Taj Mahal Foxtrot is a romp from beginning to end, celebrating a music, a city, freedom and the power of storytelling. Naresh Fernandes’s book chronicles, as its subtitle claims, “the story of Bombay’s jazz age”.
Buddy Bolden and his fellow musicians, credited as being the pioneers who shaped a musical form from the chants, hollers and working songs of the deep south in the United States of America — that would later be termed “jazz” — would have found it hard to believe that their music would touch distant shores. And find a home there. Just as the Mississippi carried the music all across New Orleans and beyond, the oceans brought jazz to Bombay. Aided by other factors, of course. Leon Abbey and his group, which arrived in 1935 with their brand of “solid swing” to entertain guests at the Taj, were the first all-black band to do so. Among those who were captivated by the music was the young Dosoo Karaka, who would go on to become a journalist and whose writings the author quotes extensively. So enchanted was Karaka by the new sound that he joined in with the musicians and was pulled up for it later! He would, nonetheless, go on to support the art form.
The book covers a little more than three decades of a particular slice of Bombay’s history — from the introduction of jazz when it “was the world’s pop”, till about the time four men from Liverpool were changing the landscape of popular music. As jazz swung the city around its beats and rhythms, Bombay changed too. A cosmopolitan city that received the world’s various influences through its ports, Bombay’s popular culture reflected it all. The city of migrants welcomed novelty.
Fernandes’s research is in-depth and exhaustive. Memoirs, letters, articles from newspapers and journals, conversations and remembered pasts — all find a way into his book. What tops it is the author’s ability to sift through the information and feature the most apt and insightful anecdote. For example, he provides many reasons as to how the trumpeter “Chic Chocolate” got his stage name. “… it was a contraction of his mother’s term of endearment for him: Chico, the little one.” Or it could have been “the residue of archaic ’30s slang. ‘When he was playing a really hot passage, the other musicians would say, “That’s really chick, man.”’
The author’s easy, effortless