Jazz and Western popular music in Goa and Bombay

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Jazz and Western popular music in Goa and Bombay

By Naresh Fernandes


During World War II, soldiers from all over the world drifted in and out of Bombay, and a motley crew of [Goan and Anglo-Indian] musicians became the vanguard of the city’s thriving jazz subculture. An extract from Naresh Fernandes’ forthcoming book, ‘Taj Mahal Foxtrot’ As a teenager in the Goan village of Curchorem, Franklin Fernandes spent long hours practising the trumpet with only one goal in mind: he wanted to “play like a negro”. It wasn’t an ambition his teacher, Maestro Diego Rodrigues, would have understood. Like all teachers in Goa’s parochial schools, Rodrigues coached his charges in musical theory and instructed them in the art of playing hymns and Western classical music.

Franklin Fernandes

Swing time: The Mickey Correa band at the Taj hotel, circa 1939. Fernandes was a precocious talent. His mastery of the violin was recognised early but the young man, to his teacher’s dismay, soon developed a fascination for the clear, ringing sounds of the trumpet. It wasn’t long before Franklin Fernandes became a regular member of the village marching band, playing at parish feasts, weddings and—in New Orleans style—at funerals too. However, unlike the New Orleans bands famed for their improvised flights of fancy, Fernandes’ village orchestra was, he recalled, a “paper band—they played what was written”. Soon, even this was to become trickier as new instructions began to appear on the music scores: glissando, mute, attack. It was all very baffling. “But when we heard the records, we knew how to play the notes,” Fernandes said.

The thick shellac records that set him off on his journey of discovery bore the names of Ellington, Armstrong and Cab Calloway, and Fernandes grew addicted to hot music. Jazz, he said, gave him “freedom of expression”. He still looked at the sheet music, of course, but he knew that it could take him only so far. “Like Indian music, jazz can’t be written,” he said. “You have to feel it. There are 12 bars, but each musician plays it differently. You play as you feel—morning you play different, evening you play different.”

Frank Fernandes grew so enamoured of the new music from America that in 1936, aged 16, he decided to make jazz his life. He headed to Bombay, where, like so many other Goans, he hoped to find work in one of the city’s famous dance bands. Of course, it wasn’t quite so easy. Competition for jobs was intense, so Fernandes—who would soon adopt the stage name Frank Fernand—began to work for the Bata shoe company in Mazagaon for 12 annas a day. After work, he performed at the amateur nights at Green’s hotel, hoping to attract the attention of someone who mattered. Singer Pamela McCarthy.

At first, Fernand lived with his uncle but later moved out to share a room with friends in Dhobi Talao. After work at the shoe shop, he’d practise intensely. One of his roommates remembers coming home to find Fernand standing with his back to the room, blowing his trumpet into a corner so that he could hear the echoes of his instrument. Fernand’s persistence at the amateur nights eventually paid off and he was hired to play at the Majestic Hotel on Colaba Causeway by an Italian piano player named Beppo di Siati, who led a band staffed with musicians from Germany, the Philippines, the UK and the US. Like Fernand, other Indian musicians had also come to value the freedom that jazz allowed them. Indians had been playing hot music, with varying degrees of proficiency since the 1920s.

Teddy Weatherford

In 1937, when Teddy Weatherford took over leadership of the band at the Taj from Crickett Smith, as age began to catch up with the trumpet player, several Indians had become skilful enough to play alongside the African-Americans. A photo of Weatherford’s band from 1938 shows three Indians looking out from behind their instruments. Two of them were brothers: Hal and Henry Green, from Bangalore.

The brothers Green

Their father, Cecil Beaumont Green, was an army surgeon who had fought in the Boer War before becoming the personal physician of the ruler of Mysore. Hal Green, the fourth of the doctor’s six children, had begun his musical education on a reproduction copy of a Stradivarius that his father had given him. He was an autodidact. He devoured American films and records to learn as much as he could about ragtime and Dixieland music, also teaching himself about European classical music on the side.

Before they joined the Weatherford band, Hal Green and his younger brother Henry had led the eightmember Elite Aces at the Taj in 1933, performing what Ali Rajabally described as dance music with a jazz accent. Hal Green played guitar, reeds and the violin, while Henry was a bassist and saxophonist.

“The type of music they had brought with them may be an overworked cliché today but it was an unheard of departure then,” Rajabally wrote. “Night after night, Hal and his alto sax drove the band through performances so exultantly searing that no band in the country, local or foreign, could have successfully challenged them for the No. 1 spot.” The Correa Optimists in the early 1930s.

Josico Menezes

The third Indian in the 1938 photo of the Weatherford band is a Goan multi-instrumentalist listed as Josico Menezes, who changed his name soon after on the advice of Weatherford. The pianist told him, “It’s too much to call you Josico. Drop the ‘o’ and shorten the Menezes to Menzie. Josic Menzie, not Josico Menezes.” He was equally adept on the violin and the saxophone. Born in the Seychelles, he had been trained in England by Professor Sweeting, a violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra.

He had led his own band in Karachi before coming to Bombay, where he accompanied silent films at Capitol Cinema under the baton of Jules Craen. Before joining the Symphonians, Menzie had spent some time conducting a symphony orchestra for the Maharaja of Bikaner. Menzie formed part of the six-member saxophone section that Weatherford would put together when he felt like showing off.

The Goan musician would be summoned to the front line along with Roy Butler, Rudy Jackson, the Green brothers and the pianist Weatherford, who would fake it.

World War II and the Entertainment National Service Association

In 1939, the outbreak of World War II in Europe shook up Bombay too. As barrage balloons went up over the Oval maidan like “a school of enormous airborne white whales”, in the description of one young observer, German and Italian residents were taken into custody or fled the country. Beppo di Siati, Frank Fernand’s Italian bandleader at Majestic Hotel, was among the enemy nationals interned. As the conflict spread, Bombay became the temporary home to troops from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and England, passing through from the Eastern front to Africa and Europe and for soldiers from the Western theatre of war on their way to the Far East.

The arrivals weren’t all male. Allied officers brought their wives, while other Englishwomen realised that it would be prudent to wait out the war in the safety of India. There were refugees too—Poles, Danes, Czechs and Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe. Karaka went into a funk and couldn’t bear to listen to any music at all. He became addicted to the wireless. “The news bulletins were the funeral marches of our modern composers—the men of the Hood, the men of Dunkirk, the men who died in the huge craters of Crete. That was the music of this generation—the music we were destined to hear,” he wrote. “Music that was written on the casualty lists, the dead being the flats and the wounded with their anguished cry being the sharps.”

Everyone else, it seemed, was trying to find comfort in the screaming brass of “jump” music, a style that seemed to perfectly capture the heightened emotion of the times. The Entertainment National Service Association did its bit to help them forget the looming violence, if only for a little while. ENSA had been established to keep the British troops in good spirits and it dispatched jazz bands to cantonment towns and frontier posts across India to cheer up the soldiers. India’s first generation of jazz musicians found themselves working overtime.

The Correa Optimists

The most durable of all the war-time bands was headed by Micky Correa, a saxophonist born in Mombassa who had perfected his craft in Karachi with his family band, the Correa Optimists. When he moved to Bombay in 1937, he played with Beppo di Siati’s Rhythm Orchestra at the Eros Ballroom, famed for its sprung dance floor. At the band’s next engagement, at the Majestic Hotel, he performed alongside Frank Fernand and shared a room with the trumpeter in Dhobi Talao.

In 1939, Correa formed his own band at the Taj—and set a record of sorts by staying there until 1961. Perhaps the longevity of his stint at the Taj was the result of his physical endurance. Correa prided himself on his fitness and exercised regularly with dumbbells, following the techniques devised by the Canadian bodybuilder Joe Weider. He also knew how to please a crowd, never turning down requests. The Taj publicity brochures described Correa as a musician who was “untired of repetitions”.

The Bombay swing

Correa’s orchestra at the Taj was a hothouse for Bombay swing. The men and women who would go on to lead the city’s most popular groups found early encouragement on his bandstand: saxophonists Johnny Baptist, Norman Mobsby, George Pacheco and the Gomes brothers, Johnny and Joe; trumpet players Peter Monsorate, Pete D’Mello and Chic Chocolate; and pianists Manuel Nunes, Dorothy Clarke and Lucilla Pacheco, among others.

Recalled Ali Rajabally: “The Bombay jazz scene was honeycombed with virtuosi of high calibre. The pace was intense, but it was carried on in a spirit which placed the love of jazz above every other consideration. Nobody played with one eye on the cash-box and the other on the clock.”

Rudy Cotton

Another war-time swing powerhouse was led by Rudy Cotton, the keen young saxophonist who, trumpet player Bill Coleman had recalled in his memoirs, would hang around the Taj to chat with members of Leon Abbey’s band. Cotton was Parsi, a rarity on an Indian jazz scene dominated by Anglo-Indians and Goans.

His father was a producer of Parsi theatre, a melodramatic genre of musical drama from which India’s earliest films had drawn their aesthetic conventions and acting talent. Cotton had dropped out of school to pursue music as a career, the only one of his siblings to continue the family showbiz tradition (two brothers went on to become noted boxers).

Cotton started by playing the trumpet, but decided to dump his horn after dropping by the Taj one day in 1936 and being captivated by the smooth tenor sax of Cass McCord. He was an early follower of Lester Young. “In those days, Rudy was often criticised for having a soft, what is known today as a ‘cool’ tone,” an amateur musician named Rusi Sethna told Blue Rhythm magazine later. “Rudy belonged to the modern school of tenor playing but that term came into being recently while Rudy has been blowing like that ever since I can remember.”

Rudy Cotton’s big break came when he was hired by Tony Nunes, the pianist who headed the Teetotallers band, but he credited his ability to really “feel jazz” to the stint he spent in the orchestra of Vincent Cummine, playing alongside such talents as Cummine’s violinist brother Ken, the bassist Fernando “Bimbo” D’Costa, the drummer Leslie Weeks and the spectacular trumpet player Antonio Xavier Vaz, who was already winning legions of fans under his stage name Chic Chocolate. Cummine’s band travelled to Rangoon in 1938, but by 1940, Cotton had formed his own group, persuading his former bandmates to join him, and adding Sollo Jacobs on piano. “As anyone who knows the history of Indian orchestras can well imagine, this combination proved a tremendous success overnight and from then onwards Rudy’s fame was on the upbeat,” The Onlooker magazine reported. Bookings poured in from the Taj, the Majestic and the Ritz, among other establishments.

Toot your horn: Parsi musician Rudy Cotton, born Cawasji Khatau, became a musical force on a scene dominated by Goans and Anglo-Indians. Soon, the saxophonist’s band was spending a lot of time on the road. Each summer, the band travelled to Mussoorie, the Himalayan hill station to which Delhi’s colonial administrators retreated to find respite from the heat. Cotton’s performances at the Savoy were among the main attractions of the season. He was later lured away by Hakman’s Hotel, where he headed an 11-piece orchestra. Cotton’s secret, Rajabally contended, lay in his ability to merge a small-band approach with big-band projection. “The rhythm section…rolled on ball-bearing wheels,” he gushed. “Rudy Cotton was outstanding. He had an extraordinary tone, impeccable taste in choosing phrases, flaming imagination and a technique that few could equal.”

Ken Mac

The busiest of all the war-era bands was led by the inimitable Ken Mac, who had managed to retain his hold on the Bombay dance-music scene long after Leon Abbey’s departure. By the mid-1940s, Mac was being signed up for about 40 engagements a month. Every Wednesday, he played regular shows at the YMCA on Wodehouse Road for Allied troops. His crooner at that time was Jean Statham, whom he later married.

Occasionally, his young niece, Pamela McCarthy, would sing a tune or two. She had been stricken with polio at the age of 11 and performed from her wheelchair, dressed in a glamorous ball gown. It was a hectic life. “Music and dancing was so popular and we played all the top venues—the Taj, Ambassador and Ritz Hotels, the Radio, Willingdon, Yacht Clubs and Bombay Gymkhana to name a few,” said McCarthy. “Sometimes we did two sessions a day—an evening dance and later a night dance.”

Mac also made regular radio broadcasts and cut dozens of swing-tinted records. The first, “Down Argentina Way”, sold more than 25,000 copies. Mac told one interviewer that there was much more to being a successful bandleader than merely having to ensure that the musicians played the right note at the right time. “He is the band’s star salesman who must obtain the most favourable terms,” the journalist wrote. “He has to make sure the boys will meet always on time and are dressed as they should be. He has to exercise tact and good temper to smooth out frictions and difficulties. He is responsible for building up the library—as the sum total of all the band numbers is called.”

Bombay’s band leaders obtained their music from publishing houses and from local cinema distributors, and listened hard to the radio and to new records. All the best bands had their own arrangers, men who wrote the parts of each instrumentalist in a unique way so as to make their outfit’s version of standard tunes stand out from their competitors’. Indian musicians were also beginning to compose their own tunes.

Pianist Sollo Jacob had written a foxtrot called “Everyone Knew”; Hal Green, already a much-in-demand arranger, had composed tunes he called “Copacabana” and “Get Out of the Mood and Into the Groove”, while Chic Chocolate was performing his “Juhu Jive”.

Naresh Fernandes is a consulting editor at Time Out India. This is his first book.

Excerpted from Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age by Naresh Fernandes; published by Roli Books, accompanied by a CD of original recordings, 192 pages, Rs. 1,295 (the book may be pre-ordered on Flipkart.com). Taj Mahal Foxtrot will be released on 20 December. Write to lounge(a)livemint.com



The late 1950s- early 1960s

Sidharth Bhatia, Sep 19, 2019: Mumbai Mirror

The evening’s fare at these places was usually music and dancing, with a cabaret act
From: Sidharth Bhatia, Sep 19, 2019: Mumbai Mirror

Photographs of the time show men in jackets with slicked back hair, and women with bouffants. In some joints, a lounge suit and black tie, was de rigeur
From: Sidharth Bhatia, Sep 19, 2019: Mumbai Mirror
Bombay’s ‘Jazz Age’ was not just about music. It was a style, an attitude and the projection of an identity that comfortably amalgamated westernization with being Indian
From: Sidharth Bhatia, Sep 19, 2019: Mumbai Mirror
(L) The ‘club song’ became ubiquitous – the number in which a cabaret dancer invariably tipped off the hero about imminent danger; American Jazz legend Leon Abbey (centre) performed at the Taj in the 1930s
From: Sidharth Bhatia, Sep 19, 2019: Mumbai Mirror

The late 50s were pivotal years for Mumbai’s music scene, a time when the musical genre – with its accompanying culture and philosophy – sounded its first notes here.

Sometime in the late 1950s or very early 1960s, a new restaurant opened in the Fort area of Bombay (as it was known at the time). This was opposite the University, in the premises where Fabindia stands today. La Bella was split across two levels: Old photographs and sketches show the ground level with tables and chairs, and an open floor for dancing and a bandstand. There was a bar of sorts, but of course no alcohol was served, (at least not openly), as this was the age of prohibition, rigorously enforced by the administration of the chief minister of Bombay state, the puritanical Morarji Desai. Nonetheless, the restaurant offered other attractions: The ingredients for its cuisine were imported from Europe, its silverware came from Germany, and its band was from England – ‘Margaret Mason and her sextet’. And yes, there was a cabaret dancer too, a Burgher from Sri Lanka, along with her partner. In time, the band was replaced by another ‘imported’ act – Chris Perry and his team of musicians, who were from Portuguese-ruled Goa, which meant that all of them needed special visas to live in India.

Every night, the place was packed with patrons, Bombay’s beautiful set, with a sprinkling of film stars – Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and a young Shammi Kapoor being regulars. Glamorous parties were held there, unreported and unrecorded by pesky paparazzi (or gawkers with cellphone cameras).

There were other restaurants in Bombay that offered what La Bella did, but what set it apart was its location. Back then, much of the action in terms of fine dining – places that offered ‘Conti’ cuisine, as western food was generically called – was on Churchgate Street. Now known as Veer Nariman Road, this stretch ran from Horniman Circle to Marine Drive. Churchgate Street had it all: Food, dancing and jazz bands, with attractive, husky crooners and slinky dancers in sequins and ostrich feathers. If a place had no live band, it had a jukebox (picture an old fashioned, but very attractive, iPod) where one could play the latest vinyl records.

The newly independent nation, just about 10 years or so old, was grappling with myriad problems, but thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru, a spirit of modernity pervaded, and nowhere else was it more warmly embraced than in Bombay, at least by some sections.

Bombay regarded itself as a cosmopolitan city that looked out to the world – a link in a long chain that included New York, London, Paris, Beirut and, towards the east, Hong Kong and Shanghai – and people from all over the world had settled here.

The latest fashions and ideas found ready acceptance here. Western food, music and lifestyles were readily absorbed, especially in the neighbourhoods of Malabar Hill, Pedder Road, Marine Drive, Churchgate and Colaba, but also in Byculla, Mazgaon and Bandra, where there was a large Christian and Anglo Indian population. They were all swinging to the latest western tunes they heard on foreign radio stations — All India Radio only played Hindustani classical music, thanks to the austere and high minded I & B minister Dr B V Keskar.

The names of the restaurants reflected these international aspirations: Napoli, Bombelli, Volga, Berry’s, Gaylord, Gourdon & Co, Bistro and the Other Room in Ambassador (earlier known as The Argentinian). Some were run by foreign residents, others by Indians. Located off Marine Drive, then around two decades old and a bold symbol of modern Bombay, Churchgate Street offered customers a wide choice of evening entertainment. Just towards Jamshedji Tata road, heading south from Eros Cinema, was Astoria Hotel, with its famed restaurant Venice, and across was the Ritz, known for its cabaret dancer from the Middle East who allegedly kept two cheetahs in her room. Venice was where singer-songwriter Biddu started his Bombay career; Asha Puthli, India’s first jazz singing export to the west, would perform here before she left. Dave Brubeck jammed with local musicians at Astoria, and La Bella, Alibaba (in Dhanraj Mahal) and the Taj Mahal Hotel, also started hosting acts from America way before World War II. Later, Sun-n-Sand Hotel in distant Juhu joined the group.

The evening’s fare at these places was usually music and dancing, with a cabaret act – and sometimes other entertainment such as ventriloquists, drag artists, magicians and comedians, whose jokes would be considered politically incorrect today. Photographs of the time show men in jackets with slicked back hair, and women with bouffants. In some joints, a lounge suit and black tie, was de rigeur. Jack Voyantis, the large, colourful Greek owner of The Ambassador, who always had a cigar in his mouth, wouldn’t allow shabbily-dressed customers into the hotel.

The crowd was mainly (but not exclusively) from South Bombay – scions of business families, professionals, even a few expats. By the 1950s and ’60s, many Britishers had left India, realising that the days of the Raj were over, but the corporate world, especially multinationals, still had a fair number of foreign employees, especially at the top. India had not yet embraced socialism with vigour.

The jazz bands and the musicians were well known among aficionados – Chic Chocolate, Lorraine, Norman Mobsby, Hecke Kingdom, Toni Pinto, Ken Mac, Dadi Balsara, Braz Gonsalves and the great Micky Correa, a staple at the Taj, whose large band entertained guests for decades.

Bombay’s ‘Jazz Age’ however was not just about music. It was a style, an attitude and the projection of an identity that comfortably amalgamated westernization with being Indian. The hangover of the Raj hadn’t passed, but there was also a general sense of pride in belonging to a country whose leader was so widely respected around the world. The cosmopolitan elite, present in all the major cities and also in some small towns and military cantonments, did not see any contradiction in being ‘western’ in tastes and Indians at heart.

Nowhere was this more visible than in Hindi film music, which effortlessly blended influences from both cultures. The ‘club song’ became ubiquitous – the number in which a cabaret dancer invariably tipped off the hero (almost always dressed in a white evening lounge suit and bowtie, with Brylcreemed hair) about imminent danger. The six-piece band seen in the background during these songs, often comprised of real musicians, who had been scouted from restaurants.

The clubs in the movies were an approximation of real life restaurants, complete with modern furniture, bar and uniformed waiters (sometimes with a cigarette girl too). Although they were often depicted as dens of iniquity, run by gangsters, these representations gave frontbenchers a glimpse into the life of the elite, something they had no access too.

Music directors – C Ramachandra, S D Burman, O P Nayyar and Ravi – made full use of the city’s jazz talent, as players and arrangers. They worked with Chic Chocolate, Sebastian D’Souza, Anthony Gonsalves and countless lesser known ‘sessions musicians’ — occasionally even bringing in Indian instruments and beats to lend this imported music a ‘desi’ touch.

By early 1963, however, youngsters all over the country (still listening to the Voice of America, BBC and Radio Ceylon) started dancing to another beat. Jazz was the music that their parents liked. Youngsters, not just in India, but everywhere, now discovered an act from Liverpool – The Beatles – and the world was never the same again.

Dressed in tight clothes and with their hair worn long, Indian youth formed their own groups – The Jets being the first one in Bombay. These acts replaced the jazz bands in restaurants. But pop music was also more democratic, and made its way into colleges and public halls – where it was accessible to a much wider audience.

Jazz bands stuck around for some time, but gradually started giving way to a new sub-culture, which had also come from the west. The 1980s saw a brief rally, with Jazz Yatra festivals at the Rang Bhavan drawing hordes, but jazz’s glory days were in the past.

Today, Rang Bhavan is shut, Bombay is Mumbai, and while a few dedicated musicians still play jazz, it is not the young Indian’s first choice. A few aficionados run jazz clubs and social media pages to keep that spirit alive, but with more access to global cultures now than any generation before them, youngsters have their ears tuned to different sounds.

The Indian jazz bands and musicians that contributed to the roaring 60s, barely have a presence on YouTube. But the older Bombayite – or Mumbaikar – will always recall that time when the city was a more leisurely, more tolerant and gracious place. The music lives on in the memory of all those who lived through Bombay’s Golden Age.

—The writer is a founder editor of The Wire and author of India Psychedelic, The Story of a Rocking Generation

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