All that ‘jasm’: Why we need jazz now more than ever

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on December 20, 2019 Published on December 19, 2019

Never miss a beat: Indian jazz musicians famous in mid-20th century Bombay and Calcutta have largely been forgotten today   -  IMAGE COURTESY: THE PIANO MAN JAZZ CLUB

A genre that’s continually evolving, jazz has the power to defy labels and borders

The word “jazz” did not originate in New Orleans, as I’d thought. It was coined in Chicago from the American slang word jasm, meaning energetic. The word jasm had sexual connotations and hence its sanitisation to jazz. Some say the word comes from Jasmine, which was a popular fragrance in the perfumes worn by prostitutes in New Orleans.

If you have heard the swinging groove in the song Mera naam chin chin chu from the ’60s Bollywood film China Town; or the madcap Kishore Kumar song Eena Meena Deeka, or the famous drum section in the song Aaja Aaja from Teesri Manzil, you have heard Indian jazz. Saxophones, drums, bassoons, guitars were all played by Indian jazz musicians famous in the elite circles of Bombay and Calcutta in mid-20th century India. But to the rest of us, they remained relatively unknown.

The studies on Indian jazz, primarily based in Bombay and Calcutta, have been marginal. Some definitive contributions to its study include the book Taj Mahal Foxtrot by journalist Naresh Fernandes, and the very evocative documentary Finding Carlton by Susheel Kurien. The film is a tribute to Carlton Kitto, the great teacher and performer who died a few years ago. The play Bombay Jazz by Ramu Ramanathan is another jewel reflecting the richness of this hidden colonial legacy.

Today, cross-cultural influences in music are inevitable as the world gets more interactive, so old definitions may not hold good. Indian music has had a headstart by integrating Western instruments such as the violin and harmonium into its traditional repertoire. We see it happening the other way round now — Indian music is influencing other cultures.

Composer-pianist and lover of collaborations, Eero Hämeenniemi from Kerava, Finland, is a familiar figure in Chennai in the Margazhi month when he visits India “for the music, the warm weather and the food”. He has composed music around the specific skills of Carnatic singer Bombay Jayashri and mridangam maestro Karaikudi Mani and many other Carnatic musicians.

In his words, “I am like a tailor. I develop a personal understanding of the musical landscape that a musician inhabits, and design for them an outfit.” His compositions such as Red Earth and Rain and Layapriya are a testimony of his musical abilities as described by him. Layapriya has been described by a New York Times critic as “a complex and haunting melange of a Western orchestra and South Indian musicians”. The newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza of Poland raves about Layapriya, calling it “the rhythm of nature itself, reaching a mystical Nirvana. There is nothing beyond!”

Hämeenniemi feels Carnatic music and jazz are similar, both being based on developing a pre-composed theme through improvisation. He also adds that any definition of jazz is too narrow. “Once defined, it ceases to be jazz.”

This non-definition of jazz is echoed by the Grigoryan brothers, classically trained guitarists from Australia who have strong elements of improvisation within a structure in their compositions.

Over email, Leonard Grigoryan comments, “Today, jazz is less easy to define than in the past. I see this as a good thing.” For him, jazz music, like any art form, continues to develop and evolve. “For decades, the jazz idiom was defined by its rhythm, feel, harmonic structure and, most importantly, the element of improvisation, whereby the performers ‘spontaneously compose’ music according to the chord structure and in reaction to what the other musicians in the ensemble are playing in the moment,” he says. In more recent times, cultural and stylistic elements have been introduced to jazz, making it less definable according to its early structure. “Labelling music makes it easier to market it to the general public; however, for me, music should be defined by how it moves you and not by a predetermined label,” he notes.

The brothers enthralled Mumbai audiences on December 10 with a range of musical compositions on their guitars, some of them still being work in progress. The concert is aptly titled “Past, Present, and Future”. The guitarists performed in Delhi, too.

On the universal nature of music, Slava Grigoryan adds, “Today, music from all corners of the world is completely accessible. Hence music from disparate cultures is heard and appreciated by communities in countries and cities that in the past would not have done so. A few years ago at the Adelaide Guitar Festival, the consensus among musicians from all over the world was that the sooner labels were removed from music, the better. People would drop their preconceived prejudices and just listen to the music for its inherent beauty.”

I left the concert feeling validated for my belief in the universal power of the arts. Despite the climate of hostility and division across cultures, as a result of our world’s political environment, music fills that chasm with its levity and life-affirming jasm.



Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

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Published on December 19, 2019
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