International Jazz Day strikes a chord in Pune: ‘Jazz has become cool again’
IN THE mid-1940s, two musicians were having dinner in New York City. One was Vladimir Horowitz, a virtuoso classical pianist. Horowitz had been working on a composition, “Tea for Two”, for months to impress his guest, the jazz pianist Art Tatum. Horowitz performed the piece — once, twice, thrice. The fourth time, Tatum sat down at the piano and performed his improvised version of it. The story goes that Horowitz was so stunned, he never performed the piece in public again.
As the world marks International Jazz Day on April 30, Harmeet Manseta, pianist of the band “The Vocal ‘S’ Experience”, which performs frequently in Pune, narrates this story to make a point. “Jazz is how we deal with life, except we do it with sound. It is not the past, not the future, it is the moment — it is now. There is no right or wrong chord. It’s a chord. You don’t judge it, you react to it,” he says.
Jazz has been constantly evolving with heavy focus on improvisation. It started off in New Orleans in the 1920s. A reflection of its people, jazz was a medley, developed by African Americans who were influenced by European harmonic structure and African rhythms. It originated partially from ragtime and blues.
“Originally, jazz was music of blasphemy. Say, you take a Mozart piece. If you don’t like a chord and you’re performing it in the classical way, there’s nothing you can do. You read the sheet and perform it as is. But, if you were to do it the jazz way, you can say: ‘no, I don’t like that chord’, and do your own thing. It’s blasphemy, hence the word ‘jazz’. It’s not a genre, not a style, it’s not a what but a how,” says Manseta with a smile, adding that unlike jazz, every genre is “stuck in their genre”.
Jazz came to India soon after it made a mark in America, although its history has been somewhat forgotten. It has been reported that musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington performed in Afghanistan and India. In 1957, one of India’s most renowned jazz musicians, Chic Chocolate, played the trumpet for “Eena Meena Deeka”, the hit jazz-rock song from the film “Aasha”. However, rock soon eclipsed jazz’s popularity.
“Jazz has been fleeting in Pune. It comes and goes. There’s not a lot of musicians around,” says Tanish Thakker, editor of ‘Jazz in India’ and director of ‘Gatecrash’. “The Shisha cafe kept the jazz scene alive for a really long time (in the city). Now there’s some venues where we get touring musicians to perform,” he adds.
One such musician, Jean-Cristophe Cholet, says, “As an artist, it doesn’t matter to us how many people are present in the show — whether it’s just four, or it’s sold out. What matters is that we are playing.” Cholet is the pianist of a French jazz band, “Miss Kiss”, which performed last week in Delhi, Pune and Mumbai.
“I think it is popular now, perhaps in Asia — China, Korea, Japan — from a long time. It’s my first time in India. But people were very attentive and maybe surprised. We don’t play typical jazz — it’s not bebop, not swing. We do a lot of instant composing,” says Cholet. He says that jazz still enjoys immense popularity in France. They have over 300 music festivals and see a lot of American musicians visiting. He adds that there are more musicians but less places to play and says “musicians now must teach”.
“In my experience, in the past decade, the jazz scene (in India) has improved a lot. There’s more venues, more festivals, more of a younger crowd — it has become cool again. A lot of tier-two cities like Shillong and Guwahati are open to jazz now,” says Thakker.
“There have always been really good musicians and there’s always an audience for it. It’s like we have fast food, which everyone likes, and we have cuisine — everyone may not like it but it’s fantastic cooking. So jazz is a bit like that, it’s never really comparable to Bollywood but there’s an audience for it, for sure,” says Manseta.
“The best thing about it is, a performance can never be repeated — not even 5 seconds. It’s just four people on stage, having a conversation through music. And you can’t ever, exactly replicate a conversation. Songs just become the topic of conversation,” he says.