Tag-Archive for » Calcutta «

The Empress of Park Street

Detail from front cover of Explorations album.

Gimme Music by Pam Crain by tajmahalfoxtrot1

pam_0001 Pam Crain, who passed away on Aug 14, was one of the finest jazz musicians India has produced.  On stage and off, she displayed the generosity that is such an essential characteristic of jazz. Here’s what the writer and filmmaker Ruchir Joshi said on his Facbeook page: “Just heard Pam Crain moved on down the line. RIP Pam. Used to be awed watching her sing. Then, somehow got to know her and [her husband] Don [Saigal] when I was a teenager and I’d go to their house near the St.Xavier’s back gate [in Calcutta] and she’d lend me precious albums without any questions. “Just bring it back when you’re finished listening. Don’t add to the scratches.” Some unknown kid walking away with her rare jazz vinyl and that’s all she ever said to me.

The adman and musician Stanley Pinto had these recollections about the diva:

“In 1961 I was playing in a band at the Hotel Nataraj on Marine Drive, Bombay. One night, a European couple sitting at the far end perked up when we played a jazz standard, clapped, and started sending us one request after another for jazz ballads and songs. more…

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.

The Ghost of the Grand

Earlier this week, I met up with Veronica Balsara,  who I really wish I’d interviewed for the book. She has a sharp memory for quirky detail and vivid way of telling stories that kept me enraptured for an entire morning. Balsara is the daughter of Sybil Hutson, who, along with her siblings Merlyn and Ailsa, performed as the Hutson Sisters during the war years. As Balsara recalled the career of the Hutson Sisters, she also told me about her own life as a dancer at the Calcutta’s Grand Hotel. A couple of hours into our conversation, she dropped in a detail I’d never heard before: the hotel is said to be haunted by the ghost of the great African-American pianist Teddy Weatherford, who died in 1945.

Balsara had first-hand knowledge of this. Late one night, as she was returning her room after a performance, she said, she saw an apparition of Weatherford, wearing a brown suit, looking sadly out of the balcony. At first, she thought that one of the West Indian cricket players staying in the Grand at the time had strayed into the staff quarters. But Balsara soon heard other staff members telling of strange knocks on their doors in the middle of the night and of magical piano music the distance.

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