Saadi Dilli and All that Jazz


Saadi Dilli and All that Jazz

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

At the sixth edition of Delhi International Jazz Fest 2016 at Nehru Park, I sat among a mixed bag crowd of Dilliwallahs. A Polish jazz band, Lichtański Sound Lab, was playing and in my immediate vicinity were university students in fabindia kurtas, sitting on the grass with cans of Kingfisher and cigarettes in their hands. There were also Delhi socialites, families, elderly jazz aficionados, and women you spot outside Bahrisons and in posh Shahpur Jat cafes.

That day I sensed an all-inclusive collectiveness between these disparate sets of people that can only be wrought by something as universal as music. But the question that floated in between the experimental free jazz set was how had jazz, a genre that is regarded as esoteric and highbrow, managed to attract so many people in a city that is ruled by Badshah?

Jazz, it would seem at first glance, belongs to the more cosmopolitan Mumbai. The city has, after all, deep jazz roots in its history and as Naresh Fernandes said in his book, Taj Mahal Foxtrot, “…it seemed to perfectly embody the spirit of Bombay; a slightly wild port city that knew that a tune sounded better when it made room for instruments of all timbres and tones; a city that could be really pretty when it took things slow but which gave you a thrill when it was working at double time; a city that forced you to make it up as you went along; a city that gave everyone the space to play their own melody the way they heard it.”

It is the people of this city who danced the night away way back in the 1930s, after Leon Abbey, a jazz artist from Minnesota, performed at the Taj Mahal Hotel. It was the first “all-negro band” (sic) to perform in India and it set the city aflutter. By the time the likes of Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, and Joe Morello came to India in 1958, the Jazz Age had arrived and there were numerous jazz troupes playing at the Ritz and its peripheral venues. Doug Ramsey wrote in his book Jazz Matters that India had a great effect on Brubeck’s repertoire and it is said that their meeting with the Goan drummer Leslie Godinho and the percussionist Narayan Koli influenced the time signature in their most famous song “Take Five”. For about three decades, jazz flourished in Bombay but by the dawn of the ’60s, it had died.

The death of jazz by the bay was attributed to many things, most likely of them all being a change in sentiment. After independence, as colonial habits fell away and there was a renewed sense of nationalism, jazz also took a new turn. First, it gradually found its way into the Bollywood industry. Goan musicians, with their roots in Western and jazz music, had a profound sense of orchestral arrangements and full- scale music, and they began to work for Bollywood. Chic Chocolate, a big name from the ’50s tried to bring swing to Bollywood in the form of Ina Mina Dika and Gore Gore but this influence didn’t go far and jazz breathed its last.

Delhi is an unlikely inheritor of jazz in India. Calcutta, where jazz was picked up by the Anglo-Indian community, would have been my vote for Bombay’s successor. Delhi seems more like the place where Mika Singh would sing “Dil mein baji yeh jazz

If there was no jazz by the bay any longer, where had the music gone? The answer, oddly enough, is Delhi.

I’d grown up in Snoozeville, India, a city that neither had a jazz scene, or even people who listened to it. I’d been listening to Miles Davis and Paul Desmond, but never heard jazz live. It was a language that I understood, in which I was well versed, but one in which I’d never conversed with anyone. When I moved to Delhi last year, I didn’t really expect the city to fulfil my jazzy desires. I’d heard about Bombay, about Blue Frog, about how it had taken over where Jazz By The Bay had left off, but I hadn’t heard of any such movement in Delhi.

Jazz came to Delhi in the late ’80s with the rise of Jazz Yatra, a group of musicians from Bombay, who toured the country. The first jazz festival in Delhi took place by the swimming pool at the Ashoka Hotel in 1984. The event was held every alternative year, was renamed to Jazz Utsav in 2005, and has been continuing ever since. The first time I heard jazz in Delhi was at The Piano Man Jazz Club, about a week after I moved to the city, and since that first week, Delhi hasn’t let me down. In the two years since it opened its doors, The Piano Man has hosted more than 600 gigs. While there have been instances where people have demanded Punjabi music at Piano Man, the reception has been fairly impressive. Add to this the evenings at Downstairs at Zo’s in Hauz Khas Village, Le Bistro Du Parc’s “Jazz by the Park” every Wednesday and Friday, Depot48, Gastronomica, and antiSOCIAL HKV that host jazz gigs from time to time. Jazz had invaded the live music scene in Delhi and nobody had told me.

Delhi is an unlikely inheritor of jazz in India. Calcutta, where jazz was picked up by the Anglo-Indian community, would have been my vote for Bombay’s successor. Delhi seems more like the place where Mika Singh would sing “Dil mein baji yeh jazz” than actual jazz would play. Even so, jazz endured, and found a home amid the clamour of the capital. In the continued Mumbai vs Delhi tradition, where the two have been pitted against each other in an insane sense of cosmopolitan rivalry, Delhi seems to have won the jazz battle while Mumbai is realising only now what it has lost.

Now that Blue Frog has followed Jazz By The Bay and pulled its shutters down, odd gigs at places like The Bandra Base, Café Zoe, The Cuckoo Club, Bonobo, and antiSOCIAL Khar are attempting to revive the scene, as is NCPA with its grand concerts, but we are still far from the time when big band music will once again echo through the ballrooms of the Taj and provide the perfect soundtrack for the spirited port city. Maybe the Delhi-Bombay rivalry will actually bear positive fruit for once, and jazz by the bay will no longer be resigned to wistful memory.