Ever so often, the still of the Bandra night is broken by a raucous party somewhere in the distance bursting into song. A guitar jangles, someone sits down at the piano and a boisterous chorus repeats an item of World War II propaganda regarding the anatomical inadequacies of the Nazi high command.
“Hitler, he has only one ball,” insist the lyrics, sung to the tune of Colonel Bogey’s March. “Goering has two, but very small. Himmler had something similar, and Goebbels has no balls at all (pa pa pa pa pa pum…)” [A version from the film John Rabehere.]
Last weekend, as I listened to a group of my neighbours celebrate a birthday, I realised that several Bandra favourites date back to the World Wars. It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, for instance, is a tune from the Great War that expressed the homesickness of Irish troops from that town in central Ireland. Sentimental Journey, released in 1945, became a homecoming anthem for returning soldiers. 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…
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.
Long after he’d made a series of successful wartime recordings, the trumpet player Chic Chocolate became a regular at the Taj Mahal Hotel in downtown Bombay. One season, he joined forces with Chris Perry, the genius who was in the process of reinventing Konkani pop music.
Written by Walter Kent and Kim Gannon,this tune was featured in the film Song of the Open Road and earned an Academy Award nomination for best original song in 1945.
“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…
“The rostrum was surrounded with people who were content to stand and watch and that semi-circle kept on increasing by the minute till a stage was reached when people had to stand on chairs to see the bandsmen. The crowd liked the music and they communicated their appreciation by yelling their heads off which in turn exhorted the musicians no end…The consensus of opinion had it that Bombay had not heard better music in many moon.”
The excitement that Coover Guzdar described at the Ballroom of the Taj Mahal Hotel in downtown Bombay on the evening of August 4, 1953, is very audible on the two-part recording of What Is This Thing Called Love above and below. Between trumpet phrases and piano licks, you can hear 500 Bombay fans cheering, clapping and generally being appreciative of the band that had been styled the Swingin’ Britons.
The group had been cobbled together by the editorial board of Blue Rhythm, a magazine that had made its appearance a year earlier. Its editors – Guzdar, Niranjan Jhaveri and Jehangir Dalal – were determined not only to give Bombay the opportunity to read about the music they loved, they also organised concerts to allow the city learn about the latest directions in which jazz was headed.
Amru Sani with the Mickey Correa band at Green's Hotel, Bombay, 1948-'49
Was Amru Sani the first Indian to make it in the exalted world of American show biz? In the 1950s, Sani had a brief streak of fame in the US, appearing in a Broadway revue and cutting a bunch of popular records. In 1953, when Sani was booked for an assignment in Hollywood nightclub called Ciro’s, the New Journal and Guide described her as “India’s Lena Horne”. It was clear that she’d made quite an impression her audience. “The Hollywood nightclub male habitués responded to this Indian love call – Bombay, India, that is – in such large numbers that Amru is assured of success on her American tour,” the paper gushed. It added her name meant “goddess of love”.
A few months earlier, Variety magazine was all praise for her stint at Statler’s Embassy Room in Washington. “She has a regal bearing and generally carries herself almost ramrod stiff with her arms at her sides and slightly bent backwards. Occasionally, she lifts her hands in clawlike motions for emphasis,” Variety wrote. “She is a sultry stylist, holding herself somewhat aloof from her audience and with a theatrical sophistication which should do well in class rooms like this. Voice is husky, often sinking to a low softness, sometimes rising to a shout.”
The Hutson Sisters, Bombay’s answer to the Andrews Sisters, first appear in my archival material in November 1937, when they were featured on a late-night All India Radio programme. The hypercritical reviewer for The Times of India wasn’t exactly bowled over by their harmonies. Though they performed “some quite good jazz”, the reviewer had some reservations. He concluded, “I hope that the Hutson Sisters Variety Troupe…will in time reach the goal they are aiming at.” more...
[This piece appears as an op-ed in The Hindu today. To accompany it, here are two tracks by Teddy Weatherford from the Marco Pacci archive. They feature George Banks on trumpet.]
Earlier this year, a stage in suburban Mumbai played host to a jazz-fusion concert headlining Niladri Kumar, a fifth-generation sitar player. The depth of Kumar’s association with Hindustani classical music was satisfying, but it wasn’t as surprising as the long family connection one of his sidemen had with jazz. Gino Banks, the drummer at the performance, is a third-generation Indian jazz musician — a rather astonishing fact considering that the musical form was born in the faraway port city of New Orleans merely four generations ago.
Many fans know Gino as the son of the keyboard player Louiz Banks, the most prominent personality on the Indo-jazz fusion scene, but only a few realise that the Banks’ links with Western popular music stretch back to the 1940s, when Gino Banks’ grandfather, George, was recruited to perform alongside a visiting African-American pianist named Teddy Weatherford.
Though jazz has now become a niche interest in the subcontinent, Gino Banks and other third-generation Indian jazz musicians continue to perform fairly regularly, living proof that our country is heir to a tradition that it can claim as its own with much passion as the citizens of France or Japan, two other nations that took to jazz early.