American jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once said, “there’s so much spirit of integration and democracy in jazz”—and a modest little jazz club in Delhi took that memo seriously, becoming a space which created a whole new culture of democratic musical engagement in the Capital. Three and a half years, thousands of whisky sours and nearly 1,300 shows later, The Piano Man Jazz Club (TPMJC) is all ready for its second venue at Gurugram’s 32nd Milestone.
Today, the club’s standing is undisputed within the fraternity of artists as well as music lovers and the Gurugram outlet, scheduled to open on 13 May, is primed to set the stage for bigger things.
When the three-storey TPMJC opened its doors to the public in September 2015, one could only guess how a venue that put together a bakery, a restaurant and a jazz club would fare. However, the opening night made it clear that music would take centre stage.
An inaugural performance by Latin jazz pianist Pradyumna Singh Manot with a full house in attendance was a portent of things to come. That night, owner Arjun Sagar Gupta left the club on a scooter borrowed from his driver, dressed in a three-piece suit with a cigar dangling from his lips. As he zipped through the neighbourhood, he soaked in the fact that his dream of opening a jazz club was finally a reality.
Gupta, a trained pianist, Fulbright music scholar and restaurateur, opened The Piano Man owing to a combination of reasons. “It was a basically a deep love for music and a frustration with existing music venues,” says Gupta, who started the brand in 2012 with The Piano Man Art Café in Vasant Vihar, which served cakes and vegetarian European fare. His favourite spot was a piano at the centre of the room, where he would pretty much sit and play for hours each day.
Buoyed by the diners who would come to listen to him, one fine day the man at the piano decided to take the leap and open a club. And unlike his earlier establishments, which were constrained by budgets and the whims of landlords, this time he went all out, and with a very clear vision—to open a bar that would focus on artists and bring jazz to the Capital. It took a couple of months, several big-ticket performances by Indian jazz stars and word-of-mouth marketing for the club to register a serious turnout.
The road to success hasn’t been without the occasional bump. From facing flak after hiring a band with a casteist name to being called high-handed for his rather strict enforcement of the “no talking” rule during a performance, Gupta has had to tread a somewhat uncharted path with his “artists first” approach and total respect for the music being played on stage.
“I wanted to challenge the idea that jazz is niche and it’s not for Delhi, as what was not being factored in was the lack of exposure. The minute exposure becomes an active commodity, you automatically start generating a community for that art form,” says Gupta. And it was with this ambitious idea that he started TPMJC.
Gupta wanted to take jazz out of black-tie concert-hall venues, making it accessible and offering a stage that would welcome all. So whether it is Indian jazz stars like Adil and Vasundhara, Utsav Lal and Carlton Kitto, international brass band ensembles or young singer-songwriters, The Piano Man stage is all about showcasing talent.“We realized that the moment you made a place primarily about the music, the entire proposition of respect changes, and, from Day 1 to now, the Piano Man team has been trained to respect the artists first, followed by the customers,” says Gupta.
The club management steers away from an economic profiling of its guests, focusing instead on what Gupta calls “cultural profiling”, and whether they like the product on offer. There is no way to gauge this until they actually come in and listen to the music. And, in keeping with this, the club initially had a non-ticketed open-door policy to welcome people to listen to the music. Although the events are now ticketed, the prices are still low, ranging from ₹99-499.
It has become one of those bars which offers Prohibition-era classic cocktails and a fine-dining experience, but is able to keep things simple enough for those who are just there for the music. Occasionally, Mukesh, the neighbourhood parking attendant, strolls in to listen to a song and he is as welcome as a group of backpack-toting college students. It’s also not all that unusual to catch the occasional writer, journalist or CEO seated in a corner, taking in the night’s act, or getting a quick drink with friends.
Musician Lesle Lewis drops in whenever he is the city. He is also someone who has performed here. For him, the club is a place for those who care about quality music. “While I love the intimate vibe of the place, my performance at The Piano Man holds a special place for me in my musical career,” he says. On the night he performed there, he played a set of five known songs while the rest was unreleased stuff. “That doesn’t happen in most places I perform,” he says.
A table is never guaranteed, no matter where you figure in the celebrity index. Even rapper-singer Yo Yo Honey Singh was unable to secure a table when he visited on a packed night and had to make do with standing room at the bar.
By Delhi standards, TPMJC is modestly sized, yet there is a piano on every level. Fifteen hundred square feet packs in a stage with an upright piano and a handful of tables on the ground floor. A stairway doubles up as informal seating on busy nights and snakes up to a mezzanine level which offers a great view of the performance. “The idea of going vertical is to reduce the visual distance between the artist and the audience, and it compresses the space and keeps it intimate,” says Gupta. A multi-tiered art deco-inspired chandelier made up of over 50 trumpets occupies pride of place. Diffused lighting, and exposed brick walls channel the vibe of 1950s’ smoky New Orleans jazz clubs.
Since he is a musician himself, sound design is very important and Gupta has opted for distributed sound through speakers placed throughout the club. “And because the space is small, the direction of the sound comes from the live music and everything can be heard at an even volume,” he says.
The second floor of the building which used to house a bakery, has recently been replaced by a private members-only speakeasy called the Tatum Room. The tiny space is dominated by a 60-year-old grand piano which has been converted into a quirky bar top. The third floor is occupied by the Dirty Apron, a dining area which showcases experimental global cuisine, and a gleaming piano is perfectly at home with its chic vintage vibe. While chef Ruchira Hoon fuses modern European and Asian fare, the bartenders shake up nifty cocktails. Surprisingly, one of the most popular drinks here is the classic whisky sour. It is our chosen drink for the night as well. The drink straddles the smokiness of the whisky with the lemon zest, and the swirled orange peel on the egg white crown keeps the whole thing perfectly balanced with not one flavour note out of place. “We have sold up to 200 of them in a single night,” says Deepak, one of the senior bartenders on the floor.
Experimental is a word that fits well with this club, and, over time, the programming has expanded to incorporate much more than jazz. There is a performance scheduled every day, and the eclectic list and quality of acts has ensured a healthy turnout.
One of the highlights has been a concert with jazz legend Chick Corea. A cancelled show in Delhi and a chance email exchange between Gupta and Corea led to the performance of a lifetime. Gupta broke a portion of the existing wall to accommodate a Steinway & Sons piano for the maestro to play on, for no effort was too much to accommodate Corea, one of his all-time idols.
The night we visit, 25-year-old singer-songwriter Bhavya Raj keeps the surprises going with experimental fusion music blending Bollywood classics with indie rock’ n’ roll. It is an audience of regulars and first-timers. Couples, big and small groups of people are huddled around tables with cocktails—all the makings of a regular evening at a regular bar, yet conversation remains hushed and all eyes are turned to the band on stage. And then, on the dot at 10.45pm, the club enacts its nightly ritual of the silent song. The bar is closed for the duration of a song, cocktail shakers are put down, phones are turned to the silent mode, and conversations trickle to a close. The song ends in thundering applause.
It’s a strange kind of silence but one that works well in an establishment run by a piano man