Jazz in India

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Jazz in India has a rich history, and has had a great effect on western jazz and world music.


With African-American jazz artists traveling around the world, jazz began to emerge in India during the late 1920s in cities like Calcutta and Bombay. As Bombay became a metropolis, India’s freedom from British rule became imminent. The emergence of jazz was part of a growing artistic movement that stretched from about 1930 until about 1950; during this “Golden Age of Jazz,” artists like Leon Abbey, a violin player, brought the first eight-piece jazz band to India. Other artists, including Teddy Weatherford, who recorded with Louis Armstrong, played extensively in Calcutta and Bombay. Indian Jazz at this time lived in the night clubs and ballrooms of the major hotels in Bombay, especially the Taj Mahal Hotel Ballroom. As Nationalism started to make its way across the country, these venues served the European and Indian elite.

Many argue that one of the main reasons jazz was accepted into the Indian upper classes was because it represented Western modernization and progress. Many American jazz artists were asked to play in India after being seen performing in Europe (especially in Paris) by traveling Indians. The late ’40s and early ’50s saw a decline in Western jazz in India; by 1945, the big band era in India was at a close. During a time of prohibition and having recently secured independence, this era in Indian history saw a revolt against Western ideas and cultural influences, making it a difficult time to be a Western jazz musician in India, and leading to a shift toward Anglo-Indian music in night clubs and ballrooms throughout the country. Anglo-Indians are indigenous Indians mixed with British ancestry; Anglo-Indian Music is a mixture of classical Indian and Western music, and is not necessarily related to jazz.

The ’50s in India also saw some of the first native musicians playing modern, Western jazz. A saxophonist by the name of Braz Gonsalves was among the first Indians to perform modern jazz. In the early ’60s, Duke Ellington visited Bombay and played several dates there. Gonsalves noted that he felt that Ellington’s visit to Bombay was an incentive for India to assimilate Western jazz into its culture.

In America during the 1950s, many jazz musicians began to take notice of Indian classical music, using it as inspiration for their own music. John Coltrane’s recording of “My Favorite Things” provides one of the first examples of a fusion of Indian classical music and jazz. The influence of Indian classical and Middle Eastern music has been incorporated into the music of Don Ellis, Miles Davis, Maynard Ferguson, Sonny Rollins, and others. Ferguson and Rollins both visited India in the late ’60s to explore the country’s culture and music. In 1975 the first Indian jazz festival was established by native Indian jazz musicians. The festival, Jazz Yatra, is considered one of the most international jazz festivals in the world.


Modern Indo-Jazz is made up of several elements: forms are taken from traditional Indian and classical music, but improvisation is more idiomatic to jazz. Indo-Jazz dates back to around the mid 1950s, when American artists like John Coltrane and others including Indian musical influences in their own music. This blend of traditional Indian music and American jazz continued to grow and eventually became the genesis of new genres of music. An early example of more Western Indo-Jazz would be John McLaughlin’s The Mahavishnu Orchestra, a band that mixed rock, Middle Eastern, classical, and Indian influences together to form its own brand of fusion. Indian classical music has also had a huge effect on the development of free jazz. Through collaborations with certain bebop musicians (alto saxophonist Joe Harriott) who would eventually delve into free jazz, and Anglo-Indian musicians (pianist/violinist John Mayer) free jazz and other kinds of music began to take on a new shape and sound. Together these two musicians helped form Indo-Jazz Fusion, though it took many other collaborations of this kind to introduce an entirely new musical landscape and sensibility to free jazz.


Today in the Indian music scene, there are many centers for jazz; Mumbai, Delhi, Goa, and many other cities around the country are havens for Western and Indo-Jazz musicians. Several jazz festivals are held throughout the country, especially in Goa and Kolkata. New Delhi hosts several popular jazz clubs, such as the Blue Frog and Downstairs at Zo, where many international jazz musicians, including Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, frequently perform.

Below are examples of Indo Jazz, both Eastern and Western: Braz Gonsalves, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and John Mayer (an Indo-Jazz pianist/violinist).


          February 10, 2018