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The Yatra that rocked Bombay

Sometime back, a Mumbai-based photographer found rare photos from the first Jazz Yatra held in the city in 1978. Thus, began a journey to unearth facts about the iconic event that changed Mumbai’s music timeline forever. Hassan M Kamal rewinds the clock on how India’s biggest Jazz Festival came into existence

In a city like Mumbai, it’s easy to ignore its history. Amidst the daily rush between work and the commute, little time is left to sit back and enjoy the nostalgia that laces the city.

The Jazz-India Ensemble with Louiz Banks, Braz Gonsalves and others. Louiz Banks (second from right) can be seen playing on  the piano
The Jazz-India Ensemble with Louiz Banks, Braz Gonsalves and others. Louiz Banks (second from right) can be seen playing on the piano

On one of those days at work, this reporter got a call from a Mumbai-based photographer and collector who called himself Pat.

The band Don Ellis Quintet performing at the Jazz Yatra 1978. The jazz concert had featured trumpet player Don Ellis’ (centre) second last known public performance, before he passed away due to a heart attack in December later that year.
The band Don Ellis Quintet performing at the Jazz Yatra 1978. The jazz concert had featured trumpet player Don Ellis’ (centre) second last known public performance, before he passed away due to a heart attack in December later that year.

“I have some really nice pictures of the Jazz Yatra-1978. Black and white, you would like them,” he said, over the phone.

Some of the participating artistes of Jazz Yatra 1978 playing together as part of a jam session on the final day of the festival
Some of the participating artistes of Jazz Yatra 1978 playing together as part of a jam session on the final day of the festival

Jazz Yatra 1978? Why don’t I know about it? How could he be sure that I would like his prints? Curious, I headed to Kala Ghoda Café at Fort, where Pat’s photographs were on display.

A frame of Jazz fans enjoying at the Jazz Yatra
A frame of Jazz fans enjoying at the Jazz Yatra

Thirty five black and white frames can be easy to miss, including its subjects, especially if one isn’t a hardcore Jazz fan. Besides, there were no captions, only a small sign that read — Jazz Yatra 1978 held from February 12-18.

Thus began the journey to find out more about what became India’s biggest Jazz festival of the time. But it would take a series of discussions with Pat and Jazz experts to gauge the significance of those who rocked the first edition of the Jazz Yatra.

The Rang Bhavan that was
Our first connection to Jazz Yatra was Rang Bhavan. The open-air auditorium was a topic of much debate during our student years at St Xavier’s College. Two years before college life began, in 2003, a High Court order had banned any music events at the Rang Bhavan due to its proximity to the GT Hospital. The topic stirred a hornet’s nest in newspapers and in classrooms as music fans fought hard to get their open auditorium back. Needless to say, all we had were stories and the disappointment that another piece of Mumbai’s history had been lost for future generations.

Voices from the past
“It was magnificent,” is how Ashok Gulati (67), honorary secretary, Capital Jazz, Mumbai chapter, and a spectator at the inaugural edition of the Jazz Yatra recalls of the venue. “This was the first Jazz festival I had ever attended. I was a Jazz enthusiast but this festival made me a fan,” he adds. Gulati got so hooked onto Jazz that he took a membership of Jazz India in 1979 (led by Niranjan Jhaveri; Jazz India organised the Jazz Yatra from 1978 till 2004), and soon, became a part of the organising team. “I would take a month-long annual leave to help organise the festival,” he shares.

Jazz historian Sunil Sampat (72), who followed the events leading up well as the actual event as a music reporter, says that it was like a carnival with socialites, celebrities as well as music fans all gathering together at the festival. “But most importantly, the Jazz Yatra from 1978 to 2004, was the longest running Jazz festival, outside of Europe. And that is quite an achievement,” he reminds us.

How Jazz Yatra kicked off
But how did a group of Jazz fans manage to host such a big festival? And where did all the money come from to bring down some of the biggest artistes of that time? “There were many things that simply happened for Jazz Yatra; support emerged from every corner. While Air India flew the artistes for free, the consulates of the participating countries sponsored the artistes. All Jazz India had to do was to arrange for their stay and transportation,” informs Sampat.

While Jhaveri managed everything in India, Jazz India co-founder Jehangir Dalal ensured that the US government sent all its top artistes to India. “Dalal had by then moved to the US due to business, but even then he would sit for hours in the US Home Department office to ensure that the US government sent its top artistes for the festival,” shares Sampat, contributing editor of Rolling Stones magazine.

Dalal’s never-say-die spirit was successful as the US government funded several of its top artistes including Sonny Rollins, Joe Williams, Don Ellis and Clark Terry to perform at the festival. Willis Conover, the iconic host of the Jazz show on Voice of America (the show which introduced several Indians to Jazz) was the emcee for the festival.

Some of the other superstar acts included the Sadao Watanabe Quintet from Japan, as well as groups from Poland, Norway, Sweden, Germany and Australia. The Jazz-Indian Ensemble that featured Braz Gonsalves and Louiz Banks and others along with India’s first true Jazz star, Rudy Cotton (born Cawas Khatau), who inaugurated the festival, represented India.

Sampat adds that another reason why several of the artistes came to India was because of its image as the land of nirvana.

The falling out
Gulati recalls that Jazz Yatra became so popular mostly because the artistes were so good. “Jazz at that time, was fun. Unfortunately, today, Jazz, is becoming synonymous with everything that can’t fit into any genre. And this was something felt in Jazz India as well in its last years. It was getting too experimental. Jazz Yatra began to lose its shine, and that’s what led to its split,” he reminisces.

In 2004, Jazz India held the last Jazz Yatra in Mumbai while some of the members of Jazz India split to form Capital Jazz. Since 2005, Capital Jazz has been organising Jazz Utsav, a new version of Jazz Yatra. But thanks to changing music preferences and escalating costs, the popularity of the first edition of the Jazz Yatra remains unmatched.

“Jhaveri was a well connected man. He knew many influential people of that time, which helped Jazz Yatra a lot,” explains Gulati, something which he felt was amiss when he organised the first Jazz Utsav in 2005.

Till December 31, 2014
At Kala Ghoda Cafe, 10 Ropewalk Lane Kala Ghoda, Fort.
Call 22633866

Why the US backed Jazz in India
In the past, artistes like Teddy Weatherford from the Swing era and Duke Ellington had given impetus to the Jazz scene in India, writes Warren R Pinckney, Jr, in his essay, Jazz in India: Perspectives on Historical Development and Musical Acculturation*. He also mentions that Jazz was already part of Indian cinema as 30% of its film songs carried Jazz influences, then. It is believed that with India siding with the former USSR, American Jazz seemed like a good way to polarise the population towards the US, and by the 1970s the US had begun Jazz education programmes in Bombay via the American Center. “The United States Information Service in Washington began sending books and other source materials on Jazz to the (American) Center (in Bombay) in the early 1970s,” he writes.
*First published in Asian Music, Vol. 21, No. 1

“I won’t sing for my supper”
Clark Terry and Joe Williams were put up at Hotel Centaur in Juhu (now Tulip Star), far away from the venue. With only two shows at the festival they didn’t have much to do.

American trumpet player, Clark Terry (in picture), at the Jazz Yatra 1978. Terry played at the concert with his Jazz band, Clark Terry and His Jolly Giants with Jazz vocalist Joe Williams as a guest artiste.  pics courtesy/ PAT
American trumpet player, Clark Terry (in picture), at the Jazz Yatra 1978. Terry played at the concert with his Jazz band, Clark Terry and His Jolly Giants with Jazz vocalist Joe Williams as a guest artiste. Pics courtesy/ PAT

On one of the days, Terry was invited to the house of one of the organisers’ for dinner. But Terry, a proud man refused to attend the dinner invite. When Sampat asked him why, Terry replied: “My feelings are terribly hurt. They asked me to bring my trumpet at the dinner. I won’t sing for my supper.”

RD Burman and his introduction to Jazz
Jazz historian Sunil Sampat recalls having a conversation with RD Burman who was attending the festival along with Asha Bhosle. “Burman was not a Jazz fan, and was unable to understand Jazz, but after I explained to him about the improvisation that it offered, he was impressed. ‘That’s fantastic,’ he said,” reminisces Sampat.

A rare find
It was fascinating to learn how Pat, 35 (in pic, below) stumbled upon these music treasures. “I am always looking for old things, pieces of history,” reveals Pat, who prefers to go with this name than his birth name. “During one of my scouting trips, I found a bunch of film rolls marked Jazz Yatra 1978 at a raddiwala (scrap merchant) in Bhendi Bazaar. The owner was reluctant initially, but after some bargaining and a second visit, he sold it to me. I was sceptical initially as these rolls were really old. But after I developed the negatives and printed the first pictures, I was in shock!”

Buy a print of Jazz Yatra 1978
Photographs from the Jazz Yatra 1978 are available for sale at the Kala Ghoda Café. The price starts at R3,500 for each photograph.  

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