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Bombay Ragtime

Tracing the origins of jazz in India.

Written by Bradley Shope | Updated: May 18, 2015 2:18:36 pm
Bombay Velvet, Bombay Velvet, jazz, jazz India, Bombay Velvet, Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, jazz performers, jazz music, Zimmy the Jazz Drummer, express column Performances were increasingly sophisticated and exciting in the 1930s. African American jazz performers from New York and Chicago lived in Bombay for some of this decade, and radio broadcasts of these shows proliferated.

With the premiere of Bombay Velvet, interest in the history of jazz in India is mounting. Some of what we know about jazz’s first years here is speculation. In Bombay, jazz was probably first programmed for a large audience at the Excelsior Theatre. In 1919, Maurice Bandmann, an American entertainer living in India, hired the jazz band of the HMS New Zealand, a ship docked in Bombay at the time, to perform at the theatre with his variety show.

Bandmann secured talent from passenger ships because local jazz performers were then almost nonexistent. He was among the most successful proprietors of his kind, and his command of the English entertainment industry in Bombay probably supported the first ongoing performances of jazz in the city. Jazz in its early years is notoriously difficult to define, and though advertisements for his shows used the word “jazz”, the performances were somewhere between the nebulous boundaries of ragtime and jazz.

Later in 1919, Bandmann invited Zimmy the Jazz Drummer to perform at the Excelsior. Zimmy had just completed a successful tour of New Zealand and Australia. He was probably the first foreign jazz musician to regularly tour India. Bandmann used Zimmy’s talent as a jazz drummer in many of his shows over the next few months. Other groups played jazz at the Excelsior in 1919, including the Banvard All-American Musical Comedy Company. It featured a group of smartly dressed cabaret showgirls. From the beginning of jazz in India, chorus girls supported performances. Their suggestive moves and revealing costumes were scandalous for some. Many were British or European, which outraged the British elite. But by contemporary accounts, they were popular and in demand. Audiences and entertainers were predominantly, though not entirely, foreigners. Performances were on a raised stage with patrons in fixed seats — no dancing or dining.

Jazz cabarets began in the 1920s, though they were rare. New hotels and dance halls increasingly designed programmes that included dancing, drinking and live jazz. Patrons sat at small, intimate tables. Restaurants and hotels such as Firpo’s Restaurant and Bar in Calcutta and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Bombay hired resident orchestras and organised evening and afternoon cabarets. These hotel orchestras set the stage for successful private investment in jazz dinner/dances in cities across India, and many venues that previously programmed formal ballroom dances began to accommodate jazz cabarets.

One of the first successful jazz performers to tour the country was Ken Mac. His first performances in the early 1920s set the stage for a career spanning decades. By the 1930s, Mac learned that hiring a female lead singer expanded his musical repertoire and created marketing opportunities. He relied on young female crooners to sing in a soft voice amplified by the microphone, still a new technological marvel. In the following quote, Mac’s longtime trumpeter, Stooge, describes his criteria for choosing a crooner: “Apart from having just the type of voice, it was necessary for the incumbent to be young, attractive, superlatively smart in appearance and oozing with personality.” Jazz performances were carefully designed with smooth crooners and cabaret themes. Many lead singers achieved celebrity status among jazz aficionados. Reviews and advertisements frequently describe these talented singers as sensual and attractive, and they were often Anglo-Indian.

Performances were increasingly sophisticated and exciting in the 1930s. African American jazz performers from New York and Chicago lived in Bombay for some of this decade, and radio broadcasts of these shows proliferated. Mac and African American pianist Teddy Weatherford from Chicago, among others, regularly relayed their orchestra performances on radio stations, inspiring musicians in smaller cities and towns to learn a jazz instrument or organise a jazz orchestra. Talented Indian and Goan musicians flourished during these years, headlining thematic cabarets that included choreography, costumes and elaborate scenery. The Taj Mahal Palace

Hotel was one of the most recognised venues that organised jazz cabaret productions. Since audiences often included a large number of foreigners, many cabarets mirrored those seen in New York City or Hollywood films. By the 1940s, many hotels designed Mexican, Spanish, Arab, and Latin American themes, exhilarating audiences with their extravagance.

Shope is author of ‘Tripartite Connections: American Popular Music in Britain’s Raj’ (forthcoming), and co-editor of ‘Beyond Bollywood: Studies in Indian Popular Music’.

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