Rewinding to the jazz age

Updated: Aug 24, 2019, 07:50 IST | Shunashir Sen |

A Lower Parel five-star's night club harks back to the time when jazz was enjoying its heydays in Mumbai

The Rhynosax Quartet performs live at the new Luna property
The Rhynosax Quartet performs live at the new Luna property

The nightclub is swathed in red. Every table is occupied by those dressed in attire as swanky as the cocktails they are sipping. The beer and whiskey drinkers are meanwhile puffing away in a smoking room at the rear, where a signature musty smell hangs heavy in the air. Opposite it, at the far end, a makeshift stage has been set up for a jazz band. It's a three-piece act that's joined by a singer with smoky vocals. The audience is involved enough to clap after every song. In fact at one point — when the saxophonist asks, "Are you having a good time?" — some patrons reply with an encouraging, "Yes!" But some others are more interested in conversation, though it's kept at a polite decibel level. There is none of the raucousness here that you'd associate with a bar for millennials. Rather the whole shindig — in one line — is a genuinely classy affair.

The scene harks back to an era when the city's southern tip would be agog with restaurants and clubs where highly competent musicians would belt out jazz tunes. But instead, the description is of what went down earlier this week at a new music property started at Luna, the nightclub in Lower Parel's The St Regis Mumbai. And if someone were to take a black-and-white picture of the entire place, you might have been fooled into thinking that it's a venue that was right next door to Venice, the long-shuttered club in Churchgate's Astoria Hotel that was a hotbed for jazz music in the '60s and '70s.

A jazz band from yore. Pic/mid-day archives

But before we go any further, let's take a look at the provenance of the genre's rise in Mumbai. It all goes back to the apartheid against African Americans in southern USA at the turn of the last century. Many of those who were racially persecuted were part of the earliest wave of American jazz musicians. They fled discrimination in their homeland and sailed to Europe and the Indian Subcontinent. Some of them landed in Mumbai. Here, both Indian patrons and European owners of establishments greeted them with open arms, and the bona fide jazz artistes were only too happy to ply their trade for their entertainment. That's how people like trumpeter Teddy Weatherford came to make this country his home. But some of his counterparts spent far lesser time under the Indian sun. They set sail again for greener pastures, taking their lot of backing musicians along with them. This left the ones who stayed back in a quandary. Who would complete their set-up to play in venues like The Taj Mahal Palace and Ambassador Hotel?

The answer lay in Goan and Anglo-Indian musicians like Franz Fernand, Chris Perry and Chic Chocolate. Thanks to their Portuguese influence, they already had a hang of western instruments like the drums and guitar. So the remaining African-American musicians taught a bunch of them the nitty-gritties of jazz music. But when they left the country as well, the Indians who had learnt the ropes turned to another emerging avenue to sell their craft — the Hindi film industry. And that's how you have such heavy swing and jazz influences in old-school classics like Baar Baar Dekho (China Town) and Shola Jo Bhadke (Bhagwan Dada).

It's all quite fascinating when you think about it, really. But the graph of jazz music in the city has gone through a sea change over the decades. City-based music historian Sunil Sampat tells us that the first warning bell came from the growing popularity of fusion music in the late '70s. "The band Shakti had become a force to reckon with at the time. So following that, a lot of people started playing the same kind of music, where you had a ghatam player or a tabalchi," he says, adding that prohibitive excise fees also became an impediment for some venues.

Sunil Sampat

That law, however, has now been changed, and Sampat agrees that there is a definite resurgence of the genre in the city. Sofitel is another five-star that has a monthly jazz property. Then there is Bandra's Veranda and The Little Door in Andheri. Things are actually looking so encouraging now that Mumbaikars can catch jazz gigs practically every week. Except, that these lack the sepia-tinted nostalgia of the genre's glory days. Yes, in a way, the more things change, the more they remain the same. You can still taste a slice of an era gone by at properties like the one at Luna (a St Regis spokesperson tells us that this will be a monthly series). But it's only through photographs like the one accompanying this article and the reminiscence of people like 77-year-old Sampat that one can truly get a sense of how swinging things must have been in Mumbai — or Bombay — back then.

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