Hot Music In A Bombay Hotel

A book that delights in how jazz—both as music and worldview—once infiltrated the emerging, cosmopolitan metropolis of Bombay

01 December, 2011

ON THE EVENING OF 14 AUGUST 1947, in the last moments before the stroke of midnight, while Jawaharlal Nehru was probably clearing his throat before facing the Constituent Assembly, the following words were passionately delivered to a small group of distinguished people in Bombay: “Today, we join the community of the free people of the world. The flag which was once the symbol of rebellion has become the flag of the people. Let us hope that under it this country of ours will find peace, dignity and greatness again.” Presumably, the gathering then fell silent as Nehru delivered his monumental lines. “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes …” And at some point, in the tumult of those historic few minutes, the time did come for that small crowd to roar in approval of the ecstatic version of ‘Jana Gana Mana’ blaring off the stage.

The speaker of those less known words was DF Karaka, aesthete, libertine and, later, a pioneering journalist and the founder of the tabloid Current. The distinguished gathering included the then Mayor of Bombay, the preeminent industrialist JRD Tata and Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit. The venue was the ballroom at the Taj Mahal Hotel at the southern tip of Bombay. The orchestra that burst into ‘Jana Gana Mana’, the song that was yet to be confirmed as India’s national anthem, was a rare amalgam of the bands of Chic Chocolate and Micky Correa.

The following evening, a banquet was held at the Karachi Club to toast the founder of the newly created nation of Pakistan. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah had made sure that one of his favourite musicians from Bombay was there to complete his experience of Independence. Ken Mac and his band had been flown in by a special Tata Airlines flight, and held the bandstand. As the evening unfolded, Ken Mac sang Jinnah’s favourite song, ironically called ‘The End’. The band played its heart out.


Like most people, I knew none of these facts. They came to my attention as I breathlessly read the remarkable Taj Mahal Foxtrot. Subtitled ‘The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age’, the book explores with gusto a strand of musical creativity and expression that deeply enriches our understanding of urban modernity in Bombay. The charm of the story lies in its meticulous attention to the details, each of which in itself might amount to very little but, when strung together, make for a fascinating alternative history. Jazz did not take over Bombay but its enticing cosmopolitan appeal was always there—like an offstage presence, a prompter in the wings. While much of Bombay’s history is well-documented through accounts of its towering, nation-building figures, especially rich Parsi industrialists and philanthropists, lesser characters such as Chic Chocolate, Micky Correa and Ken Mac captured the whimsy of more than the few people actually present at the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Karachi Club on those two evenings. Imagining freedom, in the century that preceded Independence, had an aspect that has not, till now, been probed and made meaningful.

The idea of ‘freedom’ as a transgression is a central strand in Naresh Fernandes’s book. Jazz gave voice to this aspiration for the ‘modern’. The audiences for jazz in the early and mid-20th century were a restless bunch of hedonists, who may have seemed apolitical but did, in fact, embrace a culture that was born in resistance. The main Indian practitioners of this transgressive music were Roman Catholics, many of them from Goa, a Portuguese colony nestling within India, the jewel in the British Crown. Their upbringing provided them with basic training in Western musical forms, along with a primal distaste for their own colonised state, and rapture for jazz, that music that just “swung”.

Who were these people with names like Chic Chocolate? And Ken Mac? Chic Chocolate was the stage name of a Goan Catholic trumpet player who, before he became a music director for 1950s Hindi movies, was a mainstay of Micky Correa’s band at the Taj Mahal Hotel. Ken Mac was an Anglo-Indian bandleader who played “dance music with a touch of swing”. Taj Mahal Foxtrot tells the story of a music that was nipping at the cosmopolitan edges of Bombay: a music called jazz.

‘Jazz’ is a mysterious word, wonderfully evocative, and tantalisingly elusive. It has no definitive etymology, even if some pedants insist that it was slang for copulation. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, formed in 1916 and credited with the first recordings to be considered ‘jazz’, started life as the The Original Dixieland Jass Band. The spelling of the key word was malleable; what was nonnegotiable was the band’s insistence on being labeled ‘the original’.

Bombay got a taste of ‘the original’, the real thing, as early as 1935. Leon Abbey, a black violin player from Minnesota, brought his band to the Taj Mahal Hotel. Not only was Abbey considered one of the top jazz acts in the US in the 1920s, members of his band had played with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and with such luminaries as Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins. An ‘all-Negro’ band performing at one of the swankiest venues in 1930s colonial Bombay, not to mention Abbey’s long stint in the city, is a piece of cultural history of colossal significance. At that time, in many parts of the United States, Leon Abbey and his band would have had to use facilities labelled ‘Colored’. As Fernandes reminds you, the existence of the Taj Mahal Hotel itself was a response to an act of racism. It was built by JN Tata after he was denied entry into an all-European hotel.

Leon Abbey and his band, 1935.

In Bombay, Abbey and his ‘all-Negro’ band possibly only experienced racism in the audience’s confused understanding of their musicality. The downbeat does not belong in Bombay—audiences do not clap on the ‘two’ and the ‘four’ of the basic blues beat. They insistently clap on the ‘one’. The Times of India made the point that Leon Abbey’s band was “too hot” and “confusing”. “The band is teaching us in Bombay what rhythm means,” the paper declared. The sound, however, was surely seductive. Reading Taj Mahal Foxtrot, you gain an appreciation for the sense of freedom that people like JRD Tata and MA Jinnah must have felt listening to this hot music in a stylish Bombay hotel. Alongside, there was an air of the forbidden in the sinuous melodies, the brazen horns, the low-class origins of most of the musicians and the urge to abandon oneself to sensual dance moves.

DF ‘Dosoo’ Karaka, the man who made the speech at the moment of Independence, wrote autobiographical narratives in which he expressed a curious ambivalence about the hot and trendy lifestyle that grew around jazz music. On the one hand: “With [jazz] has come the craze for slimming—snaky hips and Arden complexions and Veet under the armpits.” He thoroughly disapproved of these women “who wear short hair, sip cocktails and drawl”. Out of the other side of his mouth: “[Leon Abbey’s music] was now soft, slow, languid; now hard, grating syncopation.” Karaka gawked at a couple dancing sensually and wrote afterwards, “She is beautiful, so believing. He is strong, manly … they look into each other’s eyes. So warm. So romantic.” As for himself, he admits that “the music went to my head … I forgot my whole upbringing, forgot that I was back in the land of my fathers, through which the Ganges flowed …”

Taj Mahal Foxtrot tells of Ken Mac, Micky Correa, Chic Chocolate, Tony Cyril, Dennis Vaz, Johnny Rodrigues, Braz Gonsalves, Johnny Baptist, Chris Perry, Mike Machado and many, many others. Jazz in Bombay was held up by these journeymen, most of them migrants from small towns in Goa. They had varying degrees of formal musical training, but arrived in their numbers to satiate Bombay’s appetite. Many of them placed their trust in a unique community-based support structure in Bombay—not only would Goans help other Goans, but each village in Goa had an advance guard in the city to take care of its own.

Professional Indian musicians in Bombay, playing Western music for aspirational cosmopolitan elite audiences, lived precariously. Their music often challenged the ideas of ‘good taste’ that posh establishments like the Taj needed desperately to preserve. Although the all-black Leon Abbey outfit seemed to have unleashed Bombay’s craving for jazz, some of the Europeans-only venues appeared to be equivocating. Dark-skinned Goan musicians, the biggest contingent of the journeymen troopers, often had to live by their wits, and their skills, accepting wedding gigs, Christmas dances and the like to keep body and soul together.

Ken Mac, the bandleader whom Jinnah favoured and invited to Karachi on 15 August 1947, perhaps inadvertently embodied a number of the class tensions that accompanied Bombay’s taste for hot music, and its anxieties about transgressions. Ken Mac was Anglo-Indian, white enough for Bombay’s whites. Inferring from Fernandes’s book, Ken Mac’s band played a relatively unthreatening variety of dance music that was not aligned to the tectonic shifts in jazz in the US between the late 1930s and the mid-to-late 1960s. Louis Armstrong had made it clear that he was a musical visionary. Duke Ellington brought incredible musical sophistication to the jazz orchestra. Charlie Parker blew jazz into unbelievable areas of harmonic exploration with his heart-stopping displays of technical virtuosity.

Many musicians who played in ‘joints’ around Churchgate, and in a trail that led to the Taj, speak in the book of playing not jazz but whatever music “was popular”. Sometimes it was ‘Over the Rainbow’, other times it was ‘Come September’, staples of ‘Nankhatai’ bands that played at weddings. (These were flamboyantly-dressed brassy bands for hire, who were named for a variety of biscuit still sold exclusively by Irani restaurants, mainly in Bombay and Poona.) Fernandes acknowledges these bands, whose colourfully uniformed outfits must surely have inspired the Beatles’ visual imagination of the Lonely Hearts Club Band of an ex-colonial called Sgt Pepper. The journeymen players of this ‘jazzy’ music, heard at weddings, dances and ‘functions’, were the subaltern purveyors of a genre that the upper classes in Bombay found trendy. They occupy the heart of Fernandes’s book.

Ken Mac enjoyed his cachet as a band leader in places like the Bombay Gymkhana and the Royal Bombay Yacht Club which were whites-only in the 1940s. So, while Satchmo, Duke and Bird were tearing up the rule books, both musical and social, Ken Mac had one important question for Carl Evans, a Goan bass player he considered hiring: “Are you white or are you otherwise?” Evans is credited with the instant response: “I’m otherwise.” Some years later, as segregation receded from post-Independence India, Ken Mac asked Carl Evans if he would now join the band. Foxtrot tells us that Evans refused. “He reasoned, ‘I’m still otherwise.’”

Dave Brubeck listens to pakhawaj player Narayan Koli.

FERNANDES'S BOOK, like the music he writes about, “swings”. Its preface says “the book weaves together several lines all at the same time. The reader is frequently guided to footnotes at the end of chapters that riff off the main narrative, embellishments that sometimes serve no function except to indulge the author’s whimsy.”

The author sets great store by serendipity, which is perhaps apt for a book of this kind. Our first encounter had a whiff of fate about it. We had set up to meet in the lobby of a Bombay hotel. As my auto rickshaw sped down a Bandra road, I caught a glimpse of the man I had only seen in a photograph. Our eyes locked for an instant and moments later he was in the rickshaw with me, both of us amazed that we had met in that fortuitous manner. Clearly ‘serendipity’ is often the mask behind which the modest Fernandes disguises his painstaking research; but he also expresses a deterministic view of the course of cultural history. I asked him about the trajectory of the other great art form of the 20th century—cinema, which eventually becomes a crucial part of Foxtrot. What if the Lumière brothers had not screened their pioneering films at Bombay’s Watson’s Hotel in 1896? After all, the crew had expected to be filming but bad weather prevented that eventuality. The key question of serendipity: What if? Fernandes is unequivocal: “Somebody else would have come the next year.” What if Leon Abbey had not performed at the Taj in 1935? He gives the same answer: “Somebody else would have come the next year.”

The preface of the book tells us how Fernandes came to write Taj Mahal Foxtrot. He wanted to meet Frank Fernand (another Fernandes, with a disguised name), a trumpet player in Micky Correa’s band, to unearth a piece of gossip about the love affair of two Goan musicians. Sure enough, serendipity struck early; it turned out that Fernand lived down Fernandes’ street. Jazz was an abstract ambient circumstance around this man, who happened to be a musician. Soon enough, as Fernand haltingly spoke, Fernandes, the author, realised that Fernand, the musician, held clues to a colourful cultural history that needed to be told.

Frank Fernand on the trumpet.

Fernandes, along with the playwright Ramu Ramanathan, and the actor and writer Denzil Smith, together took a first stab at understanding this jazzy past. Jazz – More Than Just a Musical was Fernandes’s first presentation of his archival material. Fernandes says, “I discovered the materials I’d collected over the years couldn’t be contained in an essay. As the text expanded, I chanced upon many more photos and other archival material, considerably altering the scope of my project.”

As we spoke, Fernandes played some of the music from Bombay’s jazz age on his well-worn stereo system. He began with ‘Taj Mahal’, a tune recorded in the 1930s by a group headed by Crickett Smith and featuring the star pianist Teddy Weatherford. The melody and lyrics were composed by a Bombay resident, a Baghdadi Jew named Mena Silas. It is a sprightly foxtrot, gregarious in its musical styling, and cheesy in its lyrics (“… where dome and minaret outline the sky, in the shadow of the golden moon, there the tropic breeze softly sighs, as you hear the lovers croon …”). Nobody knows if the words refer to the marble mausoleum in Agra or a hotel made of stone in Bombay. I couldn’t help but smile at the exaggerated fancies that come through in the scratchy recording of ‘Taj Mahal’.

Alongside stories about the music and the musicians, Taj Mahal Foxtrot also features fascinating accounts of backroom political presences, with a jazzy sense of being off duty and improvised. Sarojini Naidu, for instance, maintained a suite at the Taj, which apparently was a safe refuge for Ruttie Jinnah when she needed to escape from her husband’s ire. There are accounts of upper-class Bombay intellectuals Romesh and Raj Thapar’s journeys into the bohemian, communist and rebellious world of theatre and art, enabled by their privilege, and their classy Malabar Hill address in Bombay. Frank Fernand, Naresh Fernandes’s original springboard into this captivating history, speaks of being transformed by Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings, and seeking out his own Indianness: he started studying classical Hindustani music. Writes Fernandes: “To many Goan musicians, who had the reputation of being susegad, or laid back, Fernand’s ambition seemed pretentious.” Even so, Fernand spearheaded a musicians’ union called “the Federation of Musicians (India), which aimed to ‘organize and unite the persons engaged in the profession of occidental music throughout India and to regulate their relations with their employers’.”

Taj Mahal Foxtrot takes delight in the open-ended possibilities of jazz that infiltrated the emerging metropolis of Bombay. The book takes us through the economic swings of more than a century and the attendant idiosyncrasies of lifestyles, architectural styles and, most importantly, musical tastes of the aspirational classes. Profusely illustrated with photographs and ephemera (advertisements, playbills), Foxtrot is valuable as a pictorial history alone.

JAZZ AS A MARKER of discerning, maverick taste in Bombay started to falter in the 1950s. No doubt, the jazz scene was invigorated by the visits to Bombay of major stars like Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington, the ‘originals’, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Fernandes’s book, however, pursues a trail that is more obscure—more involved with the lives of hard-working musicians, and more respectful of “the persons engaged in the profession of occidental music”. His book traces an edgy, idiosyncratic and rhizomatic path from Micky Correa and Chic Chocolate at the Taj in 1947, back to Leon Abbey at the Taj in 1935, further back to blackface white minstrels and revue acts who came to Bombay as early as the 1850s, and then forward to an era of ‘beat’ music that blossomed in Bombay in the late 1960s under such names as ‘The Savages’ and ‘The Bad Boys’.

By the estimations of many scholars, including Naresh Fernandes, the 1960s slammed the brakes on a heady and hedonistic time of ‘jazz’, a word that alludes equally to a musical genre and a worldview. Both the music and the worldview were shaken by the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll, yet another musical term of dubious etymological origin (again, some pedants would insist that ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ is slang for copulation). Dosoo Karaka appears to have been prescient about the revolutionary potential of The Beatles. As early as 1964, he prophesied that The Beatles were not simply a diversion; they were the voice of a churning of ideas.

Pianist Toni Pinto in the mid-1960s.

To be sure, Fernandes’s real sympathies lie with the dozens of musicians who played out the soundtrack to a dream-like phase in the urban and cosmopolitan vision of an India under self-rule. His book does document high moments like the encounter between Dave Brubeck and Edward Saldanha (also known as Dizzy Sal, a talented piano player from Bangalore) in their respective glory days in the early 1960s. Yet Taj Mahal Foxtrot gently brings in the lament of the fading era of Bombay jazz. What happened to Frank Fernand? To Micky Correa? To innumerable other musicians who were hired and fired from bands that enjoyed fleeting fame on glamorous stages?

The short answer is: the movies. The Bombay film industry found a musical space for the accomplished practitioners of alien instruments like the trumpet and the saxophone. Fernandes writes eloquently of Chic Chocolate’s tentative screen debut in a 1951 film called Albela. He played himself, a trumpet player who made the main cast feel good and wake up to naughty possibilities. Villains and vamps, clearly the outsiders in the highly codified storytelling universe of Hindi movies, had jazzy backdrops as they played out their shenanigans. Bindu, Helen, Pran, a bottle of VAT 69 and a jazzy soundtrack were elements that defined the ‘bad guy’ universe in the movies of the 1960s and 1970s. Even Frank Fernand, that unyielding snob, played, arranged and orchestrated music for Bombay movies. At its most absurd, the Goan musician Anthony Gonsalves was transmogrified into an example of multicultural evidence of unsure origins in the 1977 superhit movie Amar Akbar Anthony.

Composer Anthony Gonsalves, with Manna Dey and Lata Mangeshkar performing his works.

Jazz, itself an idea of unsure origins, had disappeared from urban India by the 1960s. A younger generation of fans and musicians drifted towards a guitar-driven sound that had freewheeling songwriting and singing as its voice, guitar-playing, electric bass and simple-but-loud drums as its bedrock. Karaka had identified the Beatles as harbingers of change. Naresh Fernandes chooses to let his historical narrative end as the rock ‘n’ roll bands take hold of the English-speaking elites in Bombay.

‘Foxtrot Bombay’ straddles an era of hope, madness, faith in free musicality and independence. Frank Fernand is long gone, and Micky Correa passed away in September 2011 at the age of 98. Jazz is no longer an abstraction in our globalised world. Bombay has become Mumbai, and the raucous jazzy sound of the reeds and brass has mostly vanished. Naresh Fernandes worries: “Contemporary Bombay is not only doing its best to choke the spaces in which the quirky and the eccentric can survive, it has also lost its ability to agree on a central melody. Taj Mahal Foxtrot is a gentle plea for a new score.”