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Saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins in Powai

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“I had no idea there were so many ashrams around Bombay!” More than four decades after he and his friend Jehangir Dalal got into a car and drove to more than a dozen religious retreats, Nirajan Jhaveri still remembered the day in 1968 vividly. The two men were among Bombay’s most obsessive jazz fans. As students at St Xavier’s College in the 1950s, they’d published India’s first jazz magazine, Blue Rhythm.  They were so crazy about the music that they were quite willing to drive for hours to chase down the rumour that a famous American jazz musician was studying yoga somewhere in the Bombay region.

After several unsuccessful halts, the two men eventually found themselves in Powai, at the mission run by Swami Chinmayananda. That’s how they came to find the legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who had taken a second break from his sky-high career to study yoga.  To hear Rollins tell it, he’d come upon the ashram quite by accident.

“I had been interested in metaphysical organisations and things like Buddhism, yoga and Sufism,” he said to one interviewer. “I felt like I needed to get more into self-improvement and the greater purposes and meaning of life. I had been investigating yoga since the ’50s, so I had been primed to make this voyage. It wasn’t something I did as a whim. I had separated from my wife for a while, and the time was right to make that move.”

Having read quite a bit about yoga and various yoga masters and teachers, Rollins says that he took his horn, a bag or two and booked a flight to Bombay. “On the last leg of the flight, I was talking to some Indian people and one fella knew something about ashrams.,” he recalled. “He suggested this particular place to me just outside of Bombay and this swami, Chinmayamananda.”

This is how he described a typical day at the ashram: “There were yoga students there from Europe and elsewhere and we had our meals and everything. When the swami came there were lectures. We studied the literature texts from the Vedanta. We studied the Upanishads and Yoga Sutras and all of these writings from antiquity. We weren’t doing hatha yoga so much — hatha yoga is the positions. We were mainly studying the texts, and when we didn’t have sessions, we’d endlessly discuss things among ourselves.”

Though he did perform a concert for the other students at the ashram, no one else in Bombay was privileged enough to hear the maestro play his horn. But he took trips to town with his new friends and, a decade later, they persuaded him to perform at the inaugural edition of the Jazz Yatra series of concerts in 1978.

Here’s an interview in which Rollins talks about his time in Bombay.

Fifty years after his trip to India, 83-year-old Rollins continues to practice yoga. Early in May, he released Vol 3 of his album series Road Shows, which includes a track titled Patanjali, named after the sage who is thought to have compiled the Yoga Sutras.

Meanwhile, here’s a collection of photos from his 1968, obtained from the album of Jehangir Dalal.

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A Nazi Refugee in Bombay

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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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The Myrtle Mystery Is Solved

South American Way by Paquita & Zarate by tajmahalfoxtrot1

Myrtle Watkins

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A few months ago, I wrote here about the singer Myrtle Watkins, who performed at the Taj in Bombay during the winter of 1935. She had made her reputation as a jazz singer in Europe but then, in a transformation I couldn’t quite track in the archives, seems by the late 1930s to have started performing Latin American music under the name Paquita, along with her husband, the Mexican violinist Sam Zarate.

Between November 1941 and December 1942, Paquita and Zarate cut more than a dozen discs in India, backed by the African-American pianist Teddy Weatherford, like the one above,  South American Way.  The confusion about the performer’s identify arose when a discography published in the jazz magazine Storyville said that Paquita was actually the stage name for Myrtle Watkins. But I wasn’t able to find other evidence for this, and the photos I had of Paquita and Watkins (reproduced above) were too indistinct to be able to make a clear identification either way.

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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.

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