in the 1980s and helped train a bunch of enthusiastic hornmen (and hornwomen) who performed occasionally as the Jazz Junkeys.
Visiting Pereira at his home in Victory Blocks, right behind Bandra police station, was always enlightening. Until a couple of years ago when his health began to fail, Pereira could be counted on to recall slightly risqué stories about his encounters with cabaret dancers and to tell, in mock horror, about his shyness at their routine state of dishabille, even off stage. He would tell about his musical journeys through India and his trips to Europe, his eyes lighting up with memories of musicians he’d jammed with and places he’d seen.
After Partition, Pereria played with the Johnny Baptist band in Bombay and Rudy Cotton in Delhi, before joining an outfit in Calcutta headed by the Russian violinist Walter Yeshin. In 1957, he began to head his own band at the Blue Fox on Park Street.
Back in Bombay, many still remember his turn conducting the Foottappers Band at the 1984 Jazz Yatra, leading the group through his composition Flight of the Raga, based on Yaman. Like so many of his contemporaries, he also played in the film studios, and was an assistant to the composers Shankar-Jaikishen.
Pereira’s funeral will be held tomorrow, Saturday June 15, at 4pm at St Peter’s Church in Bandra. My condolences to his daughter Pamela, son Christopher and the rest of the Pereira family. As Jazzy Joe heads up to the Great Bandstand in the Sky, you can download some of his music here.
Henry Green, Frank Fernand and Hal Green at the Bombay Swing Club debut concert
One day in the late 1940s, musicians Hal and Henry Green asked Bombay businessman JJ Davar if he’d lend them his extensive collection of swing discs so that they could start a jazz record listening club. After tossing the idea around for a while, they decided that it would be a better idea to set up an organisation to perform live music instead. Trumpet player Frank Fernand joined the conversations and, on November 28, 1948, the Bombay Swing Club gave its inaugural concert at the Cama Hall.
Though I mentioned the Club in Taj Mahal Foxtrot, I only recently obtained details about the organisation’s origins, thanks to material mailed to me from Australia by the amazing Maxine Steller. She not only sent me a copy of an autographed programme of that concert, she also had a clip from the Sunday Standard that had been written on the BSC’s first anniversary. The article describes in some detail the trouble that Bombay Swing Club’s debut concert ran into: the worst cyclone the city had witnessed in decades.
“Electricity having failed, Eddy Jones, Clarence Bean and Henry Green worked feverishly at night with candles (bought at Rs ¼ a piece) sawing, cutting, hammering, painting to get the music stands and stage props together on time,” the article said.
The concert, though, was a grand success and the “packed house roared its appreciation at the end of the show”.
After Henry Green emigrated to the UK in 1949, his brother Hal took responsibility for keeping the Club alive. Performances by the Bombay Swing Club’s “Ork” were held at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Sundarbai Hall, St Xavier’s College, Eros Theatre and the Central YMCA, which offered the musicians rehearsal space.
“The Club welcomes all music-lovers into its fold and not only performers,” the Sunday Standard reported. “Among its fans are surgeons, typists, mill owners, railwaymen, socialites, journalists, clerks, musicians and stenographers.”
For the Club’s first anniversary concert at the Taj, an orchestra of 33 musicians was assembled to play standards and original compositions: Naga Serenade by the trumpet player Chic Chocolate, Swing Finale and Oriental Fantasy in Swing by the trumpet player Frank Fernand, Lapis Lazuli and Woodwind Rhapsody by reed player Hal Green and Carinesque and Quince Jam Jump by saxophonist Johnny Gomes.
“It is a pity that are no facilities here in the East for publishing, else these compositions would be hits if they were to be composed in the West,” the Sunday Standard grumbled. “Efforts are, however, being made by the Club on behalf of composers to get their music published abroad.”
The article added, “Hal has always got something new up this sleeve for the entertainment of swing fans and goes all out to make each show a success. (Confidentially, he loses six to eight pounds after each concert.”
It concluded, “Most performers have to sacrifice their space time to write music late into the night and give up lucrative engagements for rehearsals. But they do not mind it, provided the show goes on.”
It isn’t clear when the BSC wound up and the internet isn’t much help. A Google search throws up sites relating to latter-day Bombay swing clubs that promise members “confidentiality, secrecy, safety and fun”. The pictures on these web pages make it clear that the people involved in these new clubs have no use for the sharp suits worn by members of the original organisation – or any clothing at all. The sites make no mention of jazz.
The BSC didn’t make any recordings but one of its members, Chic Chocolate, pictured below at a concert, cut several discs in the 1940s. Here’s his version of The Music Stopped from 1945. It had been featured in the film Higher and Higher, which had been made two years earlier, starring the already legendary crooner Frank Sinatra.
The blues, as fans well know, come from a place of pain, but few performers have to face hazards like these on the way to a concert: “Sweltering heat, fever, wild tigers, Jap snipers, leeches and other insects that latch onto the skin so tight, the only way they can be removed is by burning them off.” Sometimes, she’d have to step over decaying bodies and there was always the prospect of bomb raids.
These were the circumstances in which Alberta Hunter belted out the blues in Assam in 1944, as she attempted to cheer up US troops building the snaking Ledo Road in the C-B-I region between China, Burma and India.
By the same she died at the age of 89 in 1984, Alberta Hunter was a genuine legend – an elegant granny who would sing bawdy blues tunes with the poise of a minister leading a church choir. She’d toured Europe in 1917, started recording prolifically in the 1920s, and in 1928, performed with the great Paul Robeson in the London version of Showboat. So it isn’t surprising that she caused a storm in Assam, when she showed up with a troupe of musicians in the middle of the Second World War to entertain the African-American soldiers who were constructing a snaking road in the jungle from north-eastern India to Kunming in China. more…
A recent report about Stanley Kubrick’s unmade film about the persecution jazz musicians faced in Nazi Germany reminded me of the man in white in the photo above, Creighton Thompson, who sang TajMahal Foxtrot, the tune from which this website and my book take their name. As regular readers of this site know, the tune was a perfect example of Bombay’s multiculturalism of the 1930s: it had been composed by a Bombay Jewish man named Mena Silas and recorded by a band led by the African-American trumpet player Crickett Smith. Chicago-born Creighton Thompson came to Bombay from Europe, where he had been performing since 1920. But early in the 1930s, he and other African-American performers were forced out of Germany as Nazi policies forbade non-Aryans from appearing on the radio and from theatres. more…
“Boss, this girl has something,” drummer Chick Webb’s male singer (seated on the left) told him. “You must hear her.” Webb couldn’t see the need for that. Though he cut one of the strangest sights in jazz – a drummer bent over by spinal tuberculosis, with partially paralysed legs – Webb was one of the earliest legends of swing. In 1931, by the time he was 26, he was leading the house band at the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and was, in the words of his contemporaries, “the daddy of them all”. He simply couldn’t see why he needed a girl singer.
But his front man was persistent and brought over a singer he’d heard at the Harlem Opera House. The drummer was, of course, bowled over by the 16-year-old Ella Fitzgerald and she spurred the Chick Webb band on to even greater success. Young Bardu Ali, who had discovered Fitzgerald, didn’t do badly either. He would go on to lead his own band, the Bardu Ali Orchestra, and eventually open a rhythm and blues club in Los Angeles. No one could quite have predicted this for the boy who had been born Bahadour Ali, the son of an adventurous embroidery trader from the Hoogly region in India. more…
This Geeta Dutt tune from the 1956 film Bhai Bhai featured music composed by Madan Mohan. It was his first hit. The film ran for 24 weeks. It would have gone on to a silver jubilee run, but a dispute between the director and the producer scotched that hope.
I’m fairly certain that the Goan trumpet player Chic Chocolate was his assistant, even though he isn’t mentioned in the credits. That would explain why the melodic inspiration for the tune, and a direct quotation that starts from 1.51, are from this classic Portuguese fado, Coimbra, performed here by the diva Amalia Rodrigues as April in Portugal. It’s a tune that Chic Chocolate would most likely have heard in his home state, which was still a Portuguese colony when Bhai Bhai was made (and would remain one for five more years).
Terrence Davin (far left, at the drums) aged 15 or 16, with Rego and his Rhumba Boys in Rawalpindi. The picture was taken in the courtyard of an Anglo-Indian home where they played for a wedding reception.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been exchanging mail with Terrence Davin, a retired pastor from British Columbia, in Canada, who spent his youth making music in north India. He tracked me down after I appeared on a radio programme in Australia. Here, this Easter weekend, is his wonderfully detailed story:
I was a musician in India for a while. I was born in 1928 in a small town named Kundian in the North Western Province of then British India. My father, an Irishman, worked on the North Western Railway and was stationed there for a while, my mother was an Anglo-Indian. We eventually moved to Rawalpindi where I attended the Station School for my early education and then the (co-ed) Presentation Convent for standards 5 & 6. I finally ended up with a private tutor and passed the matriculation exam.
I started playing drums at an early age. One of my English school friends had a mini-set and I got a chance to practice on it and we would play along with the records, old 78s in those days. Then we formed a three piece band to amuse ourselves and entertain his parents. I played harmonica, he the drums and my brother converted and old metal bath tub into a bass. We were about 11 or 12 years old at that time and still in school.
I made some progress with the drums I guess because when the drummer for Rhondo’s band (they played for the Telegraph Club) was ill, Mr. Rhondo asked me to stand in. I used to go to their dances and sit close to the drummer, a Filipino, and watch him play and occasionally he would let me play for a piece or two. He was somewhat old-fashioned but very regimented! I guess that’s how Rhondo knew I could play even though I was just a teenager, still in school. I began to be called to stand in quite often and what I earned for those one night gigs helped to pay my private tutor.
A few months ago, I wrote here about the singer Myrtle Watkins, who performed at the Taj in Bombay during the winter of 1935. She had made her reputation as a jazz singer in Europe but then, in a transformation I couldn’t quite track in the archives, seems by the late 1930s to have started performing Latin American music under the name Paquita, along with her husband, the Mexican violinist Sam Zarate.
Between November 1941 and December 1942, Paquita and Zarate cut more than a dozen discs in India, backed by the African-American pianist Teddy Weatherford, like the one above, South American Way. The confusion about the performer’s identify arose when a discography published in the jazz magazine Storyville said that Paquita was actually the stage name for Myrtle Watkins. But I wasn’t able to find other evidence for this, and the photos I had of Paquita and Watkins (reproduced above) were too indistinct to be able to make a clear identification either way.
Preparing to moderate a conversation earlier this week with the writer-musician Amit Chaudhuri about his new book on Calcutta, I revisited his This Is Not Fusion album — and remembered that he had also recorded a tune called All India Radio. The source material for Amit’s melody was the All India Radio theme song, composed, as this article noted last fortnight, by a Jewish refugee named Walter Kaufmann.
The music on the This Is Not Fusion album, as Amit explained in his liner notes, aims to move “towards a musical and conceptual meeting point, a space in which not only musicians encounter each other but in which musical lineages intersect and renovate themselves and become altered by this contact”. more…
All India Radio’s caller tune has been heard by hundreds of millions of people since it was composed in 1936. Somewhat improbably, the tune, based on raga Shivaranjini, was composed by the Czech man in the middle of the trio pictured above: Walter Kaufmann. He was the director of music at AIR and was one of the many Jewish refugees who found a haven in India from the Nazis. The violinist on the recording is thought to be Mehli Mehta, who is also in the image above.
Kaufmann had arrived in India in February 1934 and ended up staying for 14 years. Within a few months of landing in Bombay, Kaufmann founded the Bombay Chamber Music Society, which performed every Thursday at the Willingdon Gymkhana. At the performance pictured here, Kaufmann is at the piano, Edigio Verga is on cello and Mehta – the father of Zubin Mehta – is playing the violin. By May 1937, the Society had given 136 performances of works by old masters and modern composers. “Membership of the Society is open to all music lovers,” The Times of India reported. Full membership cost Rs 15 a month, but students, working women and missionaries could attend all concerts for only Rs 5 a month.