Jazz Music and India, By Madhav Chari
Jazz music is one of the most important artistic contributions of humankind in the modern era, and one of America's greatest contributions to the world of art.
One of the guiding features of jazz music is improvisation: the art of spontaneously creating sounds in real time. Improvisation within jazz music is not an "anything goes" approach and has guidelines and principles. This process of improvisation is analogous to improvisation in Hindustani and Carnatic music. In all these forms of music improvisation is structured (and the sound itself is structured according to particular musical grammar and vocabulary), there is a strong rhythmic basis to all the sounds that are created (and definite protocol in terms of rhythmic articulation or the way rhythm is projected), and there is a dynamic interplay of the different musicians on the bandstand (in other words musicians should be listening to each other). Within jazz music there is also a dialogue between the musicians in real time known as "call and response'' and this is similar in principle to the saval-jawab idea in Hindustani music.
However, the similarity ends there: the way in which jazz musicians organize sound is very different from carnatic or Hindustani musicians. To use a metaphor of language, the grammar, vocabulary and structure of the language and its idioms is radically different from carnatic and Hindustani, and is more closely related to western classical music and music forms from west and central Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
For an initial taste of jazz music, describing the music using the English language will not take anyone very far, and the only solution is to experience it firsthand: just listen to the great recordings of jazz musicians past and present. Make friends with the music, and do not worry about the "structure" of the music: just taste it for now.
The Indian influences in jazz music are not so much specific music forms such as Hindustani or carnatic but ideas behind these music forms (such as the drone to anchor the tonality and provide one reference point) and the idea that music is a conduit to higher consciousness. John Coltrane did some initial study on scales used in Indian music, but rather than organise tonal material using the structure of a specific raga, he was more interested in the "spirit of the music" and not so much the specifics of the music. In any case if one listened carefully and for a sustained period to his music in the 1960s, one can hear that his organization of sound is derived from both the blues as well as a sophisticated understanding of harmony. In fact if one wanted to make an analogy with Coltrane's music and Indian cultural traditions, the closest link would be the Bhakti movement within India, and the idea that ecstatic trances can provide conduits to higher consciousness (whether or not they are generated by music).
In India, jazz was probably first performed regularly in the metropoles Calcutta and Bombay around the late 1920s. African American musicians such as pianist Teddy Weatherford (who recorded with Louis Armstrong) and Crickett Smith were some of the founding fathers of Indian jazz music, and the 20s till the 40s was a golden era for jazz music within India. In the late 40s Bollywood was employing many musicians who were mainly jazz or western classical musicians, and one can hear strains of swing, cha cha cha and more basic jazz harmonies in the early music soundtracks. In that sense jazz music is not at all foreign to India.
Currently the Indian jazz scene is weak, and worse is the claim that many musicians in Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore or Kolkata "play jazz", when in fact the bulk of these musicians have little or no understanding of the working knowledge and grammar/vocabulary of jazz music: they do not even listen regularly to the works of the jazz masters. However there are listeners of the music, and if many listeners seem to be "turned off" by jazz music in India, it is not so much a fault of the music as the fault of substandard jazz (or not so jazz) musicians and promoters who perform and program the music with little passion, knowledge and integrity.
If you have a belief based on very partial knowledge and experience that jazz music is not accessible, that idea propagates itself and tends to become a self fulfilling prophecy: my own suggestion is to be open to the music, taste it a little bit, tap your feet to the swing of Count Basie or Horace Silver, be open to be moved by the bluesy sound of Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong and you are already on your way to becoming a listener of good jazz music. It really does not take that much effort.
The fact remains that high quality jazz music can have a resonance with audiences in India from western classical music, blues music, some rock music (especially very high energy jazz music), latin American music (e.g.salsa and tango are sister music forms to jazz), Hindustani/Carnatic (extremely dedicated high quality improvisation with dynamic interplay of musicians), and audiences who like music from "ecstatic" Bhakti type traditions including Sufi music from Rajasthan and Baul music from Bengal (the music that is deeply influenced by John Coltrane played with intensity and passion works well). I know this firsthand and all these audience groups have listened to me perform across India. The important principle to understand from a naive audience viewpoint when it comes to music is that people always remember the passion of the musician more than specific "things" that a musician did or specific nuances of a music form in a performance.
Jazz music also has resonances within India outside the immediate world of music. India is starting to make a very important mark as a serious global player on the world political and economic stage, and specific insights from jazz music can be used as pathways of creativity within the corporate workplace and can benefit India a great deal: for example a cutting edge project, the very first of its kind in the world, is a duet collaboration between martial artist George Kuriyan and myself. This multidimensional project initiated by George Kuriyan not only includes a duet concert performance, but targeted corporate workshop modules for both senior and middle management on creativity, leadership, crisis management and effectiveness in the workplace. This project in totality not only provides a link to the modern world, but at the same time provides access to the traditional mythologies and spiritual traditions of the world (including India). It answers an important question on an experiential level that India has been asking for over a hundred years: how to simultaneously access modernity and tradition.
My own response to the current Indian situation is to see possibilities where others do not see it. I also prefer to look at cups that people say are half empty, and see them as half full instead. This alteration of perspective has allowed me access to audiences that jazz musicians in India have never accessed in the entire history of jazz music in India. All this without diluting the core of the music that I play, and I do not play fusion.
Is there a viable future for jazz music in India: I think so, I am optimistic.
Madhav Chari’s new album “Parisian Thoroughfares” is available at all Landmark Outlets.