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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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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.)

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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Live at the Taj, 1953

What Is This Thing Called Love, Part 1, by British Modern Jazz by tajmahalfoxtrot1

“The rostrum was surrounded with people who were content to stand and watch and that semi-circle kept on increasing by the minute till a stage was reached when people had to stand on chairs to see the bandsmen. The crowd liked the music and they communicated their appreciation by yelling their heads off which in turn exhorted the musicians no end…The consensus of opinion had it that Bombay had not heard better music in many moon.”

The excitement that Coover Guzdar described at the Ballroom of the Taj Mahal Hotel in downtown Bombay on the evening of August 4, 1953, is very audible on the two-part recording of What Is This Thing Called Love above and below. Between trumpet phrases and piano licks, you can hear 500 Bombay fans cheering, clapping and generally being appreciative of the band that had been styled the Swingin’ Britons.

The group had been cobbled together by the editorial board of Blue Rhythm, a magazine that had made its appearance a year earlier. Its editors – Guzdar, Niranjan Jhaveri and Jehangir Dalal – were determined not only to give Bombay the opportunity to read about the music they loved, they also organised concerts to allow the city learn about the latest directions in which jazz was headed.

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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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Chic Chocolate in Aakhri Khat

There are many reasons to watch Chetan Anand’s 1966 film Aakhri Khat, especially if you’re a Bombay nostalgist. The film uses a hand-held camera to follow at 15-month-old toddler lost in the city, dozing where he will and eating what he can.
For reasons that aren’t clear to me, large parts of the film are shot in Mahim, with sweeping vistas of the beach when it was still a vibrant fishing village. There are also shots of the old St Michael’s Church – which was built in 1534. The present structure came up in 1973, six years after the Aakhri Khat was shot.
From the jazz buff’s point of view, the film is noteworthy because the tune Rut Jawan Jawan, performed by Bhupinder, features the trumpet player Chic Chocolate squeezing off bluesy blasts onstage. He died shortly after this film was completed.

Jazz Meri Jaan

Radhika Bordia’s lovely piece about Taj Mahal Foxtrot.

The Man Who Wrote ‘Taj Mahal’

Taj Mahal Foxtrot by naresh.fernandes

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.
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