Improvising away from discrimination: How jazz was thriving in 1920s India

The so-called ‘Indo-jazz’ scene goes back a long way. Star improvisers of the East and West have always taken a fascination in each other’s music, and many of the genre’s established masterpieces, such as Shakti’s Natural Elements and John Coltrane’s Impressions, came to fruition half a century ago. However, few seem to realise that unique strains of jazz were being played in India before Coltrane or McLaughlin had even been born.

It’s hard to place precise timestamps on the ultimate origins of jazz, with many scholars pointing to the cultural melting pot of late 19th-century New Orleans as the focal point for foundational innovation. But what it certain is that the music spread like wildfire soon after its progenesis. Some of this can be ascribed to the naturally outward-looking, exploratory tendencies of those who dedicate themselves to a life of improvisation. But the fuller story is far less romantic – jazz would not have gone global so quickly if its practitioners had not faced such crushing, inescapable racial discrimination back home.

The 1963 Civil Rights Act was as far away in the future for early jazzers as it is in the past for us, and accounts of the period give a grim picture of life in Jim Crow America. Black musicians faced deprivation, violence, and constant humiliation, with many recalling how they were made to enter the back doors of the venues they performed in.

Even a generation later, in classic jazz’s ‘golden era’ of the 1950s, drummer Art Blakey was brutally beaten by police for the crime of sitting in the wrong bus seat, while Miles Davis was told to ‘move on’ by the NYPD while taking a cigarette break outside the legendary Birdland club…where he was headlining that night. In his words:

“I said, ‘Move on, for what? I’m working downstairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis,’ and I pointed to my name on the marquee all up in lights. He said, “I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.” I just looked at his face real straight and hard, and I didn’t move. Then he said, “You’re under arrest!”

He reached for his handcuffs, but he was stepping back…I kind of leaned in closer because I wasn’t going to give him no distance so he could hit me on the head…A crowd had gathered all of a sudden from out of nowhere, and this white detective runs in and BAM! hits me on the head. I never saw him coming. Blood was running down the khaki suit I had on.”

Billie Holiday’s band were reputedly forced to wear masks so as not to offend the supposed dignity of their audiences in Detroit – presumably seeing black men openly performing such extraordinary feats of musicianship would have created unbearable cognitive dissonance for them (although…what did they think was going on?).

Jazz history overflows with tales of addiction, violence, and targeted state persecution – it goes without saying that life as a segregated club performer was inherently unpredictable and unstable for those of all ethnicities. And besides, what white jazz musician wants to be legally separated from their bandmates while in public?

So it’s no surprise that early jazz musicians fast looked beyond the country’s borders for new opportunities. The genre has been imbued with pan-African sentiments since its inception (check out the superb Africa in America: Rock, Jazz & Calypso compilation for starters), but many artists looked further East still.

The Dan Hopkins Syncopated Five toured India in 1922, and may not even have been the first to do so. When interviewed by the Illustrated Weekly of India, legendary Anglo-Indian horn player Hal Green recounted that “the roots of jazz were planted…India in the years 1917–1922. The bands consisted of piano, violin, cello, string bass and drums, and they played rag-time, foxtrots and Viennese waltzes mostly”.

Sociologist Stephane Dorin’s paper Jazz and race in colonial India discusses the importance of developments in Calcutta. His research documents how the city’s Grand Hotel hired Canadian Jimmie Lequime as their bandleader in 1926, tempting him away from a previous engagement in Shanghai. This is a very long time ago in musical terms – John Coltrane and Miles Davis were both born that year, and released most of their major works in the 1950s, a full quarter-century later.

However, life was not necessarily much more straightforward for African-American musicians when they arrived in India. Playing before the advent of the recording industry, they were often totally reliant on the whims and prejudices of British colonial occupiers and the princely elite, who tended to see ‘black culture’ through the prisms of primitivism, military occupations, and minstrel shows, which had been bringing their crude racial caricatures to India since the 1830s.

It would take a few years for black musicians to gain acceptance as bandleaders in India as well as for being able members of the supporting cast (indeed, the ethnicities of some of the artists above appears to be unclear). They also faced more practical challenges, including basic healthcare – the career of West Virginia-born pianist Teddy Weatherford, who settled in Calcutta after touring destinations as far-flung as Indonesia, was cut tragically short when he died of cholera in 1945.

The geopolitical turmoil of WW2 would eventually throw the whole scene into chaos – in 1942 the U.S. decided to evacuate all its citizens from India. While the quality of the music certainly suffered in the short term, the sudden exodus did help to shine a spotlight on local innovators, allowing subsequent branches of Indian jazz to grow in many directions.

Goan trumpeter Chic Chocolate, nicknamed for his dark complexion, became famous in Bombay for holding dramatic, emotional concerts – and saxophonist Braz Gonsalves, another Goan, became an icon of the Calcutta scene. And as a jazz guitarist I have great admiration for Carlton Kitto, Calcutta’s bebop master of the 1960s (for more see the website Taj Mahal Foxtrot, and the jazz section of my Darbar article How your favourite genres chime with Indian classical).

It’s hard to know what early Indian jazz really sounded like. Many say that the Bombay provided the most fertile ground, recounting how open-eared locals would trade phrases with visiting virtuosi in the city’s ballrooms and living rooms. But we’ll never really be able to judge for ourselves – sadly, very little of the era’s music made it onto record.

However, something of its essence can be sampled in works such as Raga Jazz Style, an intriguing album led by famed filmi composition duo Shankar-Jaikishan. Their arrangements for sax, sitartabla, piano, guitar, and drums are taut, but still leave ample space for sophisticated cross-cultural improvisation.

Western instruments stay within the bounds of the raga, while Ustad Rais Khan (nephew of Vilayat) brings a distinctly bluesy touch to sudden bursts of sitar fury. Though recorded in 1964 (the year of Trane’s A Love Supreme), many of the album’s musicians had cut their teeth performing in Bombay’s luxury hotels over the previous decades.

Leslie Godinho, whose powerful kitwork underpins Raga Jazz Style, went on to play with a range of Indian and American stars including Dave Brubeck’s drummer Joe Morello. Some even say Morello picked up the beat for Take Five after jamming with Godinho in a Delhi hotel room in the 1950s (although Dr. Trichy Sankaran told me that it may also have come from his guru Palani Subramania Pillai…and I’ve heard others cite Turkish folk music as the origin).

The near-century of Indian jazz serves to remind us just how broad the social scope of the music is. Jazz, while inextricably African American music, having arisen from the inimicable experiences of those Black artists who shaped it, is not a single tradition. It is comprised, in Dorin’s words, of “multiple stories, sometimes parallel, sometimes divergent, of the…social worlds where it was played and listened to. In these locations, local musicians and audiences developed different, if not competing, definitions of jazz. India is one of the quite unknown places in its history…”.

● Read nextIndian classical ‘protest music’: two snapshots from the North and South – anti-corporate ragamalika & the IPTA’s progressive seditions

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