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From New Orleans to India – The Global Influence of Jazz



Did you know that the drum set was invented by jazz musicians? Did you know that the word “cool” and “hip” were originally jazz terms?

Since its birth in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, to the music we hear today, jazz music has had a colourful journey.
New Orleans was essentially a town where the party never stopped. Being a major port city, people from all over the world landed there, and as a result, musicians were exposed to a variety of music. Opera, military marching bands, folk music, the blues, choir, traditional African drumming, and all of the dance styles that went with these forms of music could be heard and seen throughout the city. Blues formed the foundation of not only jazz music but of rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and country music as well. Blues is still evolving and is still widely played today.

European classical music, American blues, and South American songs and rhythms fused to be known as jazz.
Jazz is a reflection of the cultural diversity America was integrating at the time. At its core of jazz has an openness to include all kinds of influences and personal expression. First performed in bars, jazz can now be heard in clubs, concert halls, universities, and large festivals all over the world.

Origin of the term ‘jazz’

jazz music

The first recorded jazz song is said to be ‘Livery Stable Blues’ by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, later renamed as Original Dixieland Jazz Band, in 1917. The word ‘Jass’ was considered a sexual slang with a reference to a woman’s backside. It is also believed to be related to ‘jasm’, a slang meaning ‘pep or energy’. Another story has it that the word ‘Jass’ referred to the jasmine perfume that prostitutes in the famed Storyville red light district of New Orleans, where jazz music developed, often wore. How it got renamed to ‘Jazz’ remains unclear.

What qualifies as jazz?

Chords, melodies, and rhythms are arranged in contrasting sections which are then combined into various configurations. This is jazz music. There are two common ways to configure contrasting sections: (1) twelve-bar-blues form and (2) thirty-two-bar-pop-song form. These musical compositions, which are an important part of the repertoire of jazz musicians, are called Jazz Standards. They are widely known, performed, and recorded by jazz musicians and the fans are well aware of them. The twelve-bar-blues and the thirty-two-bar pop song formats support the most defining feature of jazz – improvisation. It is the impromptu creation of melodies and rhythms that allows individual voices to be heard. Improvisation is creating, or making up, music as you go along. Jazz musicians play from printed music and they improvise solos. From the collective improvisation of early jazz to the solo improvisation of Louis Armstrong, improvisation remains central to jazz.

The Louis Armstrong Influence

Louis Armstrong was one of the most influential artists in the history of jazz. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, he began playing the cornet at the age of 13. Armstrong perfected the improvised jazz solo as we know it. Before Armstrong, a prominent style of collective improvisation was performed where everyone would go solo at once. Armstrong developed the idea of musicians playing during breaks that expanded into musicians playing individual solos. This became the norm and made Armstrong a living legend.

“Through his clear, warm sound, unbelievable sense of swing, perfect grasp of harmony, and supremely intelligent and melodic improvisations, Louis Amrstrong taught us all to play jazz.”

— Wynton Marsalis, virtuoso trumpeter and multi Grammy Awards winner.

Armstrong’s popularity helped jazz and other jazz musicians find audience across America. Jazz was moving out of the bars of New Orleans to big cultural centres across major American cities. The dance halls were filled with fans that came to witness the large jazz ensembles. This was the era of ‘swing’.

‘Swing’ and ‘Bebop’

Pianist, composer, and bandleader, Duke Ellington was one of the creators of the big band sound, instrumental in creating the ‘swing’ era. He started playing jazz as a teenager, and moved to New York City to become a bandleader.
True to their genre, jazz musicians were looking for new styles to explore. In the early 1940s, a new style of jazz which had fast tempos, intricate melodies, and complex harmonies was born. It was termed as ‘Bebop’ and was considered jazz for the intellectuals. The big bands gave way to smaller groups that catered to the listeners and not the dance enthusiasts.

Thelonious Monk, a pianist and composer, along with saxophonist Charlie Parker and a certain trumpeter named John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie got together and experimented with jazz and came up with the bebop sound. Dizzy also introduced Latin American rhythms to modern jazz through his collaborations. His intrepid style of playing, unique improvisations, and inspired teachings had a major influence, not only on other trumpet players, but on all jazz musicians in the years to come.

Jazz Music and its best

Some of the other jazz musicians who have been a major influence on jazz, soul, R&B and even funk music are Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday.

Ella began her career during the Big Band era but later moved to Bebop and even Scat Singing. This adaptive nature made her one of jazz’s most popular singers for 50 years and she sold 40 million records in her lifetime.

In 1944, Davis joined Charlie Parker’s band but his thirst for experimentation and improvisation led him to front his own bands. His album, “Kind of Blue” is the biggest-selling jazz album of all time. His 1960s quintet, which included John Coltrane, is lauded as one of the most influential in jazz music history.

Billie “Lady Day” Holiday ruled the roast from the 1930s to the 1950s. She could sing any emotion out of any word in a jazz tune. Her first recordings were with Benny Goodman but it was with Count Basie’s orchestra that she garnered wide fame.

The global acceptance

Throughout its history, jazz music has been on the forefront of world music in its own way. It has its presence globally though the style of jazz that is performed differs in each country. Latin jazz, Cuban jazz, Indo jazz and countless other styles have emerged since the eras of Big Band, Swing and Bebop.

Jazz music and Indian classical music share a vital element, improvisation. Indian classical music and jazz have melodies based on modes, pulse-oriented rhythms and improvisation which can lead the listener to the realm of pure music. While sitar great Pandit Ravi Shankar is credited with popularising Indian classical music in the west, jazz legends like saxophonist John Coltrane, and guitarist John McLaughlin have explored the Indian music spectrum and made jazz popular in the country.

The Indian Journey

Jazz music is said to have found its place in India in the 1920s. Cities like Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta) had clubs where African-American jazz musicians performed. They inspired Goan musicians who then imbibed jazz into the sounds of India’s Hindi film music industry.

(pic: Louiz Banks)

“My father, trumpeter George Banks played in night clubs around that decade of the 30s with American jazz bands in Calcutta. He was part of the band led by jazz pianist Teddy Weatherford and told me there were a few night spots in Calcutta where foreign bands played western music relating to Ballroom dancing like the foxtrot, waltz, jive, tango, mambo, samba and cha cha but the music had a lot of jazz content. Jazz became a very popular idiom of music mainly in Calcutta and Bombay,” recalls Indian jazz legend Louiz Banks.

The genre reached its pinnacle in India in the 60s and 70s with young musicians like Banks, Braz Gonsalves, Pam Crain, Benny Rosario, Jazzy Joe, Carlton Kitto leading the way. In the early seventies every resident band in Mumbai’s starred hotels played jazz standards predominantly among other night club standards.

A young bass player, who did not know a single jazz standard was offered a job in one of those bands.

“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,” laughed Colin D’cruz reminiscing about the times.

(pic: Colin D’cruz)

Colin played as a bassist with resident bands at some of the finest hotels in India and internationally. He later moved to Goa where he set up ‘Jazz Goa’ for the local jazz musicians and fans.

The popularity of jazz music began to decline due to the emergence and huge popularity of Pop and Disco Music. Clubs began to feature bands that only played popular pop and disco music which further led to its decline. These genres along with Bollywood music captured the imagination of the younger generation. It was always an uphill task for jazz to survive in a country ruled by Bollywood.

But the maestro Louiz Banks has a different take,

“The influence of Jazz in Bollywood music is very evident ever since Jazz made its presence felt in all corners of the globe. Music directors like C Ramachandran, Shankar Jaikishan, RD Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Bappi Lahiri, myself and others, adapted a lot of Jazz melodies and rhythms to our compositions,”


“The thread of Jazz was never completely broken. It only appeared everywhere in a series of mysterious and unsuspecting styles. Such is the magic of Jazz. It is the most flexible, influential and democratic music in the world.”

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