2003-08-09 09:44:31 UTC
by Naresh Fernandes - MansWorld magazine July 2003
For over five decades, well into the late 1960s before prohibition,
taxation and rock-and-roll killed it, Mumbai boasted of one of the most
vibrant jazz scenes in the world, outside of the US. On Churchgate Street,
stretching from the Marine Drive sea front all the way up to Flora
Fountain the sound of jazz spilled out through the doors of packed night
clubs like Ambassador, Napoli, The Talk of the Town, Gaylord?s, Ritz,
Little Hut, Bistro and Volga. Not to speak of the Rendezvous at the Taj.
The legendary pianist and composer Dave Brubeck was impressed enough by the
local musicians to attempt to make some recordings during one of his
visits. Set against this backdrop is the tragic love affair of tenor
saxophonist and band leader Chris Perry and singer Lorna Cordeiro. Naresh
Fernandes tells their story for the first time.
Their eyes give it away. Chris Perry wears a slick black jacket, the
sleeves of his crisp white shirt revealing the glint of dark cuff links.
His fingers clasp a gleaming tenor saxophone with a lover?s
gentleness. Arms crossed coquettishly above her waist, Lorna Cordeiro is
chic in a bouffant and a form-fitting gown that shows a flash of ankle.
They stare into each other?s eyes, mesmerised. Behind them looms a giant
camera aperture borrowed from the opening sequence of the Bond films.
You couldn?t miss the poster as you sauntered down Jamshetji Tata Road in
downtown Bombay. It hung outside the Astoria Hotel, across the street from
the octagonal Art Deco turret of Eros cinema, inviting the city to Chris
and Lorna?s daily shows at the Venice nightclub. It was 1971. India was
savouring its newfound place on the world?s stage. The country?s armed
forces had decisively liberated Bangladesh and the idealism of Independence
had welled up again. India?s middle classes were capturing their polyester
memories on Agfa Click IIIs that cost 46.50 rupees (taxes extra), aspiring
to the lifestyles of ?The Jet Set Air Hostesses? described in The
Illustrated Weekly of India (price: 85 paise), and being encouraged by
newspaper ads to ?Go gay with Gaylord fine filter cigarettes?.
As the City of Gold bubbled through its jazz age, Lorna and Chris
enthralled Bombay with their shows at Venice each night. Remo Fernandes,
who would go on to become the first Indian pop musician to record an album
of original English-language tunes, was among those locked in the spell.
?Two artists sometimes ignite a creative chemistry in each other which goes
beyond all logical explanation. Mere mortals can only look and listen in
awe,? he rhapsodised. ?In such duos, one plus one does not make two. It
makes a number so immeasurable, it defies all laws of calculus.?
But the sparks that flew at Venice gradually built into a roaring
conflagration. As Remo put it: ?Hyper-intense, high-temperament artistic
relationships often end in emotional disaster, like two comets when they
steer too dangerously close. Chris?s and Lorna?s, as we all know, was no
Like the myths about the city in which they soared to fame, the tale of
Chris and Lorna has gained so much in the re-telling it?s sometimes
difficult to thresh the apocrypha from the actual. Thirty years after the
two stopped performing together, old-time musicians in the bylanes of Dhobi
Talao and Bandra still beg anonymity as they reminisce in sad whispers.
?He was shameless. He left his wife and three small children for that girl.?
?Chris and Lorna were in love. When they fought, they became mortal
enemies. He destroyed her and he destroyed himself.?
?She was very good singer. Beyond that, she was nothing. She got her break
with Chris Perry. He made contract with her. She couldn?t sing without his
permission. She had no brains, so she signed. Then he went back to his wife.?
?He didn?t let her perform with anyone else. He threatened to break the
legs of one Hindu fellow who tried to get her to sing with him.?
?She hit the bottle, men. She became an alcoholic and just disappeared.?
Chris Perry who was born Pereira died on January 25, 2002, his last years
hobbled by Parkinson?s disease. Lorna has refused to recount her version of
events for publication. But the fidelity of her contralto booming out of
our speakers, embroidered with Chris?s perfectly crafted sax filigrees,
speaks its own truth.
Ronnie Monserrate was 19 when he began to play Sunday gigs at Venice with
the Chris Perry band, sitting in for the regular pianist. Venice had a
reputation. It was the jazzman?s jazz haunt, the rendezvous for musicians
from around the country and occasionally from around the world. Dave
Brubeck swung by when he visited Bombay in 1958, as Duke Ellington had when
his band set out on their famous world tour of 1963. As Ronnie tells it,
the dapper Chris Perry was the musician?s musician: ?He had perfect pitch.
He was an arranger, a composer, a player.? Chris played both trumpet and
saxophone, sometimes switching from one to the other mid-tune, a feat that
required elaborate lip control. His trumpet tone was broad and true. He
didn?t have flashy technique, but the notes he coaxed out of his horn had a
mellowness that kept the fans coming back night after night.
Chris was 43 at the time, Lorna was 25. No one seems quite sure exactly how
they met, but everyone?s agreed that he groomed her into one of the
Bombay?s finest crooners. One version maintains that Lorna got her break
when still in school, after she won the Connie Francis soundalike
competition at Metro cinema. This prompted a musician named Raymond
Albuqerque to invite her to sing in his show at the Bandra Fair. Her
rendition of Underneath the Mango Tree got the crowds so fired up that
Chris Perry, already an established performer, went to her home to audition
her. She was just 16 when she joined Perry?s band.
A vocalist in the Shirley Bassey mould, Lorna belted out every tune like it
was her last time on stage. ?She had a lot of black feel,? is how Ronnie
describes her performances. ?You could see the intensity when she was on
stage. She?d give it her best, every time. She was like a magnet. You
couldn?t help but be attracted to her when she was on stage. And with Chris
Perry band by her side, it was like magic happening. There was incredible
attraction. There was a lot of love in the interaction. It was apparent in
their body language. They brought out the best in each other. They?d look
into each other?s eyes and their understanding was so great that there?d be
Offstage, though, things could get awkward. Any man attempting to talk to
Lorna was liable to get a taste of Perry?s famously volatile fists. During
breaks, the musicians would sit around their table, absolutely silent.
?They were jolly people but they were afraid to laugh around Chris,? Ronnie
says. Ronnie was the only exception, perhaps because his youth made him
seem unthreatening. Two decades later, he?d find opportunity to call in
that bond of trust.
Venice was around the corner from Bombay?s swinging jazz strip, Churchgate
Street (now Veer Nariman Road). Pianists, trios and quartets were to be
heard all the way down the 200-metre thoroughfare as it led off from
Churchgate station to the Arabian Sea. First came Berry?s, with tandoori
butter chicken that was the stuff of Bombay legend and accomplished
piano-fronted groups led by Dorothy Jones and Stanley Pinto. Across the
fence was Bombelli?s, named after its Swiss owner, where a trio held sway
as ad men sipped cappuccinos. Then came the Ambassador, where Toni Pinto?s
quintet encapsulated Bombay?s diversity: the group had two Jews a singer
named Ephrim Elias and drummer Abie Cohen, an Anglo-Indian tenor
saxophonist named Norman Mobsby, and, in addition to Pinto, another Goan,
the bassist Clement Furtado.
Pinto?s kingdom was named the Other Room, so called because after the rich
and famous had finished drinking at the bar, they?d say, ?Let?s go to the
other room.? He ruled for 16 years from 1958, his sharply dressed group
spinning out hard-driving bop and light classics, and playing back-up for
cabarets and visiting acrobats, magicians and flamenco dancers. The
Ambassador was owned by the cigar-chomping Jack Voyantzis, an ebullient
Greek who was assisted by his brother, Socrates. The siblings had started
their subcontinental journey in Rangoon, opened a caf? in Delhi, and
finally found their way to Bombay, where they transformed a hotel known as
the Argentinian into the Ambassador. The cream of Bombay society turned out
to catch Toni?s tightly-rehearsed band. Toni remembers once looking up from
his piano to see three of the city?s leading editors appreciatively tapping
their feet: Rusi Karanjia, editor of the left-wing tabloid Blitz, D F
Karaka, editor of the rival Current, and Frank Moraes, editor of the Indian
Express, with his American girlfriend. Another time, as the band was going
through its routine, Toni realised that someone from the back of the room
was playing along on a trumpet. It turned out to be American hornman Eddie
Calvert. ?He came for dinner one night even though he was staying at the
Ritz,? Toni says, and he asked his drummer, Bobby Hadrian, to go back and
get his instrument. Calvert and Toni?s band jammed for an hour, playing
the tunes the American had made famous: Cherry Pink, Begin the Beguine,
Wonderland by Night.
Elsewhere on Churchgate Street, music spilled out through the doors of the
Napoli, The Talk of the Town and Gaylord?s. Opposite Venice, there was jazz
at the Ritz, while at the Little Hut, Neville Thomas led a group calling
itself Three Guys and a Doll. Past Flora Fountain stood Bistro and Volga,
home to a quartet led by the grandfatherly baritone saxophonist Hecke
Dave Brubeck was impressed enough by the local musicians to attempt to make
some recordings with them during his visit. But Bombay defeated him. He
later recounted the episode to an interviewer: ?The current fluctuated in
Bombay in those days and so the tape would speed up and slow down. Like,
when you were shaving, the speed of the motor would go up and down. It
ruined one of my favourite tapes I've ever made.? Another visiting jazzman,
the pianist Hampton Hawes, was overwhelmed by problems that were rather
more basic. ?Bombay turned me around,? he wrote. ?I?d never seen poverty
before.? Art, he decided, was irrelevant amidst the gnawing deprivation.
?Here I was thinking about making a big splash, a hit record, going home a
hero, and I?m walking the streets with motherfuckers who don?t even know
what a piece of bread is, let along Stravinsky or Charlie Parker. If Bird
was alive and played for them they wouldn?t be able to hear him because
they?d be too damn hungry.?
Admittedly, jazz had always been the preserve of Bombay?s elite. But while
the audiences were upper crust, the musicians who cooked up the syncopated
rhythms were not. Like Toni Pinto, Ronnie Monserrate, Chris and Lorna, the
majority were Roman Catholics strivers from the former Portuguese colony of
Goa, 550 kilometres south of Bombay. They?d been an important part of the
Bombay music scene since the 1920s, when Bombay began to develop its
appetite for what was then called ?hot music?. Jazz had made its way from
New Orleans in the waxy grooves of phonograph records and travelled over
the oceans with touring American bands that played for the administrators
of the Raj. Bombay?s first jazz concerts were performed at the Bandstand,
south of the Oval. Among the earliest jazzmen to play an extended stint in
Bombay was Leon Abbey, a violinist from Minnesota, who led an eight-piece
band at the Taj during the 1935-?36 season. Abbey wore white tails on stage
and played the freshest sounds. He told one interviewer, ?I kept up with
the latest numbers because someone would always come up to the bandstand
and say, ?Old Bean, would you play so and so
?, because as far as he was
concerned, we should know how to play everything that had ever been
written.? Midway through the trip, the Taj management sent Abbey and
saxophonist Art Lanier back to New York to pick up the latest music.
Abbey?s outfit was replaced by the Symphonians, fronted by the cornet
player Cricket Smith. Smith had been featured on the seminal recordings
made by James Reese Europe?s Society Orchestra in 1913 and 1914, capturing
jazz at the moment of its transition from the relatively unsophisticated
ragtime style. Smith ?signed his contract for a fixed amount of money and
two Coronas a day, so every day, the manager would have to bring him his
cigars?, recalls Luis Moreno, a Spanish trumpet player who lived in Bombay
for 20 years. ?He was a character.?
In 1938, pianist Teddy Weatherford, who had played with Louis Armstrong,
took the stage with his men. His swinging style and treble voicing had been
an important influence on jazz during its formative years. The Taj, it
would seem, wasn?t quite the genteel venue it now is not at least from
the way Weatherford?s occasional Russian bassist named ?Innocent Nick?
described the gigs to the jazz magazine Storyville. ?Teddy used to play
downstairs, in the Tavern of the Taj, for the soldiers, sailors and others,
a very rough place,? Nick said. ?Teddy would play for hours without a
break. Even with drinks, he would continue one-handed. He had tremendous
For the African-American musicians, Bombay provided refuge from the
apartheid in the U.S. Men like Weatherford and his sidemen, such as the
saxophonist Roy Butler, spent long years shuttling between Europe and the
subcontinent, where racial barriers seemed non-existent, at least for them.
Butler?s years in India as a Weatherford sideman, he told Storyville, were
among his happiest the work was relatively easy, the pay and conditions
good, he was treated splendidly by both management and clientele, and
enjoyed the luxurious life under the British Raj. The Taj management, on
its part, honoured Weatherford by naming a dish after him: Poires Glace
Weatherford. (The absence of colour prejudice was only to be expected.
After all, industrial baron Jamshetji Tata was moved to build the Taj after
being prevented one leisurely Bombay evening from dining at the
Europeans-only Pyrke?s Apollo Hotel. Later, he famously hung a notice in
the Taj forbidding entry to South Africans and dogs.)
Weatherford?s sidemen were an eclectic lot and opened Bombay?s ears to a
wealth of new sounds, the Cuban drumming of Luis Pedroso and the Spanish
brass of Luis Moreno, among them. Butler, who was known as the Reverend in
acknowledgement of his abstemious ways, helped Weatherford drill the band.
Moreno characterised Butler as the ?gentleman of the orchestra?. Moreno
added, ?He never drank in his life and if someone said, ?How about a round
of drink?? Roy would say, ?I?ll have an ice-cream. You enjoy beer, I enjoy
ice-cream.? Butler went on to lead his own band at Greens, located where
the Taj Intercontinental now stands.
Both Weatherford (who married an Anglo-Indian woman, before dying of
cholera in Calcutta in 1945, aged 41) and Butler recruited Goan sidemen,
plugging Bombay into the source of jazz. The trumpet player Frank Fernand,
who played in Weatherford band with his Goan compatriots, Micky Correa and
Josique Menzies, says that his stint with the American taught him to ?play
like a negro?. Moreno helped Fernand develop the ability to hit long, high
notes, eventually extending his range up to E flat. Butler, it must be
noted, was less than thrilled with his Goan employees. ?My short stretch as
a bandleader in India was not too earth-shaking,? he told Storyville. ?The
local musicians were not too familiar with jazz at that time. I understood
that there are some very good jazzmen out there now, but the time was too
short for anything to develop, good or bad.? For their part, some of the
Goan musicians weren?t overly impressed with Butler, either. They believed
his decision to stay in India was motivated by the fear that he wouldn?t
find work in the US. As Fernand put it, ?The faltu fellows stayed, the good
ones went home.?
Continued in Part 2
This article in Word format was sent to me, on request, by the Editor of
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