What is jazz?

Over a hundred years after it’s origins in New Orleans we still don’t have one answer that defines jazz. The legendary answers over the years has been Fats Waller’s ‘If you don’t know what it is, don’t mess with it’, Louis Armstrong’s ‘Man, if you have to ask what it is you’ll never know’, Thelonius Monk’s ‘I don’t have a definition for jazz, you’re supposed to know it when you hear it’ and these are just some of the vague descriptions courtesy the jazz legends themselves.

One reason why there will never be a singular definition for jazz is because it has always been an open, alive and continuously evolving form of music that embraces all other sounds of music along the way. It has reached a stage today, where it can be called ‘world music’ but that would be at the risk of hurting American sentiment. To me, jazz is a form of improvised music, the key element here is ‘improvisation’. If improvised music is jazz then Indian classical music is a form of jazz with foundations laid over two thousand years before a hip name was coined for it. So jazz actually originated in India? No way, I can hear other countries chorus, improvised music always existed in many forms of ancient folk music around the world too. So let’s just leave it at jazz has been around for much longer than we know, it’s just that a new name was coined for it in New Orleans and I love the name. Today, jazz has grown into something much bigger than its name. It’s not just about improvisation, it’s about a meeting of minds and cultures.

My first encounter with jazz was very similar to the best way to learn how to swim, I was pushed into the deep end. In the early seventies every resident band in Mumbai’s starred hotels played jazz standards predominantly among other night club standards. I was offered a job as a bass player in one of those bands without knowing a single jazz standard. My first night on the job I got a ‘just keep walking’ brief from the band leader and at that moment I thought I was being fired. It turned out, the term used for ‘swing’ bass was ‘walking’ bass and that was my first ever learning experience. The beginning of a lifetime journey towards reaching for the next level. One thing good that came from that experience was the fact that I got my ears trained through sheer fright. I learnt to hear around the corner, instinctively hitting notes that would not draw grimaces from my fellow band members. Every song that was thrown at me was a challenge and in retrospect, I have to admit I had the best on the job ear training. Ten years of six nights a week gigs gave me my foundation from where I learnt to ‘walk’, ‘run’ and then ‘fly’.

Once I decided to take up music as a profession, I learnt how to read music and with the help of some great books, I got around to studying music theory and expanding my jazz vocabulary over the years. After my ten year ‘internship’ I went out into the world and experienced other genres of music performing all kinds of music with all kinds of musicians across India and around the world. Goa always topped my gig destinations while I was based in Mumbai. I always had this dream of someday moving back to my ancestral place where music flowed through everyones veins, musician or not. The dream came true in the year 2008 when I set up home, studio and bass (base) in a place called Sangolda. I am surrounded by rice fields with mongoose, squirrels and peacocks strutting around nonchalantly. An absolute paradise compared to Mumbai. I then went about spreading my first love jazz by setting up an organisation called ‘Jazz Goa’. Within four years Jazz Goa had a database of over five thousand jazz enthusiasts and over a hundred jazz originals composed by local talent and produced by Jazz Goa. Many of these tracks reached No.1 on international internet charts and this only encouraged me to do even more.

Next thing I took in my stride was an offer to host a radio show on a premier international music radio station called Indigo 91.9 FM. Hosting a radio show was something I would never have even dreamt of but then that’s show business, an absolute roller coaster ride. I immediately went about producing the two hour weekly episodes calling it ‘Goa Grooves’. The show featured only originals by local talent and went on air as a first of its kind in India for western music. Next came television where I produced the same show this time centered around live performance videos shot at local venues, another first time for television in India. Both these shows generated a huge following with people looking forward to, tuning in and staying tuned to every episode. So I was now performing, producing audio and video, hosting radio and television and running a website http://www.jazzgoa.com all at once. Something I’m sure would be humanly impossible if it weren’t for my beautiful wife Diana who I met soon after moving to Goa. She works relentlessly by my side, taking on the role of Jazz Goa’s official photographer and videographer and also managing the many bands I perform with. Together we document just about every stage of Jazz Goa’s evolution and broadcast it world-wide, thanks to the internet. Local talent in Goa finally got a platform that launches them out to the rest of the world. And here’s the best part, it’s done absolutely free of cost. Just my way of giving back to a profession that gave me everything and more.

Jazz Goa has hosted the ‘International Jazz Day’ in Goa right from it’s inception by the UNESCO in the year 2012. Every year on the 30th of April musicians from across India and around the world take the stage in Goa to celebrate this global sound of music. One of the high points in my career came when I got a phone call from a UNESCO official who wanted to explore the possibilities of having Panjim as host city for a future International Jazz Day. I went ballistic, this would mean just about every living jazz legend decending into Goa and performing here, putting us on the world jazz map. I gave them all the information they asked for and have my fingers crossed. Goa always has great visiting jazz artistes but this would be an absolute game changer for jazz in India. Goa has produced internationally acclaimed jazz musicians right through it’s history in India. Pianist Dizzy Sal, saxophonist Braz Gonsalves, trumpet player Chic Chocolate, drummer Leslie Godinho are just a few that come to mind off hand. One Goan musician Trilok Gurtu actually spearheaded the evolution of jazz, making it to the world’s best percussionist in Downbeat polls for seven years, a record of sorts for any jazz musician. The Portuguese influence in Goa made western culture a way of life for Goans. In the early years, the Church Choir in Goa was where most Goan musicians got their solid foundations in music through what is called the ‘solfegio’ system. They then took it out into the world through bands, orchestras and bollywood. The Indian film’s music industry had it’s foundations laid by Goan musicians who taught them music notation and orchestration. Today the industry stands tall even in the international arena. Goan musicians spread out all over the world establishing themselves wherever they were, even while maintaining low profiles thanks to our inherent ‘susegaad’ attitude.

Q: What is the dfference between a jazz musician and a pizza?

A: A pizza can feed a family of four!

The highs and lows are many in my career spanning over four decades now. One high point for sure would be an invitation to perform on the Hennessey XO ‘Smooth and Mellow’ International jazz tour. This world renowned tour only featured legendary artists signed on to the American Blue Note label. For the first time an unsigned Indian jazz band from Mumbai went on this tour thanks to one of the Hennessey head honchos who heard the band at a corporate event in Mumbai. Needless to say this was one tour that made us feel like stars, complete with personal limousines and stays at some of the world’s best hotels. One low point would be performing at ‘Jazz by the Bay’ in Mumbai, the management had the habit of insulting the performers onstage by switching on cricket matches on a huge TV screen alongside the stage even while the band performed. Once after a particularly great rendition we were greeted with huge applause, we took a bow only to find out the applause was for a sixer that Sachin Tendulkar hit on the screen alongside us.

Just one of the many jokes that sum up the story of most jazz musicians. What is it about jazz that makes a jazz musician stick to a form of music that record label A & R managers keep summing up as a sure route to starvation? One good reason is the fact that jazz allows me to be myself as opposed to pop that wants me to be a Madonna. I would rather be me than strut on stage wearing conical jocks. I remember a male Hindi pop singer’s album, conceptualised by some genius A & R manager for sure, titled ‘Mai bhi Madonna’ ( I’m Madonna too ) with the artist dressed in drag on the album cover. Jazz as you will see if you have heard of ‘Mai bhi Madonna’, helps me retain my individuality and what’s left of my sanity in this big mad world of music marketing. Jazz is the medium I choose to express myself and communicate musically with my audience. I know a lot of people in the audience may not understand my intense shoo-bee-doo-bee-doo-bop and emotive ‘twidlee-didllee-doo-wop’ but there’s always the few who can ‘feel’ what they can’t figure. Very often the message I communicate may read ‘hey bro, i’m broke again, how about a loan?’ but when I know even a few in the audience are enjoying my music I feel like a millionaire!

Talking about Jazz by the Bay here’s a limerick I wrote that got published in the Bombay Times around the time when jazz was fading out of Mumbai.

It started as Jazz by the bay

Then Rock and Pop joined the fray

Now Karaoke nights

Next hindi-pop frights

While Jazz has been left by the way

Pretty much sums up the history of the one and only jazz club in Mumbai that kept changing it’s name from ‘Jazz by the Bay’ to ‘Not just jazz by the bay’, and then it should have changed to ‘hardly any jazz by the bay’ and finally to ‘pizza by the bay’ when it all ended. Mumbai has been and will always be bollywood city. It’s always an uphill task for jazz to survive in a country ruled by bollywood and cricket. But it has and always will, as long as there are people who remain passionate about this great form of music. Out of the dying embers of ‘Jazz by the bay’ leaped a ‘Blue Frog’ a live music venue that brought in some legendary jazz acts from around the world. So you’ll always find jazz in some form or the other being sneaked in, in between ‘choli ke peeche’ and ‘kajra re’. Anyway it was the year 2008 and it was time for me to move to Goa and a breath of fresh air after Mumbai. The only regret I have about moving to Goa is that I should have moved a long time before I did. Like most Mumbaikars I kept hanging on to a city that was turning into a social and cultural graveyard.

What’s next?

I’ve always had a ‘best is yet to come’ philosophy with my music and also my life. So the answer to that will always be ‘something better!’. The learning process for a musician is a never ending one, there is no such thing as a ‘master’ and i’m sure most legends would agree. Universities should stop dishing out those ridiculous ‘master of..’ degrees simply because there’s always something more that can be learnt about anything in life. In retrospect I can say there are three stages in a musician’s career – imitation, asimilation and innovation. We start off trying our best to perform like our idols, absorbing all that we learn from them and finally creating a sound of our own. One of the biggest compliments I got was when a fan came up to me and told me he was seated in the hotel lobby, he heard a band playing somewhere in the hotel, traced the sound and entered the restaurant because he knew I was playing bass and this person wasn’t a musician. So that was most definitely the compliment of a lifetime and the one I’ll never forget.

Today the internet offers us a world of knowledge and virtually the world itself. I produce a song and broadcast it to the whole world the same instant. The internet has done away with the middle man. Artists can create and showcase their work internationally even without being signed on to an artist management or record label. Technology has and will always be a part of evolution. My advise to youngsters starting off with music careers today is ‘make use of technology but don’t forget music is created by musical instruments and not by pressing the play button on a laptop’. Today EDM (electronic dance music) has taken over the world with thousands flocking to huge arenas to watch a DJ press ‘play’ on a gigantic stage built to accomodate a tiny laptop. Good for them, what’s good for me is a small smoky nightclub where the lights are dim, the band is smokin’ and the whisky is flowing. Out of sync with today’s music scene but completely in sync with my soothed soul.

Colin D’Cruz