The Indian Who Discovered Ella


“Boss, this girl has something,” drummer Chick Webb’s male singer (seated on the left) told him. “You must hear her.” Webb couldn’t see the need for that. Though he cut one of the strangest sights in jazz – a drummer bent over by spinal tuberculosis, with partially paralysed legs – Webb was one of the earliest legends of swing. In 1931, by the time he was 26, he was leading the house band at the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and was, in the words of his contemporaries, “the daddy of them all”. He simply couldn’t see why he needed a girl singer.

But his front man was persistent and brought over a singer he’d heard at the Harlem Opera House. The drummer was, of course, bowled over by the 16-year-old Ella Fitzgerald and she spurred the Chick Webb band on to even greater success. Young Bardu Ali, who had discovered Fitzgerald, didn’t do badly either. He would go on to lead his own band, the Bardu Ali Orchestra, and eventually open a rhythm and blues club in Los Angeles. No one could quite have predicted this for the boy who had been born Bahadour Ali, the son of an adventurous embroidery  trader from the Hoogly region in India.

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian AmericaI discovered the existence of Bardu Ali last month as I devoured Vivek Bald’s fascinating Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asia, a rigorous, captivating study of early Indian immigrants to the US [more about it here]. Using ship records, census details and a range of other materials, Bald’s book opens with the journeys of a group of Muslim peddlers who began to visit the US in the closing years of the nineteenth century, making their way from Calcutta to American summer resorts to sell holidaymakers embroidery and other fancy items from India. Some eventually landed up in New Orleans and there, in the cradle of jazz, started families with African-American and Creole women.

Bahadour Ali, Bald discovered, was born to a Bengali-Muslim man named Moksad Ali and his African-American wife, Ella Blackman. Bahadour was the sixth of their nine children. By the time Bahadour was in his teens, the family had moved north to Harlem. Thanks to Bald, I dug out a clip from the Afro-American from 1926, which noted that Ali was appearing at the Regent Theatre as part of a dance team called Baby and Ali. It added that his brother, Abdeen, “is also well-known in theatrical circles”.

bardu8By the 1930s, Bardu Ali was the front man of the Chick Webb band, a job that seemed to involve keeping the crowd in a state of constant excitement. According to Dizzy Gillespie, Ali’s job was to be a “showman” and in his autobiography, the trumpet player explained exactly what the role entailed: “They had a whole group of these guys, Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway…and Bardu Ali, who was in front of Chick Webb’s band. They’d have someone out in front to wave a baton and jump around and dance and maybe sing a song.”

Bardu Ali keeps popping up in the news clips for decades after this. In 1935, the Chicago Defender reported that he had returned from London, where he had been in the cast of the popular revue, Blackbirds. He complained that it was impossible for Americans to make much money in the UK because of “the 25 per cent tax extraction demanded by the king”. He resumed his job as the director of the Webb orchestra.

After Webb died 1939, Ella Fitzgerald took over the drummer’s band, so Ali started his own outfit. “I want my boys to feel like they are part of an integrated unit and not just playing for a salary,” he told one reporter. The Ali band’s debut in April, 1940, at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem was a hit. The Chicago Defender declared that it “clicked right from the opener”. He seems to have recorded at least three tunes, including Bardu’s Boogie (listen to a snatch here) and this one, Boogie Rebob.

With Johnny Otis

With Johnny Otis

Bardu Ali was evidently a man of great passions. In 1936, he attempted to commit suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol because his wife of the time, who isn’t named in the newspaper that reported the incident, refused to give him a divorce. The paper said the Ali wanted to marry a woman named Vivan Harris. In 1941, he was back in the gossip columns because he’d eloped with Billie French, “the ex-Savoy hostess and Jimmy Mitchell’s main queen”. (When the couple called it quits in 1943, French told the press, “We are best of friends.”)

In the 1940s, Ali moved to the US West Coast, where he opened a music club with the blues singer Johnny Otis. He would go on to become the manager of the comedian Red Foxx. Vivek Bald notes, “By the time he died in 1982, Bardu Ali, one of the first children born of the migration of Bengali peddlers to New Orleans, had been involved in multiple phases in the development of twentieth-century black entertainment, from the 1920s vaudeville to swing-era jazz to rhythm and blues.” Get Bald’s excellent book here.

There’s a brief glimpse of Bardu Ali, at 2:01, conducting the band on this episode of the Johnny Otis  show.

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10 Responses
  1. Siddharth says:

    What a story! Thanks for this. Is Bardu the guy playing vibes? Didn’t catch anyone conducting the band.

    • naresh fernandes says:

      He’s behind the shoulder of Lionel Hampton, the vibraphonist. He’s the paunchy guy shaking the maracas and leading the group. There’s only the briefest sighting of him there.

  2. caroline anthoney says:

    Wow! Could I get this information sent to my mail so that my husband who is a major jazz buff can read this and I could also send this to uncle in canada who was a part of the Calcutta music scene in the 60’s, 70’s,and 80’s. He was a piano player and would play in some bands..Park Street.

  3. Shirmaine Ali says:

    WOW! This is so exciting to me as Bahadour Ali is/was my husbands uncle…my husband was named Bardu Ali until it was learned a few years later that Bardu was a stage name and his uncle’s given name was Bahadour and thus his parents legally changed his name to Bahadour Ali..he has a picture of himself with Red Foxx, one of the people his uncle managed.. .we’ve read the passage in a book entitled Black Routes to Islam…my husband is one of ten children and all were named after family relatives..he also had a brother named Abdene.

    • Armando Tirado says:

      It is crazy how small the world is. I am one of Tila’s great grand children. Bardu had a big part in raising my Grandmother Mary. She recently passed and one of the things that was left to me was Bardu’s passport from the days he was in the Chick Webb Orchestra.

  4. Linda Bell says:

    I was born in Nov. 1942 out of wedlock my mother met Bardu at the Apollo Theater I met my father in 1973 at NBC studio when he was the manager for Rede Foxx my husband met him He admitted he was my father, he never wanted to develope a relationship after a few visits that was the last time i saw or talked to him.

  5. Martin Hall says:

    Wow! Bardu was my dad’s uncle . We actually lived down the street and use to visit him and aunt Tila. Small world. Still remember him giving us candy every time we visited.

    • Shirmaine Ali says:

      Hello….I was reading your note about your dad’s uncle….may I ask what is your dads name? my husband is Bahadour Ali, and was named after his uncle, Bahadour Ali (Bardu Ali). Seems they maybe cousins?! He (Bardu) used to live in New York….is that where you remember him from your childhood? About 2 years ago, my husbands sister went to New Orleans for a big family reunion with the “Moksad-Ali” side of the family. looking forward to hearing from you either on this website or my email-

  6. Aaron Almon says:

    What a wonderfully fascinating article! I ran across the name of Bardu Ali while researching info on his granddaughter, Angela Ali, who is a gorgeous great dancer/actress/singer that I first noticed in Spoke Lee’s movie, “School Daze.” As a singer & dancer she had such talent & charisma that just jumped off the screen. Yet, I have discovered that she is quite the enigma. With such immense talent, obviously inherited from her grandad, she seems to shun the spotlight. Since her film debut in “School Daze,” she has appeared in various small roles in tv & films such as “The Best Man,” “New Jack City,” “Caught,” “Center Stage,” etc. But there is hardly no info on her on the internet, other than a little general info, & absolutely no photos. It is wonderful to see her rich heritage through her awesome grandfather, one of the cornerstones of Black American entertainment.

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