The Rebirth of Mumbai’s Jazz Scene

Jazz flourished in India’s Art Deco city before moving to Bollywood. Now, it’s coming home to spots like Thirsty City 127

Think of Mumbai, and you think of India’s financial capital, home to the world’s biggest film industry. Yet there’s something about the cocktail of sticky heat, ornate sarees and coconut palm-lined roads that just sings jazz.

The year was 1935 and an African-American man from Minnesota stepped off a ship in a linen suit, carrying a violin case. The September air was just right. The man was one Leon Abbey, a jazz musician who had been invited to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Colaba: the cultural epicentre of Bombay, as it was known at the time. He and his bandmates were to take up room here, performing as the city’s first all-black jazz band.

The city had recovered from the Great Depression and was flooded with newly constructed Art Deco buildings – theatres, offices, hotels – complete with nautical and Ancient Egyptian motifs (Tutankhamun’s tomb had just been discovered). Juxtaposed within these streamlined but ornate structures that characterised the Jazz Age were typically Indian themes: an array of Hindu deities amid the palm trees and waves that are synonymous with the city. Miami may have the highest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world, but Mumbai follows closely in second place.

While the city had known a few local jazz musicians in white-only establishments like the Bombay Gymkhana and the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, Abbey’s arrival was the first time that true American hot jazz had made it to the city. And while local jazz musicians had learned the genre through music scores and recordings, Abbey and his troupe oozed everything that made jazz jazz – the rhythms, the unpredictability, the feel.

As champagne saucers overflowed, Bombay churned into a musical capital. Jazz had finally reached India. And not long after, it became Indian itself. By the time Crickett Smith’s orchestra took over at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (a year after Abbey, who’d found India much too warm), he’d started hiring local jazz musicians to play alongside the Americans. They even recorded a little number called the Taj Mahal Foxtrot.

Jazz enjoyed a solid decade in Bombay’s Golden Age. But as the Raj collapsed and an independent India was born overnight in 1947, this already niche genre, deemed elitist due to being based indoors at luxury hotels and nightclubs, fell silent.

At least in its traditional sense. When a prohibition on alcohol swept across Bombay in 1947, smudging out the few hotels that still maintained bands, jazz took up home in Bollywood.

In his comprehensive history of jazz in Bombay, The Taj Mahal Foxtrot, journalist Naresh Fernandes points out that whereas Indian music consists of a single line of melody, jazz is all about multiple lines of harmony that twirl their way through and across each other. The result was a bigger, more powerful sound – a sound well suited to the equally melodramatic plots unfurling on-screen.

Jazz musicians, consequently, were much loved by the film industry. Talented Goan musicians would squeeze in fresh riffs, upbeat licks and appropriately sad runs, paying light homage to everyone from Mozart to Louis Armstrong. The best-known example of this is C. Ramchandra’s 1957 boogie-woogie hit Eena Meena Deeka from the movie Asha, where the catchy titular words (along with the first stanza) have no meaning, in true jazz  ‘scat’ style.

‘Bombay had its mission of taking diverse influences and making something unique,’ Fernandes tells me. ‘The way jazz was absorbed into Hindi film and the way it was played in venues all around the city really says something about the Bombay spirit – a bohemian spirit, a spirit that improvised as it went along.’

Bollywood and jazz created a mélange of harmonies that represented the new India: one that was both young and fresh, but also deeply traditional.

The rise of rock’n’roll and pop pushed jazz into the background, even in Bollywood. But thanks to a handful of enthusiastic musicians, Mumbai’s cosy jazz scene is swelling again.

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D. Wood is a multi-instrumentalist who organises the performances at The Bandra Base, a snug jazz and culture hub in Bandra, Mumbai’s equivalent of Brooklyn. He says the gradual revival of interest in jazz is down to two factors. First, Indian musicians who trained overseas are coming back home to perform; second, the increasing level of arts education in India.

‘Now you can study an art form and actually earn a degree in it. And that is what Indian families are relieved to know – that this investment is going to yield a Bachelor’s degree,’ says Wood. ‘That’s what we need for a truly vibrant scene: a lot of people coming to study music, like in New York, Boston, LA or London.’

Meanwhile, the Bollywood-jazz link is far from dead. ‘Instead of maharajas, today we have movie moguls,’ says Wood, who is also a faculty member at the School of Music at Whistling Woods International, one of India’s top film schools. He says the school is the main reason The Bandra Base has a guaranteed set of patrons: as the number of musicians grows, so does the appetite for jazz in the community.

Abhinav Khokhar has been curating the live music at Café Zoe, an eatery based in a former textile mill, for over a year now – in addition to playing double bass with the in-house quartet. It’s been slow going to create a live jazz venue, he says. ‘I feel now there is a common understanding of what the vibe of the place is like. The jazz scene has gained depth in the last seven, eight years [as musicians] have come to the city.’

Talent like pianist Anurag Naidu, once based in France, has now returned home and plays at Café Zoe frequently. As does pianist Ron Cha, still a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston who returns to his keys at home every so often.

For his part, Khokhar remains hopeful that the scene in Mumbai will continue to thrive. ‘I hope Café Zoe serves as a fertile spot for musicians to meet and present their art,’ he says. ‘The cultural and communal aspect of music is dear to me.’

It’s been 84 years since Leon Abbey disembarked in Bombay. And though the Jazz Age has risen and fallen since that day, it has an enduring spirit. It’s in the DNA of Bollywood. It’s indelibly marked in the skyline. It’s in the sweat and care of the musicians working to keep it alive.

Jazz, in Mumbai, is everywhere.

Mumbai’s Top Jazz Spots

Sea Lounge, Colaba

Where else to start than where it all began – at The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Located in the hotel that once hosted jazz royalty like Duke Ellington, the Sea Lounge offers ocean views, Art Deco décor and a jazz crooner.

The Bandra Base, Bandra

This jazz club is exquisitely Indian. You’ll find people sitting cross-legged on floor cushions while musicians pour themselves into some solid jazz in an intimate setting.

Café Zoe, Lower Parel

With its contemporary style – both in menu and ambiance – Café Zoe might not seem like the standard jazz dive. But the Edison bulbs, high ceilings and exposed beams and bricks come together to create the perfect jazz venue.

Thirsty City 127, Lower Parel

This bar’s Art Deco ostentation looks like it was styled directly from Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and features just as ostentatious a cocktail list.

The Little Door, Andheri

Nestled behind a literal small door are Greco-white walls surrounding a charming outdoor courtyard. Further on, there’s an intimate indoor space that hosts a series of jazz musicians in addition to other live music. The cocktail menu is a perfect accompaniment to late-night jazz on Tuesdays, alongside modest nibbles and a cute selection of board games. 

NCPA International Jazz Festival

This annual event, which falls on 11-13 October 2019, brings local jazz musicians of all backgrounds together with acclaimed international ones.

Cathay Pacific flies to Mumbai from Hong Kong seven times a week

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