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.
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…
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).
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.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s world tour in 1958 was an unqualified success. As the pianist recalls in this video, fans in the Eastern Block sometimes put themselves at great personal risk to attend the concerts. Brubeck’s Indian admirers had it much easier, of course, and more than 50 years later, many remember the performances fondly. That, of course, was the entire point of the massive US State Department initiative to use jazz to win hearts and minds during the Cold War.
The quartet, who were in India from March 31 to April 13, 1958, kicked off their tour in Rajkot and performed in Bombay, Delhi, Hyderabad, Madras and Calcutta. They had been playing in Western Europe in February and March that year, after which US State Department paid for them to visit eight other countries, besides India. They returned home on May 11, after a gig in Baghdad.
There are many more photos and material about Brubeck’s India adventures at the excellent digital collections of the University of the Pacific here. They include this photo of the Quartet being felicitated by the Sangeet Natak Akademi.
“I’m a ‘dance’ band drummer, always was, and always will be.” That’s what 87-year-old Roy Holliday declares on his Facebook page, and the way he’s playing the drums in that clip, it’s clear that he intends to keep beating the skins for a long time to come. Holliday lives in the UK and stumbled upon the Foxtrot website because he was trying to locate Indian jazz musicians he met in the hill station of Mussoorie in the summer of 1947, months before Partition. He’d come to India earlier that year as a member of the Royal Air Force.
He’s been kind enough to let me reproduce a section from his as-yet-unpublished memoir:
“India was a revelation, from the moment we landed the air was filled with exotic sights, sounds and smells. Our first two days in Bombay were spent aboard the ship as the transit camp at Worli was not ready to receive us. We were however allowed ashore to do some sight-seeing and I even managed to escape the heat in an air-conditioned cinema. But we were not prepared for the poverty and the sight of thousands of people sleeping in the streets.
There were many other cultural changes for us and at our transit camp we became acquainted with the old colonial system which was still in operation at that time. We were allocated to billets each containing 16 beds, with two Indian servants or ‘bearers’ to clean our shoes and press our uniforms. The days here were spent in idleness, after a morning parade and breakfast we scanned the notice board to see if the daily orders contained details of our postings, and if your name did not appear, the day was yours to spend as you pleased. Many of us passed the day at Breach Candy, a swimming pool with a bar and waiters to bring ice-cold drinks to your reclining chair at the poolside. more…
This cheery Christmas tune was recorded in sunny Calcutta in September 1942, only weeks after it had been released in the US as part of a set of songs from the film Holiday Inn. That version, sung by Bing Crosby, has since sold more than 50 million copies and is thought to be the highest-selling single of all time.
This version by Teddy Weatherford’s All Star Swing Band includes the African-American saxophonist Roy Butler, who lived in India for more than a decade. He’d made his way to India in the early 1930s, after performing in Europe and South America with an array of outfits. more…