This week’s archival track: the excellent saxophonist Braz Gonsalves and his group playing an original, noirish composition called Impulse. It was recorded in 1972. The generous Kingshuk Niyogi found it in a second-hand store in Delhi and gave it to me. Many thanks, Niyogiji. Bonus: a Mario sketch of Braz in full flow at a Jazz Yatra in the 1980s.
Taj Mahal Foxtrot was released at the Goa Literary Festival last week and will in the stores in a couple of days. The audio guide section of this website is now functional. It contains tracks that are discussed in the book. Each week, I’m going to highlight a different tune in this space. To begin with, here’s a recording by Leon Abby and the Savoy Bearcats called Stampede, which was made in 1926.
Regular readers of this site will know that Abbey, a violinist from Minnesota, caused a great deal of excitement when he performed in Bombay in 1935 because his outfit was the first “all-negro band” to play in India. Abbey didn’t make any recordings when he was in India, but here he is, directing his Savoy Bearcats a decade before he sailed for the subcontinent. The 1920s and ’30 were a period of rapid evolution for jazz, so his style had probably changed a great deal after this recording was made. He was the band’s director, which means that his violin isn’t heard here.
Taj Mahal Foxtrot, which will be launched at the Goa Literary Festival tomorrow evening, takes its name from the tune above recorded in April 1936 by Crickett Smith and his Symphonians, the gents in that photo. They had been booked by the management of Taj Mahal hotel in Apollo Bunder to perform there for the 1936 summer season.
But the man by whom I’m most intrigued isn’t in the picture. He’s the person who wrote the lyrics and the music. The record credits list his name as Mena Silas. Until a couple of years ago, I knew very little about Mena Silas. From an internet auction site that sold sheet music, I knew that Silas had been writing tunes in Bombay from at least 1930. That’s when LM Furtado on Kalbadevi Road published the score for one of his pieces called Don’t Tell Me Now. The cover of the score bore the illustration of a sophisticated couple dancing in evening dress. more...
Not so long ago, I bought an album by the trumpet player Bill Coleman, who had performed in Bombay during the 1936-’37 season as part of violinist Leon Abbey’s band. The earliest recordings on the collection were made just a few months after Coleman returned to Europe and I was delighted to see that one of the tracks was titled Back Home Again in India.
It turned out to be a tantalising typo. When I slipped the disc into my CD player, I realised that the tune was actually Back Home Again in Indiana, the song Coleman is performing in this clip. Nonetheless, it’s clear that India held a special place in the trumpet player’s heart. Fifty years after his engagement at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Coleman painted a vivid picture of the life he and his wife Beezie led during their six-month stay in Bombay in his excellent memoir, Trumpet Story. more...
[An excerpt from Taj Mahal Foxtrot, which appears as the cover story in Mint/Lounge today.]
As a teenager in the Goan village of Curchorem, Franklin Fernandes spent long hours practising the trumpet with only one goal in mind: he wanted to “play like a negro”. It wasn’t an ambition his teacher, Maestro Diego Rodrigues, would have understood. Like all teachers in Goa’s parochial schools, Rodrigues coached his charges in musical theory and instructed them in the art of playing hymns and Western classical music. Fernandes was a precocious talent. His mastery of the violin was recognised early but the young man, to his teacher’s dismay, soon developed a fascination for the clear, ringing sounds of the trumpet. It wasn’t long before Fernandes became a regular member of the village marching band, playing at parish feasts, weddings and—in New Orleans style—at funerals too. However, unlike the New Orleans bands famed for their improvised flights of fancy, Fernandes’ village orchestra was, he recalled, a “paper band—they played what was written”.
Soon, even this was to become trickier as new instructions began to appear on the music scores: glissando, mute, attack. It was all very baffling. “But when we heard the records, we knew how to play the notes,” Fernandes said. The thick shellac records that set him off on his journey of discovery bore the names of Ellington, Armstrong and Cab Calloway, and Fernandes grew addicted to hot music. Jazz, he said, gave him “freedom of expression”. He still looked at the sheet music, of course, but he knew that it could take him only so far. “Like Indian music, jazz can’t be written,” he said. “You have to feel it. There are 12 bars, but each musician plays it differently. You play as you feel—morning you play different, evening you play different.”