Think of Calcutta and what springs to mind? Poverty, Mother Teresa, decay, chaos, radical politics, the infamous ‘Black Hole’.
How about the center of hot dance and jazz?
Between 1934-1945 Calcutta was the scene of a torrid jazz and dance culture that was led by a loose fraternity of African American musicians who had left the opportunity for lucrative careers in Chicago and New York to work and, in some cases, settle in the exotic ‘Orient’.
They moved between Calcutta and Bombay but also worked the popular hill stations where the Indian and European elites escaped the summer heat as well as in smaller provincial cities like Lucknow. From time to time they led orchestras in Colombo, Shanghai and even Indonesia (Surabaya), playing at luxury hotels and clubs, all the while living a ‘millionaire’s life’ as one of them gleefully wrote home in the late 1930s.
When they first landed in India, in the early 1930s, these musicians were members of larger European or American travelling jazz bands. But for a combination of reasons (money to be made, respect from local audiences, lifestyle, artistic freedom) several ‘jumped ship’ to set up their own orchestras. The chance to be the ‘leader’ rather than a member or even prominent soloist of a band that headlined at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, the Grand Hotel in Calcutta or the Trocadero Club in Mussoorie was too much to pass by.
The local audience was diverse: bored colonials who longed to ‘participate’ in the latest cultural developments of Europe and America; Anglo-Indian and Goan musicians of mixed blood who saw black jazz as inspirational and liberating, a way to renegotiate their marginalised position in a highly racist hierarchical society and; American GIs who flooded into India during the Second World War and who wanted a ‘slice’ of home on the weekends.
By the mid-40s when the war was well and truly ‘hot’ and bombing attacks came closer to Calcutta, the African American jazz brotherhood slowly faded away. What had seemed cutting edge ten years earlier now seemed out dated. New styles of jazz were available through radio and film. But the Goan and Anglo-Indians had been good students and were now leading a ‘cabaret’ jazz movement in Bombay that was to create a new ‘hybrid’ form of jazz-like music for Indian films.
Several of the musicians returned to the US and lived out their years giving the odd interview about their time in India. Others stayed on and died in India.
Tonight the Washerman’s Dog is very excited to present the story of two of the most prominent of these American jazz musicians who for a short time made India one of the world’s ‘hot jazz’ havens.
Teddy Weatherford, according to some authorities, was the ‘greatest jazz pianist no ever heard of!’ He learned the ‘ivories’ in New Orleans but then moved to Chicago in the 1920s where he played with Louis Armstrong in the Tate Vendome Orchestra. His piano playing style was highly influential and indeed, one of the absolute giants of the instrument, the great Earl Hines, paid tribute to Weatherford as one of his key influences. In 1926 he left American shores, first to Europe (Sweden and Paris) and then Asia. He played in various orchestras across these continents but found his ‘home’ in India where he stayed until his death (from cholera) in 1944.
Bradley Shope, an academic at the A&M University in Texas, is a leading authority on this subject, and I quote from one of his articles:
“Weatherford, often hired Goan and Anglo-Indian musicians to perform beginning in 1941 and was keen on hiring female crooners, while holding on to his stable of African American musicians such as Roy Butler, Creighton Thompson, Crickett Smith, Rudy Jackson as well as Cuban Luis Pedroso. His interest in creating a mixed-race performance group was both aesthetic and personal, as he married an Anglo-Indian woman, Lorna Shortland, who sang vocals in his bands.”
Roy Butler, like Teddy Weatherford, was a highly accomplished jazz musician in the US. Born in Indiana but musically active as a sax player in New York, Butler played with several important early jazz bands, such as Sammy Stewart and the trumpeter, Jimmy Wade. His most important connection was with the pianist/band leader Herb Flemming who toured across Europe, South America and Asia with his jazz bands.
It was as a member of this band that Butler landed in Calcutta for a six-month run at the Grand Hotel in 1933. When Flemming pulled up stumps for Shanghai in mid-1934, Butler chose to stay on and formed his own band and took up a gig at the elite Trocadero Club in Mussoorie, one of the most popular hill stations in north India. For the next ten years, Butler led and played in various bands (Trocadero Rhytym Aces, Deep South Boys, Crickett Smith’s Symphonians) and in the early 1940’s a jazz band made up entirely of Indian musicians, (Roy Baker’s Indian Orchestra).
To quote Shope once again:
‘Mussoorie, as a resort city, is an interesting locale to scrutinize to glimpse one facet of the flowering of jazz performances in India because it boasted a mixture of British, European, even a few American citizens, and wealthy Indian princes and their families, who were cosmopolitan enough to enjoy the summer series of live-band entertainment.’
Both Weatherford and Butler and other jazz artists recorded in India during this period and I post for your aural ecstasy this collection tonight. Also included in the download is a wonderful article on these artists and their influence on contemporary Indian music by the aforementioned Professor Bradley Shope.
I end this post with a personal confession: I went to school in Mussoorie and I had no idea that our lonely hill station had once been such a prominent venue of cutting edge American jazz. Alas, I never heard of the Trocadero Club so if any reader has any leads on how I can track down more info on this I’d be very grateful.
The entire topic of Jazz in India is an endlessly fascinating one and one to which the Washerman’s Dog will return again. But I would refer all who are interested to another brotherly blog TajmahalFoxtrot, by the amazing journalist and jazz aficiando, Naresh Fernandes, which is chocker block full of amazing photos, information and articles on India and Jazz.
01 Soho Blues [Lequime's Grand Hotel Orchestra]
02 The House Where the Shutters Are Green [Lequime's Grand Hotel Orchestra]
03 Taj Mahal [Crickett Smith and His Symphonians]
04 The Last Time I Saw Paris [Teddy Weatherford]
05 Blues in the Night [Teddy Weatherford]
06 Basin Street Blues [Teddy Weatherford]
07 Memphis Blues [Teddy Weatherford]
10 Jealous [All Star Swing Band]
11 My Gal Sal [Reuben Solomon and His Jive Boys]
12 The Last Call For Love [Reuben Solomon and His Jive Boys]
13 The Lady Who Didn't Believe in Love [Teddy Weatherford and His Band]
14 So Long, Sara Jane [The Hutson Sisters]
15 Don't Be a Talkie [Frank J Orford]
16 Ice Cold Katie [Teddy Weatherford and His Band]