It is rare to get an opportunity to interact with two legends of the jazz world at the same time. When I was offered the chance to have a conversation with Louiz Banks and George Brooks, I was thrilled.
George Brooks is an American saxophonist and composer. He is acclaimed for bridging jazz and Indian classical music. George is the founder of Indian fusion groups, Summit with Zakir Hussain, Steve Smith, Kai Eckhardt and Fareed Haque, Bombay Jazz with Larry Coryell and Ronu Majumdar, the Raga Bop Trio with Steve Smith and Carnatic guitarist Prasanna and Elements with Indian violinist Kala Ramnath and Dutch harpist Gwyneth Wentink.
While Louiz Banks needs no introduction in this part of the world. He has been spearheading the Jazz Movement in India for the past three decades and has been singularly instrumental in bringing a high standard of international jazz to India.
The Godfather of Indian jazz will be performing alongside George Brooks for the ‘International Jazz Day – Mumbai Celebration’, to be held on 30th April and 1st May 2021, 7 pm onwards. The event is curated by Mr. Louiz Banks himself and organized by Gigatainment which is headed by Neil Banks.
Here below are some excerpts from the conversation.
What can one ask two legends of the jazz world? One is considered the Godfather of Indian Jazz and the other a prolific and diverse saxophonist and composer.
Can you legends dwell on your journeys so far, considering that you both deal with music that is non-native to you and worked with global stalwarts of music?
George: I can’t speak for Louiz but I never felt the music was non-native for me. Growing up in a family which really didn’t have a musical tradition as such, I was listening to Peter Paul and Mary, The Beatles, and others.
When I was 14 years old, I heard Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and was blown by their music. About 5 years later I heard Ustad Ali Abkar Khan and The Dagar Brothers and it enchanted me.
All this happened when I was quite young. It wasn’t that I was brought up in a rigorous Indian classical music household and then I was suddenly listening to Jimi Hendrix. All the music was new to me and it inspired me. It was a whole lot better when I came to India. Louiz what were your feelings as you did grow up in a musical family?
Louiz: Yes, I did and was lucky for that. My father was a great musician and a teacher as well. Whatever I learned was from me. I had an early start playing the trumpet! How about that?
George: So the music didn’t feel non-native to you as it was always there.
Louiz: It was always there and it was western music. This was surprising as in a remote place like Darjeeling no one heard western music forget jazz. My father came from a Jazz background and played with Teddy Weatherford, the American jazz pianist, as the trumpeter. He had his own band so I come from such a background. I grew up listening to him playing swing dance music in a nightclub. My real connection with jazz happened when I heard Oscar Peterson.
You (Louiz) played what was essentially the “desi” music, even though you played the piano, for Bollywood movies. To maintain balance between Bollywood music, composing jingles, and being the Godfather of Indian Jazz must have been quite a tightrope.
Louiz: It was a tightrope surviving with jazz alone. Let me put it that way. We were living hand to mouth playing jazz but having a great time. Then out of the blue RD Burman showed up and offered me the piano chair in his orchestra. He also asked to play for his movies which became the turning point for me.
I accepted his offer as it was something new and I wanted to try it and of course it brought in the moolah!
Luckily for me, Burman’s music, though melodious, had western orchestration and he allowed me the freedom I wanted. Then the advertising people discovered me.
‘Ting ting ti ting’ just four notes and I kept running to the bank. But I have never lost track of my jazz roots.
Did you (George) ever want to take a plunge in the Indian movie industry as a composer?
George: For that, I would have to be in India. I think I am in a better position for it now. Back then I was still discovering myself as an artist and was immersed in blues and jazz. I was touring with some of the biggest names in RnB and jazz and worked very closely with composer Terry Riley.
Though I was fortunate to have started touring at a young age, I also had kids to take care of at home. So it was about touring, raising kids, and discovering myself as an artist.
I was lucky that many great Indian classical musicians like Ustad Zakir Hussian, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and others, lived here in California so I could work a lot with them all.
My first trip to India was to study in 1980. The first time I performed there was in 2001 with Zakir, Louiz, and Karl Peters at the Taj Hotel.
One thing I want to add is that even though Louiz was doing jingles, playing as a jazz musician, and also in Burman’s band, he is always writing and creating something new.
I really admire this quality of his. For me to work with other musicians, I need to know them well.
As a composer, Louiz is one of the first people I have met who writes a jazz chart with chord changes. It was nice to meet someone who shared my thoughts and was immersed in jazz.
In fact, I would hang out at his place with him and his drummer son Gino Banks and learn something new about music from them. I would listen to Bade Ghulam Ali saab and they to Scott Kinsey.
Would you (Louiz) now compose for a masala Bollywood movie?
Louiz: I have and I would again if I get a contract. Whether giving it my touch would work or not, I don’t know. But I am open to everything.
George: That is true for all of us. If somebody comes to us with a good idea and a decent budget, we will endeavor to compose something relevant to them and their project.
What has been the most memorable incident for you over the years? There must be thousands of songs between you two.
Any incident from the recordings or while on stage that is still fresh in your minds?
George: I remember Zakir recording a fairly simple rhythm some kid of a ‘theka’ and just ‘keeping time’ in the studio. If you have seen him perform live, he is into the fifth gear.
There’s some energy pouring into him from above and he is in a state of utmost concentration. That day in the studio, I saw him in the same mindset or soul set while just ‘keeping time’.
It was so inspiring to see someone who is a master being so focused on just maintaining a groove. That memory is still fresh for me.
This was a good memory, any ‘funny’ ones?
George: We are not allowed to say those.
Louiz: No names, George. No names!
George: Louiz remembers when we and John McLaughlin played at 6 am for Abbaji’s barsi that was a very special moment.
Louiz: Absolutely special moment.
George: It was the first time Zakir had jazz or any genre other than Indian classical music, in the morning for the ‘barsi’. He was a little skeptical about it.
Louiz: But it was a packed house at 6 am and what lovely vibes!!
George: There’s a funny story to this. I was wearing a black kurta with gold strips and thought I looked really great. The rest 2500 people were dressed in white! I was so embarrassed but luckily Zakir had a pair of white kurta pyjamas which he gave me.
Louiz: There are times when someone forgets their solo parts and there is a blank. Most of the time it’s me. But we cover it up somehow.
The music space has changed completely since you two started playing. The songs are now shorter and more commercially inclined. Do you think jazz songs will get shorter?
Louiz: Never, in fact, it will only grow. More people will understand the beauty and depth of jazz. It will outgrow every other genre.
George: Music inspires the musician. Once you are bit by the bug or inspired to create, there is no stopping. There are some phenomenal musicians today from India and globally.
It is always going to be a challenge to earn a living with only royalties as there are no more physical sales. But the younger artists have to find a way to earn as it is essential for their survival.
Louiz: I always tell young musicians that it’s good that they are jazz musicians. They should be jazz musicians as it will make them better artists which will enable them to play better music. One shouldn’t alienate jazz as music for the niche as it is global and interacts with every music and person.
George: One has to listen and develop their ears for understanding jazz music. Jazz is about the conversation which we term as improvisation.
What can we expect from your set at the ‘International Jazz Day – Mumbai celebration’?
Louiz: It is going to be up-tempo is all I will say.
George: Louiz has composed a complicated one but I am sure the audience will love it.