Think ‘jazz’ and the first names that pop up in your head would probably be Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane or perhaps, Bill Evans. The lay man rarely ever thinks of jazz as a genre of music associated with anything outside of 1950s and ‘60s standards, and yet, in India, this genre is fast gaining popularity and breaking musical boundaries, thanks to aficionados, students, teachers, and performers alike.
“About a decade ago, barely anyone except a small group of people was listening to jazz in India and today I have so many students coming up to me and saying they want to learn jazz because they want to use it in music production, and composing pop songs, and such.” reflects Anurag Naidu, a jazz pianist and teacher who has trained at the prestigious Bill Evans Academy, Paris and has recently come into his own as a modern jazz artist with his debut album, J’ai Fame.
He continues, “But you can’t come to learn jazz because you want to master it. You must feel it first, you must love it, and only then can you learn it. It’s not just a form, it’s an entire philosophy of music.” He has plans of putting up some basic jazz piano tutorials on YouTube, should it benefit someone who cannot afford exorbitant fees, or just generate an interest or awareness. As of now, he himself refers to online tutorials by ‘My Music Masterclass’ and ‘Elite Music Mentor’ and adds, “These days, I just have to post a video online and 5 people immediately hit me up for lessons.”
The demand and passion for jazz is definitely on the rise with jazz-centric courses being offered at leading music institutes in India—Global Music Institute (Delhi), True School of Music (Mumbai), and more. Speak to any jazz performer and you’ll know that learning this genre gives them an edge over any form of music, given its adaptability and flexibility. Naidu affirms, “Jazz means improvisation. If you play this, you can play anything.”
Remarkably enough, these artists-teachers have continued their experiments with jazz and other forms of music even through the pandemic. Naidu was already teaching jazz piano before the pandemic and now, he has just requested my students to move to online lessons. "I’ve also realized the importance of technology in writing, recording and teaching music and I’ve shifted to using the digital audio workstation Logic Pro for students to improvise on as opposed to improvising with them in person. All this time has also provided me a chance to start conceptualizing my second album—which will be quite different from the first,” he elaborates
Independent musician Aditi Ramesh has also been making a lot of music during the pandemic with two releases under her belt this year, Heal, a song about hope during the lockdown and how the environment is healing as the streets began to be emptied of people and Sambar Soul, a quirky genre-defying song with elements of Soul, hip hop, RnB and Latin grooves.
It hasn’t been the same for another independent artist, Shubhangi Joshi, who insists that things have slowed down after the pandemic. Although the band and she have been trying to write some new music, it’s difficult to do so remotely and the members are not forcing each other to do so. Meanwhile, singer Vasundhara Vee has shifted gears and self-published her first book, Big Dreams, Bold Choices: Handbook for emerging professional musicians in India. She also looks forward to releasing her first single as a solo act very soon in 2021.
Gaurav Shah, a student of Anurag Naidu and of the stalwart jazz guitarist Floyd Fernandes has been taking online Skype lessons from them. A qualitative researcher by profession, he comments, “Thanks to the internet, you can get in touch with any talent you need to and deeply understand the historical and contemporary context to jazz.” Speaking of his lessons with Naidu, he says, “Anurag is one of the best jazz teachers and pianists at the moment in India—I truly respect him. Not just his knowledge of jazz, but his emotional quotient as a teacher too. He knows exactly how to challenge a student and not just spoon-feed them. I want someone who pushes me into a corner and lets me figure it out, and he just gives me the clues.”
Both Joshi and Ramesh are inspired by age-old jazz but are boldly going forth into new territories. Ramesh comments, “Traditionally, the jazz scene in urban India was seen as elitist musicians playing mostly standards but these days, a lot of jazz-influenced originals are being produced. There’s a lot of crossover between independent music and jazz music, in terms of jazz musicians playing as session musicians for indie artists and indie audiences getting interested in jazz through original music. The divide between genres and audiences is breaking down. Original jazz music is totally amazing, so different from traditional jazz. It’s definitely getting a wider audience and more appreciation than ever before.”
For some, jazz music has stood for solace during the lockdown. And it’s heartening to see that as a musical genre, it is opening up into new territories, singer Vee comments, “Jazz has become very broad. This is natural for an idiom that is inclusive. So today, there are people representing aspects of the jazz universe. We see Jacob Collier blowing up notions of pitch and harmony; Gregory Porter representing masterful storytelling; Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens being queens of rhythm; Lalah Hathaway completely blurring the line between RnB and Jazz; Jazzmeia Horn keeping the scat sensibility alive.” Vee herself has been performing jazz live for the past decade, but strongly resists the label of a jazz singer. “For me, a song is a song. It so happened that I ended up resonating with songs within the Soul, Blues and Rock worlds that employed the jazz idiom. So people started calling me a jazz singer. I still don’t call myself a jazz singer.”
It is difficult to pin down and define jazz as the genre is so full of experiments and changes with every single decade, and every single geography that it touches upon. But if we were to speak about what makes jazz so ‘jazzy’, then what would the ingredients be? The old-world charm, the melancholic chords, the freestyle singing and experimentation perhaps? What hooks on audiences and performers to this special brand of music? Says Ramesh, “I love that it’s essentially this free space where nothing is a mistake—and even if it is, it’s repeated in a pattern till it becomes something intended.” Naidu comments, “The subtlety of it. I’m blown over by it every time.” Joshi feels that there are so many moods to it. It’s almost as if you’re seeing different colours when you listen to jazz. Just the sheer scope of how a song can be experienced in so many different ways is beautiful.
Vee has a totally different take on it and insists it isn’t the genre, but the singer and their story that makes a song what it is just that jazz singers are generally the ones who can do this best. “If you really get down to it, your sense of self comes from the story you know about yourself. Music is a tool, a conduit, a language. The singer’s sense of self is the story. A master singer can narrate with equal ease, his true pain and his maddening joy, he is vulnerable and powerful at the same time.”