Archive for the Category »Jazz «

L Shankar shouts the blues

(This is the second part of the BBC documentary Bombay and Jazz. I wrote about the first part last fortnight here.)

Quite improbably, the maestro mispronounces his own name. “Hi,” he calls in an accent that emerges from the interstice between Mylapore and Miami. “I’m Shank-er.”

Jazz, that expression of iconoclastic individualism, is a lifelong quest for your own voice. Jazzmen are obsessed with finding a distinctive way to parse a phrase, with creating a characteristic way to sail just over the beat or under it, with blowing out notes in a tone that’s so unique the music proclaims: Behold, it is I.

Improvisational musician L. Shankar found the song of his soul early. The son of violinist V. Lakshminarayana Iyer, Shankar was a child prodigy. He started vocal lessons at two, began violin at five and gave his first concert at seven. In 1975, aged 25, he co-founded Shakti with British guitar player John McLaughlin and tabla legend Zakir Hussain. Even if its three albums didn’t quite set the global charts afire, Shakti was a raging critical success. Shankar’s compositions were hailed for their maturity, for their assurance, for how effortlessly they projected his very own voice.

Unfortunately, he’s been stuttering in the Babel tower ever since.

After Shakti was disbanded, Shankar attempted to learn a new vocabulary. He wanted to be a pop star. It’s a blustery morning in 2002. Outside his Bandra hotel window, the Arabian Sea roars with grey monsoon fury. Shankar has finally emerged from his slumbers, well deserved after an energetic performance the previous evening. Even this early, he’s wearing a black turtleneck exactly like the one he wears in his publicity photos. His hair is fashionably tousled. And in a confused creole that echoes his melodic muddleheadedness, Shank-er—who has lived in the US since 1969—hold forth on his most profound musical influence: Mahatma Gandhi.

“He like is one of the guy who sacrificed so much, he had so much struggle, but he is one of the strongest person I have ever met. He has had so much difficulty with the British army and everybody else but they couldn’t shut him up really and he really sacrificed himself. He didn’t want a post and he did it for the struggle and whatever he believed in the cause. He could have been the prime minister. He doesn’t like any of the stuff. He really believes in India. But many of the time people misinterpret it and politics is politics and that’s different stuff but he really believed in it to free people. He buy one man did what no one could do previously. He fred India. Just like that, I want total freedom in my music,’’ Shankar proclaims.

sangIn this latest avatar, Shankar (he’s long dropped the L) is attempting to capitalise on the current vogue for alluring female violinists who also tug at the heart strings. It’s a craze that was sparked by the sultry Vanessa Mae and given impetus by the Dixie Chicks. Shankar has attempted to clamber onto the bandwagon by enlisting the services of Gingger, with a double G – the Los Angeles-born daughter of his brother, L Subramaniam. The duo recently did a five-city tour through India, accompanied by percussionists Shafaat Ahmed and Sivamani.  To hear Shankar tell it, he and Gingger are all the toast of the West. They’re No 1 on the Billboard charts, he says. What he fails to emphasise is that he’s talking about the digital video disc chart, scarcely an accurately indication of musical popularity.

Shankar is given to frequent name-dropping. The ghosts of Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Bono Van Morrison hover in the hotel room. Again, there’s some economy with the truth. Shankar has merely featured these rock legends as guest artists on his albums or has been a minor sideman on their’s; the extent of these collaborations, for the most, has been minor.

Still, it would be boorish to dismiss Shankar out of hand.  For one, he’s worked hard to try to establish his double-violin as more than just a curiosity. He devised the space-age instrument, a wondrously gleaming thing with two necks, in 1978, soon after producing an album for Zappa Records. He needed to overdub a whole range of string-instruments, from double-bass to violin. Because he couldn’t find sessions musicians who could render the Indian ornaments and styles he wanted, Shankar ended up having to play all the instruments himself. This implied having to haul them around, too. There was also the problem of sound engineering at outdoor concerts. In an attempt to mask the whistle of the wind, audio technicians would cut out higher frequencies – and alter some of the most achingly beautiful notes Shankar coaxed out of his violin.

shankar2Shankar took four years to solve the puzzle Then he pasted together a cardboard model of the contraption, which he coaxed instrument maker Ken Parker to turn into metal-and-steel reality. Shankar cancelled all his engagements for two months. He and Parker worked ten hours a day in his New York studio, experimenting with different materials and shapes before he was satisfied. In addition to giving Shankar a range of 5 ½ octaves, the double violin has an array of harmonic devices that allow him to sound like a full orchestra. His task didn’t end there. Shankar had to develop new techniques for playing his new instrument. It’s heavier than a conventional violin, so playing it is physically tiring. Because of the greater angle, the bowing is different. “It’s like playing two violins at the same time,’’ says Shankar.  But he adds: “It’s musically more satisfying.”

But he’s more than the designer of a new instrument. Shankar is a living critique of the notion of purity that rightwing political parties are attempting to burden us with. Shankar refuses to subscribe to the idea that Indian music is the most advanced in the world, or that it should be guardedly pristine. His music has doesn’t yearn for some imagined Golden Age. Instead, his musical cosmopolitanism struggles to demonstrate that one can’t rewind to the future. “Obsessing about purity springs from fear of freedom,’’ Shanker pronounces. “It results in being arrestment of your ideas.” He’s got the tone right. So what if the syntax isn’t?

Here are links to the rest of Bombay and Jazz: Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6.

Sax adventures in South India

Despite the perception that it is a staid, uncompromising form, Carnatic classical music has been remarkably adventurous about incorporating new instruments into its fold. The violin seems to have made its appearance in Tamil Nadu in the late eighteenth century and, by 1824, the maharaja of Ettayapuram, south of Madurai, had appointed Baluswamy Dikshitar (younger brother of the famed composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar) as his court violinist.

sax-sisSince then, writes the musicologist Amanda Weidman, the violin not only become “a vehicle for conveying Carnatic music to modernity”, it’s also come to be seen as essential to preserving Carnatic music’s authenticity”.

Over the years, other Western instruments have made their way into Carnatic music, notably the mandolin, the guitar and the clarinet.

Though the sari-clad Saxophone Sisters — MS Lavanya and MS Subbalaxmi — have been attraction attention recently, the saxophone isn’t really capable of expressing the nuances of Carnatic classical music. The problem, as singer TM Krishna explains in his recent book, A Southern Music, is that the reed instrument isn’t able to render gamakas, or ornamentations, that characterise the form. “This has led to saxophone-using musicians rendering only ragas with relatively less gamaka, thus limiting their own exploration of the music,” he writes.

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Teddy Weatherford’s Cabin in the Sky


This recording by Teddy Weatherford and his band features three trumpet players. One of them is George Banks, father of the pianist Louis Banks. The other two hornmen, both Anglo-Indians, studied at St Mary’s School in Byculla: Bill McDermott (pictured above) and Pat Blake (who would later sit in with the Duke Ellington band when it toured India in 1962).

Thanks to Maxine Steller for this photo. This track is from the Marco Pacci collection. Kitty Walker is the vocalist.

Cabin in the Sky was the title song of a movie of the same name directed by Vincent Minelli. The plot was a variation on the story of Faust. It was a landmark film because it featured a cast that was entirely African-American. Perhaps the most popular tune from the film is the gently swinging Taking a Chance on Love.

Cabin in the Sky by Teddy Weatherford by Taj Mahal Foxtrot

The Sari-Clad Jazz Diva


lambert-hendricks-ross-492-lIn 1962, Lamberts, Hendricks and Ross were the most famous jazz vocal group in the world. They’d made their reputation launching bop classics at the audience with the speed of a rocket. Their trademark style was called vocalese: they sang the intricate solos that instrumentalists usually played on these songs, in quicksilver three-part harmony. For four years from 1959, they were voted the best jazz vocal group by Downbeat’s readers.  When Annie Ross left the group in 1962 because of health and personal problems, Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert had to quickly find a replacement so that they could honour their concert commitments. Somewhat improbably, Ross’s substitute was a sari-clad woman: Yolande Bavan, a Sri Lankan Burgher as the descendents of the island’s former Dutch colonisers are known.

album2A few months later, Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan: Recorded Live at Basin St. East hit the stores. In the liner notes, producer George Avakian recounted how Bavan had come to the attention of her new band mates. “[Dave and Jon] met Yolande while she was in London and found that she was a fan of the group’s and had learned several of their intricate arrangements just for fun,” he wrote. “When a serious illness incapacitated Annie Ross a week or two later toward the end of their European tour, Dave and Jon returned to the States without her. After starting their U.S. engagement, they decided they had to take a chance on Yolande. She arrived just in time for a concert at Union College in Schenectady, New York.”

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‘She Sold a Million Records’

Mexican magic by KEN MAC by tajmahalfoxtrot1

temp2A few weeks ago, Christine Holmes left a note on my site that added more details to this article:

“Beryl Templeman was my mother-in-law. She died at age 62. Usually at private parties she sang for Aly Khan, Maharajah of of Cooch Behar and Nizam Hyderbad while in the East. The actor Jack Hawkins urged her to join ENSA. By then, she had already made over 100 records for HMV and had her own radio show with All India Radio.

“She was awarded the Burma Star by the Duke of Edinburgh. She also worked for the American Forces Radio Network in Germany.

“Returning from India she performed at the London Palladium with Ted Heath, toured with Roy Fox and appeared regularly with Jack Jackson at the famous Churchill’s Club in London and at that time was sharing a flat with her friend, Pearl Carr.
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Teddy Weatherford in Shanghai

Click on the image to enlarge it.

Before the African-American pianist Teddy Weatherford arrived in Bombay in 1935, he was a legend at the Canidrome Ballroom in Shanghai, a city whose nightlife, as evident from the clip above, was vibrant and had a famously notorious reputation across the world.

Shanghai was a thriving jazz centre, providing work for scores of bands from the US, Europe and across Asia. “Shanghai flames with millions of flashing jewels at midnight,” boasted the All About Shanghai guidebook, from which this ad is reproduced. “Joy, gin and jazz. There’s nothing puritanical about Shanghai.”

This recording is from the Marco Pacci collection. Weatherford plays piano and sings on this track. For more Weatherford recordings, click here.

How About You by Teddy Weatherford by Taj Mahal Foxtrot

Bengal Bounce

Tangerine by B.E.S.A. SWING TRIO by tajmahalfoxtrot1

BAWFMIn 1939, as Britain entered World War II, it established ENSA – the Entertainment National Service Association – to keep the troops in good spirits. Singers like Vera Lynn and actors like Laurence Olivier toured Europe to perform for field units. In August 1942, three months after the Japanese had driven the British out of Burma, Calcutta was filled with Allied soldiers who had fled South East Asia and were attempting to regroup. That month, members of Calcutta’s British community decided to form BESA – the Bengal Entertainment Services Association.
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Play It Again, Samba

filhos-de-ghandy-2
filhosAs millions of Brazilians take to the streets to demand schools instead of stadiums, here are two musical reminders of that country’s intriguing links with India. The first is a clip of the adventurous Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti and his sideman, Nana Vasconcelos, attempting to find common ground with Indian musicians when they visited Bombay for the Jazz Yatra in 1984.

This piece from NPR is about a samba school from the northern city of Salvador do Bahaia that has long fascinated me: Filhos de Gandhy, or Sons of Gandhi. One of their most prominent members, the pop star Gilberto Gil, performed at Azad Maidan in Mumbai in 2004, as part of the World Social Forum.
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Swinging in Bombay, 1948

Henry Green, Frank Fernand and Hal Green at the Bombay Swing Club debut concert

Henry Green, Frank Fernand and Hal Green at the Bombay Swing Club debut concert

BSW 1959 BrochureOne 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.
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A Nazi Refugee in Bombay

ix9-Creighton

Taj Mahal Foxtrot by naresh.fernandes

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 Taj Mahal 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.
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