Rudy Rides Again

This photo, featuring Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn shaking hands with the great tenor saxophone player Rudy Cotton in Delhi in 1963, was sent to me recently by Percy Khatow, the Indian musician’s son. As regular readers of this site know, Rudy Cotton was born Cawas Khatau and descended from a long line of producers of Parsi drama. I had the pleasure of speaking to Percy Khatow briefly when I visited the UK last fortnight. Though he has a condition that makes it difficult for him to conduct long conversations, Percy called to ask if I’d received the photos and brochures he’d taken the trouble to email me.


Sadly, Percy’s sister, Zenia, had passed away just three weeks before I spoke to him.  Despite the recent loss, Zenia’s husband, Tony Parr, was generous with his time and sent me a long message about the family. Rudy Cotton married Nargiz Nanabhai Balaporia in 1938. “They had two children, my late wife Zena and Percy,” Tony wrote. Zena was born in Rangoon in 1939, and Percy was born in Bombay in 1946.

I’d tracked Percy Khatow down thanks to Lana Whitney, who sent me a message from Australia a few months ago. “I often find myself Googling musicians that I’ve known and Rudy Cotton in particular,” she wrote. “I was born in Delhi and grew up there with my mother who was Anglo-Indian, originally from Calcutta.  My father was Slava Tairoff, a Russian musician who grew up in Shanghai and ended up in India and to meeting my mother.  He had a big band and a lot of musicians I knew had played with him at some time.  He then went to Ceylon and then on to Singapore where he played at the Tanglin Club for a couple of decades.  Rudy and Slava were friends and I was good friends with Rudy’s children.  In fact, his daughter Zena just died in the UK this month.  We were also friends with Ken and Doris Cumines.”

Lana added: “Rudy is the reason I’m so mad about the tenor sax, in particular, and I still reckon he’s up there with the best,” she wrote. “He took me to a Duke Ellington concert at Delhi Uni and although Bill Strayhorn played that night I was a very happy girl especially as a few musicians including Paul Gonsalves went back to Laguna, the restaurant where Rudy was employed, and jammed all night.”

 Lana isn’t the only person who remembered Rudy Cotton fondly.  The lawyer Soli Sorabjee first heard Cotton play at a jam session in the Mumbai suburb of Chembur in 1953 and was blown away. “Rudy’s performance left me in no doubt that was the greatest living Indian tenor saxophonist,” Sorabjee later wrote. “His tone and his phrasing were so close to Lester Young that I could have sworn I was listening to one of Prez’ solos.”

Cotton moved to Delhi early in his career and later found a patron and friend in Sorabjee, who would send him Parsi food, especially when he was ill.

Cotton’s sense of humour, Sorabjee recalls, “had a Parsi touch about it”. The saxophonist “had jokes for all occasions and for persons of different ages and backgrounds. As a raconteur, he was par excellence. It was a treat to watch him relate incidents, his eyes, his gestures, his movements”. As a child, Sorabjee’s son Hormazd, who is now a successful magazine publisher, would beg Cotton to repeat a standard witticism: “God asked Moses to come forth. But he slipped on a banana peel and came fifth.”

Rudy died in Delhi in 1985.

Rudy is among the musicians on this version of Three Dreams, by Teddy Weatherford and his Band. This track, from the Marco Pacci collection, features the singer Kitty Walker.

Three Dreams by Teddy Weatherford by Taj Mahal Foxtrot

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7 Responses
  1. Ashwin Panemangalore says:

    I heard Rudy live at the Laguna in the early 60s He was part of the same band which had Manuel on piano I cant remember the rest Rudy had modelled himself entirely on Prez Bless his soul

  2. Dear Mr Fernandes,

    It is very heartwarming that someone should care enough to document India’s almost-lost heritage in Western popular music, and in the process those of the often minority-community people involved in it. I am writing to inform you of the following, in case they are of interest to you:
    1. The sheetmusic compositions of K CSen of the Calcutta Aloha boys, or some of them, are in his biography _The Absolute Anglo-Indian_ (2001?), much reduced, but blow-upable, and his family in the UK probably has the originals.

    2. The opening oftheBengali film _Tasher Ghar_ (1957), on youtube opens with what looks to me like a real floor show with real musicians, not a film set, in Prince’s in the Grand Hotel. At the piano there is a shot of what looks to me like one of the people whom you document, though I cannot quite identify him: you, or your network would be able, however.

    3. In the same area as popular music, there was an issue of _The Illustrated Weekly_ in 1970-1971, with the cabaret act Leno and Mehmood on the cover, about cabaret dancers. In theunlikely event that you do not know it, it might be useful to you.

    If such snippets as these are useful to you, I will send others as they occur to me. Please let me know either way.

    Sincerely,

    Sanjay Sircar

  3. Max Foorman says:

    I lived in Singapore from 1945 to 1951. Slava Tairoff and I became good friends but we lost touch after I left for the US. Would like to know where he is realizing the many years that have passed. Would appreciate any information.
    Thanks.

  4. Delnaz Roohani says:

    Rudy cotton is my great grandfather. If anyone knows information about his life and has memories to share please email me. Our family would like to create a movie on the Khatau brothers and their life.

    Thanks guys and hoping for positive emails.

    • upahar says:

      dear Delnaz….I just saw this, and I have also been interested in Rudy since I found out a few years ago that he was my natural father (my mother was an englishwoman born in India and I grew up in England… though I have spent a great part of my life in India.Sadly, i never knew either of them, i was an adopted child….Anyway, no use for you or your film…but I just wanted to mention this….All the best to you, if you ever do manage to make a film about the Khatau, please let me know, it would be fascinating for me. Love xx

    • P. MADHUSUDAN says:

      Dear Delnaz: I had the honour of working in the LAGUNA Restaurant, New Delhi when Rudy Cotton’s band was playing. I also had the honour of meeting some of the musicians of the DUKE ELLINGTON Group thanks to Rudy. We were good friends and I still remember his great jokes and his famous numbers. I used to wonder how such a lean person could excel with the Tenor Sax. I am in the process of putting together some memorabilia about Rudy and his life as a musician. Would appreciate any inputs. E-mail me at lalgudi1972@gmail.com

  5. KAMAL ROOHANI says:

    Rudy Cotton was my dad (Percy Khatow’s) eldest brother. If there is anything that anyone knows on Percy and Sammy pleas let me know cause I am trying to write a book on the FAMOUS KHATOW BROTHERS and I would like if someone could throw light on his life.

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