Bombay’s ‘hot’ Jazz scene

In September 2017, we met top musician, composer and all-round cool cat, Dom James. Countless late-night jazz sessions later, Dom went on to curate the rather excellent music for our one-off, immersive theatre production – ‘Night at the Bombay Roxy‘. We loved him and his band so much, they now play every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday in Dishoom Kensington from 7:30pm.

Dom is delightfully mad, incredibly talented and a genuinely brilliant fellow. Here he’s written some words (or nerdy jazz notes, as he calls them) on his love of jazz and how the Dishoom Kensington score came to be. We thank him immensely for his bottomless awesomeness.

My eyes lit up when director Ed Lewis first mentioned to me about directing the music for Night at The Bombay Roxy. The chance to combine my work in theatre music with my love of jazz (especially the swing era) and all with a fee for the pleasure!

I’ve played the clarinet since I was seven, and my grandfather first introduced me to Artie Shaw with a recording when I was 16. I remember it so well… It was John Bruce Yeh playing the Artie Shaw concerto for clarinet as well as Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto. It just seemed that the freedom jazz offered a musician on the clarinet was my kind of thing. It also gave me the freedom of playing in a band too, either large ensemble big bands, or smaller groups: a group of people communicating through music, portraying emotions, virtuosity and modern invention. Jazz involved an attitude to playing music that I wanted straight away.

NERDY JAZZ NOTES

There was a very strict condition on the music for Night at the Bombay Roxy. There was to be no music written after 1949. In addition, the jazz in 1949 Bombay wasn’t what you’d typically associated with the late ’40s. Players such as Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie were fronting the new sound of bebop in New York, but this music wasn’t in the blood of the musicians that found themselves in Eastern jazz hotspots such as Shanghai, Calcutta and, of course, Bombay. Expat musicians such as Teddy Weatherford were from the generation before, born around the turn of the century and had grown up in the swing era. Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Earl Hines were Weatherford’s guys, and his playing was very much in the style of these swing kings. Much of the music at places such as the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (or the more raffish neighbouring Green’s Hotel) in Bombay was intended for dancing. Swing bands led by Indian rhythm aces such as Frank Fernand, Rudy Cotton and Mickey Correa had music halls transfixed and Bombay’s smart set took to the dancefloor.

So, there’s a whole pile of musicians from all over the world, playing great swing music to full ballrooms throughout a post-independence Bombay in 1949. But what did the music sound like? Digging around, there are a few recordings that have surfaced from Calcutta recording sessions. I found a vinyl with some great music on it from bands led by Jimmy Lequime, Crickett Smith, Reuben Solomon and others.

The music is much in the style of the US bands such as Louis Armstrong’s Cotton Club era, Earl Hines, as well as the great stride piano players such as Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller and James Johnson. There are some slick arrangements, as there would have been on the bandstand. There’s also some great improvisation. Some of the ensemble playing is a little bit lumpy and lacks the finesse of full time and super-polished ensembles such as Duke Ellington’s early bands. There’s practically no Indianisation of the music, and it stays very true to its American roots. In some films from the ’50s, there’s the occasional glimpse of a fusion style, but it tends to be the playback singers vocals and lyrics that bring the Indian elements, and the band play it fairly straight. Check this out from Asha (1957):

But I’m going to stop here because writing about jazz is not something I’m good at. Jazz is an attitude and compared to listening to jazz in an immersive experience (or indeed in the old Bombay dancehalls), my words do it very little justice. So, I’ll just share some of the great music that inspired bothNight at the Bombay Roxy, and the music that myself and my fellow musicians love.

Listen on Spotify

And now, I invite you to come and see us (The Marine Liners) playing every Wednesday and Thursday at Dishoom Kensington from 7:30pm. Do come and listen, and definitely come and chat with the band. We’re usually found in the Permit Room with something strong and whisky-based in hand.

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