Here’s How Louiz Banks Became the ‘Godfather’ of Indian Jazz

The composer of one of the most iconic tunes of 90s, Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, Louiz Banks turned 80-year-old today. Known as the Godfather of Indian Jazz, Banks’ contribution to contemporary and Indo-fusion jazz is incomparable. A book on Banks titled Louiz Banks, A symphony of Love by Ashis Ghatak, which was published on the occasion of his 80th birthday, traces the journey of the musician from clubs of Calcutta to International acclaim, his golden stint at Bollywood with RD Burman and gives many wonderful details about India’s jazz scene of the 60s, and 70s.

Ustab Zakir Hussain wrote a forward of this book, in which, he called Banks an unparalleled Genius, and a top-shelf educator. In the book, Hussain writes, “When I think of Louiz, the image that appears in my mind is that of a gentle, legendary giant of, not just the music world, but also art at large. A performer of unparalleled genius, a composer par excellence, a top-shelf educator, a painter of some reckoning and a larger-than-life father figure, he is a source of inspiration to a horde of aspiring young musicians of all genres of music.”

Banks had been at the helm of things when the new age of jazz era reached its epoch in the late 70s and Bombay became the greatest hub of jazz music. In the book, Ghatak writes,

“Jazz which had ever been a nest of the niche got a new lease of life as it reached the masses. The Jazz Society was formed in Bombay in 1975. But it needed a spearhead like Niranjan Zaveri, a connoisseur and jazz enthusiast. In his early life, he once chanced upon a stack of records of old jazz standards.The unique style of those jazz musicians made him initially scoff off their typical histrionics till the time came when gradually these songs grew on him after persistent listening. He became a jazz impresario who took a vow of disseminating jazz in India. Under the aegis of The Jazz Society of Bombay, the International Jazz Yatra was started in 1978.

…Zaveri took up the challenge of bringing the contemporary greats and overcame the insurmountable task of organizing a week-long musical extravaganza in Rang Bhavan of Bombay. While inaugurating the show that was held from 12–18 February 1978, Niranjan Zaveri proclaimed, ‘Today is the first day of spring. Today is the first day of Indian Jazz music.’

The show was flagged off by none other than the great Willis Conover, the man who never played any instrument in his life but had inspired a generation of jazz musicians and listeners with his shows on the radio. Rudy Cotton, India’s tenor saxophonist, was the first performer of the event when he played his composition adapted from what was at one time, the signature tune of All India Radio. Later that week, Jazz-India Ensemble featuring Louiz Banks and Braz Gonsalves put up an inspiring performance. It had prompted many to think that they should have been the ideal show-opener of the event.

The event proved to be a milestone in Louiz’s career as he displayed his skills of the keyboard in front of many others, including the ones he had idolized in several phases of his life. The unfailing attraction of playing in Blue Fox again prompted Louiz to get back to his favourite city. His acquaintance with Niranjan Zaveri eventually turned out to be another example of meeting someone godsent in his life. The International Jazz Yatra used to be a biennial event that ran till 2004.

From the next edition of International Jazz Yatra, Louiz Banks and his band found a new way to glory. But then he had to tear the umbilical cord with his beloved Calcutta and coincidentally, certain events unfolded which pushed Louiz only in that direction.”

The author writes that for Louiz Calcutta epitomized ‘a magical space’ and his love for the city was so great that he had earlier rejected to stay back in Bombay, despite the request of RD Burman. However, as Calcutta was engulfed by the Naxal movement, and most jazz bars found it difficult to survive, amid such a political turmoil, Banks decided that it was best to leave the city for Mumbai. In the book, Ghatak writes,

“Calcutta in the meantime had experienced a slow but stark metamorphosis. The Naxalite movement had left a tell-tale impact in all parts of the city. The exotic land had started to lose its usual sheen when the tentacles of trade unionism imperceptibly reached even Park Street. There was an acute crisis of work and the once lighted chandeliers that gleamed to warm up the jazzy evenings, turned dim, hiding in their dusty halos the memories of a nostalgic past.

The exorbitant rate of entertainment tax had reduced the number of musical shows. The spirit of Park Street soon faded into oblivion with the departure of the Anglo-Indians and a large-scale infiltration of provincial culture. Music lost its enriched taste. This time Louiz made up his mind to respond to the call of opportunity he had got from Bombay, keeping the memories of Calcutta somewhere deep in the heart.

‘Every night, there were power-cuts. We had no work. Every evening we would stand on the pavement waiting for the power to come on. We were on the verge of losing our job. I told my wife that time had come to call it a day and the best place for me to go was Bombay,’ Louiz said as the live music scene in Calcutta gradually shrunk to some unknown and seedy joints.

Louiz felt the closing down of music in Blue Fox was the dictum of God. Along with Lorraine and his three children, he boarded the train with his Rhodes model of piano and ₹300 in his pocket for yet another unseen future. He spoke of the event with hearty laughter saying that the day when he was taking his journey in the general unreserved compartment from Howrah to Bombay, the compartment was packed. Much to the consternation of the passengers, he placed his piano in the passage between two rows of seats. Before the unrest of the passengers went out of control, he allowed everyone to stretch their legs over the piano. They gradually calmed down. Now sitting in his plush Santacruz Bangalow, the reminiscences of those days of struggle of the poor pianist indeed sounded almost fictional.”

The following excerpts have been published with permission from Rupa Publishers.

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