Sax and the City | Chennai News

Sax and the City | Chennai News

A dimly lit bar with vintage leather chairs, the clinking of whiskey glasses and the waft of cigar smoke in the air — the trappings of a jazz bar and Chennai might seem like mismatches. But when it’s Jazz Friday at the Hyatt Regency’s 365 AS lounge bar, tables are packed, a mix of young and old, with elegant women in saris in between, playing saxophone and bass as you sip drinks.

This may be the first time such a regular jazz show has been held in the city, but “attracting the audience was not easy,” said Vajiha Anwar, who coordinates the musicians, most of them from Auroville in Puducherry. “When we started exclusive jazz Fridays last year, there was only a trickle, but we decided not to give up. And now the tables are all reserved in advance.”

Jazz also features prominently at Café Mercara Express at ITC Grand Chola, which features a band of talented local musicians, among other such establishments in the city.

But it’s not just luxury hotels that are showing a new interest in jazz music. The genre is slowly but surely experiencing a revival in the city. “It’s like an Olympic torch being passed on to different cities,” says Kirtana Krishna, a Chennai-based guitarist, singer and composer who lives in Auroville. “Ten years ago, Bengaluru held the torch, now the scene is a bit dead and Chennai seems to have set the right tone. A lot of students are developing an interest in it.”

Chennai and jazz have had an on-again, off-again relationship, with several live bands performing in the 70s and 80s, recalls Ajit Diaz, a former musician who initiated the jazz nights at Hyatt. “It was the golden era when jazz pop and jazz rock were taking over the mainstream in the West. Musicians here were also picking up the chords, but it was always a niche audience and never made money like pop or rock. There are still quite a few talented musicians who need a platform and many were happy to just perform, not just for the money. Also, I see younger people getting back into it now.”

Ajit hopes to form a jazz-only club soon. “A jazz solo is never repeated, so you can’t hear the same piece again, and that’s the beauty of it.”

Jazz is not a genre for beginners and has long been associated with an older audience, but youngsters and music professionals from all genres are taking part in the Tuesday jazz performance workshop at Unwind Centre in Adyar, says founder Edison Prithviraj. “Many have developed a love for jazz in the two years since we started. It’s all possible because of the musician, Maarten Visser.”

Maarten, a saxophonist originally from the Netherlands, has lived in Chennai for 20 years and has been instrumental in reviving jazz in the city. “Not everyone would feel comfortable walking into a luxury hotel. At Unwind Centre, people from different classes and age groups come in,” says Maarten, a resident artist at Hyatt and whose band ‘Many Things’ is one of the few that plays jazz and blues.

Edison is also the one behind the ‘Madras Jazz Festival’ that is happening this year, despite the festival being missed for a few years due to Covid-19. “Our line-up is almost ready, with some international artists as usual,” he says. “The genre owes its survival to many unsung heroes who have kept it alive in Chennai over the decades. Many musicians have given up.” At the same time, the niche audience that does come to the festival is quite picky, he says.

“We still get an audience that knows when to clap,” says Wesley Crispus, who teaches woodwinds and jazz theory at the KM College of Music, Chennai, and also performs regularly in the city as part of the band Staccato. Bands like Postmodern Jukebox, which do jazz covers of popular songs, have also attracted interest among young music aspirants, says Wesley. “They now come asking for specific instruments like the saxophone. Some are children of parents who used to listen to jazz on vinyl records. But anyone who is good at instrumental music can be a good jazz musician,” says Wesley. “Jazz is about the notes you don’t play, when the expressions are rhythmic.”

The rhythmic aspect is also where Carnatic and jazz meet, says Kirtana, who has her own band, Kirtana Krishna Kvartet. “The beauty of jazz is that it keeps evolving. Incredible things have happened when there is a fusion of jazz and Carnatic music.

In a city like Chennai, the element that scares traditional Carnatic musicians is the harmony in jazz, which is missing in classical music, she says. Jazz harmony, she explains, uses intervals and dissonances that are not normally used in classical music.

“Melody is more respected than harmony. But both Carnatic and jazz musicians are comfortable experimenting and exploring rhythmic elements common to both genres. The articulation of Carnatic rhythms through konnakol can be seen within the larger framework of jazz.