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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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An Easter Sermon

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.

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Still in the AIR

All India Radio Signature Tune by tajmahalfoxtrot1

 

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”.
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Freedom’s Song

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.

(Thanks to Somini Sengupta for finding this charming piece of animation.)

Chic Chocolate’s Too Much in Love

  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.

This track is from the Marco Pacci collection. The vocalist is Charles Sheppard.

Too Much in Love by CHIC & HIS MUSIC MAKERS by Taj Mahal Foxtrot

India Was a Revelation

“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.
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A White Christmas in Calcutta


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.
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The French Connection

Not much is know about Georges Leonardi, the trombone player on this track by Teddy Weatherford and his Band titled I’ve Got a Bone to Pick With You, except that he was French.

He seems to have come to Bombay in 1933 with the Jos Ghisleri band to perform at the Taj Mahal Hotel and stayed on after Ghisleri returned to Paris. That year, The Times of India described him as a “first-prize winner of the Conservatoire de Paris”.

In his excellent memoir Trumpet Story, Bill Coleman, who came to Bombay as part of Leon Abbey’s band in the mid-1930s, described Leonardi as a “straight man” who could play what was written, but couldn’t improvise. Coleman adds that Leonardi also played the violin, “which was nice for some of the acts we accompanied”.

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Gymkhana Jive

Like many colonial towns, pre-war Rangoon had its share of clubs at which the upper classes sought diversion. The Pegu was the town’s most prestigious establishment, but the Rangoon Gymkhana Club,  on Halpin Road, built in 1877, also had its share of A-Listers.

William Gordon Burn-Murdoch, a painter and explore who visited Burma in the early 1920s, seemed rather amused by the balls at the Gymkhana Club. “I danced with ladies in ladies in Gainsborough hats, their feathers tickling my eye, in pork pie hats and Watteaus, and picture hats like sparrows’ nests,” he wrote in his book From Edinburgh to India and Burmah, published in 1924. “There were dumpy little ladies and tall stately Junos ie compared with Eastern women. It was so funny to see men in men in suits of blue serge, tweeds or tussore silk, whirling around with ladies in muslins of every lovely colour…It is hot now, they say, but look at the fun they have, especially the ladies.”

I haven’t been able to find much information about the bands that played at the Rangoon Gymkhana Club, except for this small snippet in Reuben Solomon’s story about his early life. “Gigs in Rangoon included playing with Wally Fagin’s band at the Rangoon Gymkhana Club and wherever a live band was needed,” he wrote. ” In spite of my tender years, I managed to get quite a lot of work. ”

These recordings by the Rangoon Gymkhana Club Orchestra feature Fagin as leader and orchestra, but the labels don’t give much information about anything else. It isn’t clear when they were recorded and though they’re stamped “Made in India”, it isn’t apparent in which city these sides were cut.

They’re from the Marco Pacci collection.

Melancholy baby by RANGOON GYMKHANA CLUB by tajmahalfoxtrot1

Trade winds by RANGOON GYMKHANA CLUB by tajmahalfoxtrot1

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