One of my earliest childhood memories is being taken by my parents for a monthly treat to Volga restaurant on Mumbai’s Churchgate Road. There, I would order a chocolate milk-shake, request the band to play As Time Goes By, my favourite tune, and insist that my parents dance to it on the small dance floor. I remember it all so clearly: the delicious, frosty blast of air-conditioning that hit you as you stepped into the restaurant, the band’s crimson jackets and bow-ties, and most of all, the deep, vibrant melody of the baritone sax, which made me feel weak at the knees, and which has, ever since, remained one of my favourite sounds: childhood loves die hard. I have just learned from Naresh Fernandes that that baritone saxophonist of my childhood must have been the great Hecke Kingdom: it was his band that apparently played at Volga during that period, while other famous jazz musicians were playing at the other restaurants down Churchgate Road — Braz Gonzalves at Venice, Dorothy Jones at Berry’s, ‘Dizzy Sal’ Saldanha at The Society, and so on. This knowledge gives me the warm glow that I was right there when a small part of Mumbai’s history was being made.
Taj Mahal Foxtrot started out serendipitously, with a magazine article Fernandes was writing in 2003, about a great romance between two Mumbai jazz musicians of the ’60s. He happened to interview another musician of the time for details of the romance and, halfway through the interview, realised that there was a gold-mine of information about the history of Indian jazz waiting to be dug up. And that is what he did, over the next eight years, in an admirable labour of love.
Fernandes traces the birth of jazz in India back to the 1930s, when a new French law restricted opportunities for foreign musicians to play in France. As a result, many American jazz musicians, who would have otherwise been playing in Paris, began to look elsewhere — including Mumbai and Shanghai, the two most cosmopolitan and exciting cities of Asia at the time. The first to arrive in Mumbai, in 1935, was the flamboyant Leon Abbey, who came to play at the Taj Mahal Hotel, with his “all-Negro” band. They were a big hit, and stayed on for a couple of years.
And they were soon followed by a stream of other foreign jazz bands who created a huge appetite for jazz among the city’s elites.
More importantly, however, the jazz music they brought inspired many Indian musicians — predominantly Goans, with their innate musical talent and Westernised sensibilities — who began to set up their own jazz bands. Thus, there was an explosion of jazz, which continued through the ’30s and ’40s. But then, in 1951, something happened that took India’s relationship with jazz to a whole different level.
Actor-director-producer Bhagwan Dada and composer C Ramachandran, who were making Albela, invited the well-known Goan jazz musician, Chic Chocolate, to help create westernised numbers for their film, like Shola Jo Bhadke and Deewana Parwana. Albela became one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, and that opened the doors for an increasing number of Goan musicians to join the Hindi film industry, initially to play in the orchestras, and later to “arrange” the music scores: musicians like Frank Fernand, Sebastian D’Souza and — yes — Anthony Gonsalves. It was thus Goan musicians like these who were responsible for democratising jazz in India, and taking it to places like Rajnandgaon and Jhumri Talayya. Taj Mahal Foxtrot is more than just a history of jazz, it is a social history of Mumbai, which explains why that jazz movement could have happened only in that city, at that time.
One of Fernandes’s minor achievements has been to unearth, during his research, the story of the real Anthony Gonsalves, whose name is immortalised in that brilliantly kooky Amitabh Bachchan song from Amar Akbar Anthony. It turns out that the real Gonsalves was a pioneer of the art of scoring Indian music while using a Western-style orchestra — which, of course, had a great impact on Bollywood. Many years after he’d faded away, the composer Pyarelal (as in Lakshmikant-Pyarelal), while working on Amar Akbar Anthony, decided to pay tribute to the man who’d once taught him to play the violin. And hence, “My name is Anthony Gonsalves….”
The term tour de force, according to the dictionary, means “an exceptional achievement by an artist, author, or the like, that is unlikely to be equalled by that person or anyone else”. And when I think of Taj Mahal Foxtrot that is the term that comes to mind. It is a wonderful piece of scholarship, and one can’t help being awed at the kind of research that went into it. But, more importantly, that scholarship is presented in an extremely engaging manner, not just in terms of the narrative, but also the wealth of accompanying images, the accompanying CD, with its rare music tracks, and, of course, the extremely rich, “sticky” companion website. If I ever write a book myself, please God, let it be like this.
The reviewer is Senior VP and Executive Creative Director of JWT Mindset
TAJ MAHAL FOXTROT The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age Naresh Fernandes Roli Books 192 pages; Rs 1,295