EXCL: Louis Banks, Godfather of Indian Jazz, takes us back to his 1971 Blue Fox days

Ahead of International Jazz Day, Louis Banks, who spearheaded the jazz movement in India, talks to us about his everlasting love for the genre

Muskan Khullar Published :  28th April 2023 01:09 PM   |   Published :   |  28th April 2023 01:09 PM
In Frame: Louis Banks

In Frame: Louis Banks

The year is 1971. You are strolling Calcutta’s iconic Park Street and you walk past Blue Fox where Louis Banks is playing slow jazz. You enter as sceptics and leave as converts. This was the electrifying effect Louis and his eponymous band, The Louis Banks Brotherhood, had on anyone who was a patron of Western music back in the day.

A veteran in jazz, Louis is set to perform at Tata Theatre at NCPA, Mumbai on International Jazz Day. As we sat down to chat with him, the only question that popped into our head was what can you possibly ask the man who spearheaded the jazz movement in India? He is literally the Godfather of Indian Jazz, for he took the religious responsibility of protecting and promoting the said genre of music in the county.

Thus, much like music connoisseurs back in the day, we let Louis take the lead here as well. In our hour-long free-flowing chat, we took a walk down memory lane with him. From reminiscing his time in Calcutta’s celebrated nightclubs to his introduction to Pancham Da aka RD Burman, his stint in Bollywood, his illustrious career in Mumbai and the future of jazz in India, Louis lets us in on all of this and more.

Tell us about your father’s influence on your music.

My early music education started in Darjeeling. I was born in Kolkata, but my father took me to Darjeeling when I was four years old. Total inspiration and total impact. Whatever I’ve learned, I learned from him. I’m very grateful and thankful that he was around to teach me.

The Godfather of Indian jazz. Tell us a little about this honorary title.

They put the responsibility of jazz on me by calling me the godfather and I don’t mind it. I have been promoting jazz for more than three decades and I am still in love with jazz. I want to promote it as much as I can from my side. When I look around, I see that there is a lot of change and there’s a total resurgence of jazz among the youth. I’m very happy about that.

You say jazz is different every time you play it.

It’s different every time I play it. The only thing that we follow is the identity of the melody. We stay with the melody because that identifies the piece that we are playing but beyond that, what we do on stage every time, it’s different. It just depends on how we are feeling that day. If we’ve had a bad day at home, it will affect our playing. I think that’s the beauty of jazz and that’s why I love it.

You played at some of India’s famous nightclubs back in the day, tell us about that.

When I came to Kolkata, I joined the nightclub called Blue Fox where I formed my first jazz band. I found some great musicians who were dying to play jazz and did not get an opportunity. I picked out the best of the lot. And if I could name a few of them, it would be Peter Saldanha on bass, Johnny Edmunds on drums, Carlton Kitto on guitar and the great Braz Gonsalves on saxophone. This was a band called Louis Banks Brotherhood. Now, when I think about it, it was the best band I ever had.

After Kolkata, you moved to Mumbai. Tell us a little about how it was different.

There was definitely jazz in Mumbai definitely but it was still growing. What brought me to Mumbai was RD Burman. He asked me to come to Mumbai and play in his film. That took me by surprise because I did not know anything about film music. He told me not to worry about all of that and just come to Mumbai. I accepted his offer and I played in the movie titled Mukti (1977). I came back to the city after the jazz scene in Kolkata began to decline. They started cutting out bands from restaurants and as fate would have it, with only `300 in my pocket and my electric piano, I came to Mumbai on a train and the rest is history.

Do you think the jazz scene has made its way to the lowest common denominator in India?

It will. Jazz is great music but it’s serious music. It tried to reach out to common people but they could not understand it. Then jazz began to blend with other forms of music and a genre called fusion jazz began to develop and that is the future of music; where all cultures come together and something nice and new happens. Now, the youth are beginning to like the creativity of jazz and the freedom it offers. I’m so happy to see that because that is what I always wanted; jazz to reach out to the common man.

Whom do you think you can pass the baton to today?
To my son Gino Banks. Whatever he’s learned, he’s learned through me and now he’s on his own and he’s doing wonderful things. He’s getting people with great talent and he’s definitely going to take my legacy further.

You dabbled into the Indo-Jazz genre. Tell us about your love for fusion jazz.
Indian Fusion is what I discovered in the 1980s after I heard the famous singer from the South named Ramamani and she really blew my mind with her classical improvisations. I approached her and asked if she would want to mix classical with jazz. That’s how the group Sangam was born. The Indian government invited us to perform in Europe to represent the country in jazz festivals. We came to Europe and we did over 50 concerts. It was an amazing experience. Later, I discovered Shankar Mahadevan in one of my jingle recordings. Together, we got hold of Sivamani and Karl Peters and we formed a group called Silk that became quite popular. So, yes, I enjoy all kinds of fusion when it comes to jazz because it gives me an opportunity to explore different areas in music. 

Mail: muskankhullar@newindianexpress.com
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