Inside India #37: Bombay’s jazz era

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Jazz. A musical form considered by some as the hippest yet invented by humankind, by others as tuneless noise. Merriam Webster defines it as “American music developed from ragtime and blues and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre.”

That definition goes a long way to explaining why jazz is an acquired taste. But for those who follow it, it has a rhythm and a beauty all its own.

Duke Ellington and Orchestra in India: Picture attribution: US Embassy New Delhi CC.2.0

What few will argue with is that the birthplace of jazz is recognised as New Orleans, in the southern American state of Louisiana, around the beginning of the twentieth century. The greatest names of the genre have hailed from the city known as the ‘Big Easy’, including Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Harry Connick Jr., and Kermit Ruffins.

Given this provenance, it is often surprising to many to discover that a city half-way around the world, a city once heralded by the British empire as the Gateway to India – namely, Bombay – enjoyed its own jazz era, a musical legacy that is today dimly remembered and has flown somewhat under the radar of those chronicling the history of India’s ‘city of dreams’.

Jazz arrived in Bombay in the 1930s, crashing into the city’s five-star hotel ballrooms and upmarket cafes via live band performances, and into homes through the advent of phonograph records. The Bombay of that era was a cosmopolitan city, a good time city, India’s cultural and showbiz capital, with a diverse population drawn from all corners of the country, and a significant contingent of westerners.

With the country embroiled in an increasingly urgent and volatile national independence movement, Bombay remained, to some extent, in its own bubble.

Catering to the foreign residents of India’s premier port city were establishments that provided music and entertainment tailored to remind them of home. House orchestras were common, as were big band sets, cabarets, and ballroom dances.

Encouraged by such culturally welcoming attitudes, famous jazz musicians began to tour India, introducing the genre to the elite set.

In 1935, jazz legend Leon Abbey brought a musical troupe to Bombay, forming a resident band at the Taj Hotel. Soon, hotel ballrooms and nightclubs became jazz hubs where Europeans could mix freely with the Indian upper classes, as well as politicians, company men, and aristocrats. In many ways, these hotel jazz rooms became a means of shutting out the world outside, which was becoming an ever more precarious place for foreigners.

The epicentre of the city’s jazz scene was Bombay’s famous Churchgate Street (now Veer Nariman Road). This bustling thoroughfare became home to numerous clubs, hotels and cafes all employing their own jazz musicians: a dizzying array of piano-fronted groups, trios, quartets, and solo saxophonists.

Once jazz became a mainstay of the local scene, Indian musicians quickly took to the new musical form and made it their own, so much so that it soon began to feature in soundtracks for Bollywood’s conveyor belt of Hindi language films. Following independence in 1947, jazz’s popularity was maintained by this assimilation of the genre into the film industry.

The Bombay love affair with jazz continued well into the sixties and early seventies – with Indian musicians such as Remo Fernandes even recording their own brand of ‘Indo-jazz’ – until finally petering out as modernity overtook the country.

Nevertheless, for those who know their history, Bombay’s jazz years are another reminder of how the city has taken on board influences from around the world, continually adding to its colourful mosaic.

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff.

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