The Big Story: Talking to the jazzman

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Pictures by Abhishek Gunaratnam

He sits at the head of the table, his countenance calm and assertive, but mainly occupied. He is engrossed in conversation with two men. When we come in, he holds a look of slight annoyance, a look that says he has forgotten about the interview.

The two men take leave at his permission and he walks towards the couch and asks us to take a seat “What will you have? Tea? Coffee?” He signals the house-help to get something and turns to us. His attitude seems to be that of a man humouring a child. He says to me “So where do you want to start?” The question sounds like a resigned sigh. Clearly he is not a big fan of interviews.

Small talk follows. I initiate some shifty conversation and he effortlessly follows it up with a monologue. He congratulates us on the good work our organization seems to be doing, is delighted when I start the interview with questions about jazz and enthusiastically thumps my back when I say I like listening to the music.  Banks is so reminiscent of jazz men. Close your eyes and imagine one, the most stereotypical image of one. Sure he is black, but besides that, he is smiling. Experienced optimism is an undercurrent common to most jazz compositions. Louis Armstrong quite famously said “What a wonderful world!”

“Oh we have a shoot arranged for this?” Banks exclaims as we tell him about the piece revolving around this interview, “I’m going to have to change into something more appropriate. My wife will not like me getting myself clicked like this. We can conduct the shoot in the house, or we could take it to the studio. I have a small workspace here as well.” Banks has a healthily-sized house in Bandra. It looks very similar to the freshly painted, picketed fence sort of house, straight out of the American Dream. If we were in the States it would fit right into a middle class family’s imagination and a phenomenologist’s invective. But we are in Mumbai, here any bungalow will stand out. It is rather well kept, with good parking space and a shed turned into a studio. As you turn towards the door that allows you into the house, you will notice a midsized Buddha figurine deep in meditation, an ornate nameplate and a singular lamp light hanging above it all. Buddha enlightened.

Lame jokes aside, the house from inside is pretty and personalized. Banks, who is also an artist specializing in abstract and impressionist paintings, has adorned his walls with his works. These are either impressions of Gods and deities or works of abstract surrealism. On one panel of the wall hang three neatly framed impressions he made of his family members. A dining table occupies the end of the living room behind which stands a wall unit. All functional platform surfaces are occupied with showpieces of Buddha in various forms. The living room window frames within itself a small wind chime and under it a number of certificates and accolades. A few remote control toys and a kid’s bicycle lie strewn around. “My grandson’s stuff is lying around. That chap wants to be a drummer. He finds piano too boring.”

The Big Story: Talking to the jazzman

As you move into the interior parts of the house you see what we shall call the ‘office’, a small room to the left of the living room that seems to be Banks’ workplace. Rows of shelves stick out of the wall running ceaselessly throughout the room. They heave under the weight of voluminous files and booklets meticulously arranged and labelled. “All my work, the music I have written over the years.” The man is immaculate to say the least. Even his bathroom has instructive notes for users ‘Please use the bathroom slippers before entering, thank you.’

It would be a fair estimate to say that there were about 200 full-sized booklets and innumerable CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes in the office. The small spaces on the walls that have been forgotten by the shelves are occupied by photos of Banks, his family and his piano. Two MIDI keyboards and a table piano are fitted into the room and right in the middle is another painting by Banks. Washed with blue to shape the very face of serenity, it is the most other worldly, indifferent, almost saint-like face I have ever seen. The whole house is like a shrine dedicated to the man. You might call it narcissism; I would call it self-actualisation. A house made by a man that is a literal, material representation of him.

“We moved to Mumbai in the 80’s” he says “following a job offer by R.D. Burman.” Originally from Nepal, Banks moved to Calcutta where he played pop and jazz at the Blue Fox restaurant with the Louis Banks Brotherhood. This band included the legendary Braz Gonsalves and Piam Crane. It was in this restaurant that R.D. Burman first noticed Banks. “He called me to his table after we had finished playing and said “I like how you play, would you like to play for a film?”, I said I had never worked on a film before. He reassured me that all I had to do was play like I did.” This led to Banks’ first ever visit to Bombay. After he was done with the film, R.D. Burman asked him to settle down in Bombay for work. “Somewhere it says on the internet that I rejected the offer, it was nothing like that, my family and band were in Calcutta and I couldn’t move to Bombay.”

The next year Calcutta saw some financial crisis and power shortages. The live entertainment industry suffered most “We were on the verge of being rendered jobless and I talked to my wife and band mates and decided to move to Bombay.” He sips his tea, “I had also just bought the Rhodes piano, suitcase model. I could now think of moving with my instrument. It felt like everything was a sign to move to Bombay.” So Banks left for the city with his family, carrying with himself only the piano, Rs. 300 and one way second class tickets to Bombay. Classic.

“The minute I reached Bombay, I went to the studio and started to work. I had gone from being a musician who played pop and jazz to a full time musician working on films with R.D. Burman. Luckily the Sea Rock restaurant, which was at Taj land’s end was looking for a band and they had heard about me. I got Braz down to Bombay and we started to play there at nights.”

Mumbai was a different city back then. Jazz was everywhere, if you got down at Churchgate, every 5-star restaurant and club at Bombay would be playing jazz. These spots were known to be a refuge for the elite Indians and the Britishers in an India that was struggling for independence (where self determination and self governance had made this fading nobility a subversive group.) Jazz musician’s thus found patronage in these clubs and the jazz scene bloomed. Bombay’s jazz affair was at its peak between the 1930’s and 1960’s. Then in 1978, a group of jazz lovers organised the first Jazz Yatra, a music festival dedicated to jazz. “It was a different age back then, my father played at a number of clubs as well. He was a jazz musician of the swing jazz era.

“The youngsters now don’t know how to dance, how to foxtrot. There was no disco deewane at that time and your lungi dance and all that. They were sensible in those days,” he rues.  So when in the 80s Banks found himself in Bombay, it was still the hub of jazz music in India. In fact, jazz musicians even before his time would play jazz at clubs and then work on films, this is how old Bollywood has so many jazz and swing elements in its music. Louis Banks’ first film was Mukti, it was a 1974  film and he worked on the soundtrack with R.D. Burman.

The Big Story: Talking to the jazzman

He talks about his experience working in Bollywood films, “I had to embrace other forms of music for survival, but I did that in my own way,” working with R.D. Burman would ensure he could continue making tasteful music, “But jazz has always been my calling. I want it on my epitaph, ‘He was a jazz man’.”

Men with incredible expertise often tend to stray from the topic when talking about something they love. That made up a huge part of our conversation and quite frankly, it was a joy to behold. Banks would talk about his career in music and go off on a tangent about the properties of jazz music and then start to compare it with classical music, and before you know it, he would be back to where he started. It was like following a meandering trail of thoughts that leaves in its wake beautiful back waters. Rambling monologues are like early Christmas for an interviewer. “It is the nature of the music you know. Classical is great music, I mean it is the greatest music in the world. But it is written by someone else, a great master. So when you play, you are playing his music, his thoughts, his emotions; so you can never be you. And I wanted to be me. “

“A jazz musician is actually expressing personal emotions and every time it’s different, for serious music listeners that is the exciting moment. Suppose the musician is playing today and tomorrow also, the listener will want to be there for both occasions because he knows on both these days the musician will play something different.” Billie Holiday used to say “I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession. If you can, then it ain’t music, it’s close order drill, or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.”

Talking to the jazzman, I realise that jazz can be an ideology. Louiz Banks has spent his whole life pursuing jazz and working towards expressing the music in his own terms. He reeks so strongly of jazz that it has spilt onto his family members and all over his house. His studio is decorated with photos of famous jazzmen who recorded there with him. All the drawers and shelves carry jazz records. As he talks to us about his newest projects he promptly opens a drawer in the living room and hands us three CDs each. “Spurred on by Gino (Banks, his son), I decided to record the volume of work I had written on paper. Six albums are in the pipeline. It’s not a commercial project, we just give them away to people who like music”. Even his problems are jazz related, “India is starved for horn players, drums is the hot favourite. A drum class will have a hundred students and a saxophone class will have two.” For a man who lives to work, that can be forgiven. One might even go as far as to call it a virtue.

The Big Story: Talking to the jazzman

Over the course of our conversation I get the impression that Banks’ greatest regret is having used the ‘survival card.’ Jazz has always been an affable expression of the subaltern people’s woes. It’s very spirit is in snubbing the mainstream. In that sense, Bank’s confesses that he is not too happy for having had yielded to mainstream, “Even when I did Pop, I did it my way. But I had to do it for survival.” That probably makes him a Bollywood music apologist, or just a human being.

After all, Indian audiences are not very receptive to jazz, and businesses must be conducted according to market needs. So what can one do when stuck between a rock and a hard place – choose jazz and a non-career in music or become a complete ‘sell out’? Banks chose to improvise. He made fusion, progressive jazz for the Indian audience.

This fusion between jazz and Indian classical is not indigenous to Indian musicians or even Banks. Naresh Fernandes, author of Tajmahal Foxtrot found during his research, concert notes from the late 1940s that indicate the Indian jazz musician, Frank Fernand, as one of first ever musicians to have played jazz music with an Indian theme.

In the 60s, Coltrane brought jazz infused with Indian elements to the global audience. “Coltrane was very fascinated by Bismillah Khan’s shehnai. The sound sort of matched to his soprano saxophone. He wrote lot of pieces that time paying soprano like a shehnai. Indian music changed him. Pieces like Naimaand all you should really listen to, so deep and beautiful.”

“I discovered Indian music and got into fusion writing in Mumbai. I was asked to form a fusion band for a tour around Europe and Sangam was born. 1980s was the time, if I remember correctly. We did 60 concerts in Europe with Rama Mani, Carnatic College of percussion, Ranjit Barot, Karl Peters and Braz Gonsalves. They called it the Jazz India sextet. I gave it the name Sangam – a confluence of different streams.”

Later on, with his Grammy nominated album, Miles from India, Banks further reinforced the idea that jazz was a universal language that could be expressed in many tongues. “The idea was originally brought to me by the producers, they wanted to project Miles’ music in an Indian context. I liked the Idea and became co-producer. We then planned out which of Miles’ tunes we wanted to use for this, selected the musicians we wanted. Then I wrote the arrangement, recorded Indian musicians over here and created spaces to record the jazz musicians from New York. Jimmy Cobb, Chick Corea, Dave Liebman and many others were recorded and dubbed in New York. It was then digitally edited together.”

The photographer comes in and Banks’ smiles delightedly. He excitedly announces his intention to change into something more appropriate. “We could take some shots of me on the piano. It makes me look good,” the legendary man says. But then Miles Davis used to say “A legend is an old man with a cane known for what he used to do. I’m still doing it.” It’s probably a unifying trait in all jazzmen, they refuse to age. I can only imagine Banks as a happy man, full of life as if in his prime, playing his piano with his vintage shades on and making merry. It’s called being delusional, then again the delusion is beguiling.

Drashti Thakkar

Drashti Thakkar

Drashti Thakkar is a Mumbai based writer, a freelance drummer and loves working with lights for live gigs. Her idea of an epiphany is anything that gets through while reading the IPC. Her idea of a good time is a ride on the bike. No, She don't drive.

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