In Mumbai, even jazz gets the blues

DNA-1st December ’06

Just outside the gates of the JW Marriott you will hear dhinchaak rickshaw beats, angry traffic honks and abuses. But in the cosy hotel lobby, for a few hours every Wednesday through Saturday, you can get away from the din and lose yourself in the improvisations of The Brown Indian Band, the resident outfit that plays fusion jazz.

Colin D’Cruz, the band’s bassist, reminisces about the good old days in the late ’70s, when he played jazz every night in restaurants and hotels dotting Churchgate and Colaba.

“In Goa, over the next two months, the stretch between Calangute and Baga sees about 3,000 live music performances every night,” says D’Cruz. “Mumbai was once like that, with jazz playing at Gaylord, Oberoi, The Taj, Berry’s, Venice, Talk of the Town and more.” Of these, the last named, now Not Just Jazz By The Bay, is one of the few to survive. “It should be renamed Anything But Jazz By The Bay,” D’Cruz jokes.

Bombay had a swinging jazz scene from the ’60s till the ’80s. Jazz legends Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck visited to get in on the action. Prakash Thadani, organiser of Jazz Utsav says, “Now it’s all about fashion shows and brand launches. But before the Page 3 culture hit, people wanted to be seen at jazz concerts.”

Today, you can count on your fingers the places in the city where you can catch a jazz band. Club owners complain about foggy licensing issues that are pulling the plug on live entertainment. Henry Tham, who hosts regular blues nights at his eponymous lounge in Colaba every Thursday, says, “The same police act book that deals with crimes like kidnapping, theft and murder, addresses something as innocent as singing and dancing, as if it’s a crime to have a good time. Is it a crime to sing? Should I need a licence or police permission to dance?”

He explains how the livelihood of musicians is at stake as it is practically impossible for restaurants to host musicians regularly. “We need the same permission as that required for a full-scale concert — car parking, and electrical and fire clearances. The rules are no different for small little bars that want a pianist.”

In Bandra’s Pali Market lies Meldan D’Cunha’s endearing restaurant Soul Fry. Its walls are dotted with jazz memorabilia, including a picture or two of Dizzy Gillespie. It hosted jazz nights twice a month for six years. But for the last few months, it has dined silent.

The culprit: licensing issues. D’Cunha hosted similar nights at Trafalgar Chowk, which also stopped around the same time. Even as he raves about professional rhythm and blues and jazz singer Sonia Saigal, touting her as the best jazz singer in the country, he will also tell you that the market for jazz has shrunk. “The number of jazz concerts in the city has gone down.

The main reason is Hindi pop, with the likes of Himesh Reshammiya making crores of rupees.” Ask him about the future of jazz in the same city where jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli and popular group Shakti have played, and he says, “You can’t open just a jazz café. It won’t work.”

But it may not be all that bad. If Mumbai’s club owners and managers are to be believed, the city’s jazz audience is dotted with newer, younger faces. While the coterie was once restricted to 40-plus old-timers and a handful of expatriates, Tham confirms that he sees many youngsters coming back for more every week. D’Cruz says he is surprised to find the younger lot more interested and informed about jazz, asking for various jazz standards.

But sometimes there can be too much of a good thing, as it is this weekend — the dedicated jazz crowd is going to have to decide between two extremely promising shows on December 2 and 3. Their choices swing between Jazz Utsav 2006 and Bunny Brunel & the Jazz All Stars.

The organisers of both shows have expressed regret over the clash of dates. Says Thadani, “Jazz Utsav might draw more people because it is a free event, but the fact that the other event is on the same night is very sad for the jazz crowd in Mumbai.

It’s disheartening that jazz lovers will have to choose.” While Neil Rodrigues, general manager of Pulz, host of the Bunny Brunel gig, says, “Those familiar with the artists will make sure they come, as it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I would also have loved to be there for the Jazz Utsav, but unfortunately they clash.” But perhaps this will boost the minuscule jazz scene, and the tribe of usual suspects turning up at all the shows will increase.

By Riddhi Parekh

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