Come November, Kolkata wears all the markers of the change in season. Monkey caps appear on neighbourhood uncles, the hawkers at Gariahat market bring out their stocks of pullovers, and ads for all-inclusive winter holidays to Thailand and Australia surface in newspapers. However, if there is one thing that can be said to signal the onset of winter, it is Jazzfest – Kolkata’s annual jazz festival.

But this year, this beloved annual event was clouded in doubt. Last week, Varun Desai, who has been organising the event since 2014, notified fans that Jazzfest was being cancelled. In wake of the demonetisation drive, several sponsors had pulled out at the last minute. But it wasn’t long before a happier note was struck: several concerned regulars and bodies such as the Goethe Institut and British Council pooled in resources to ensure that the tradition would not be broken. For the first time, the event will be free.

Desai was adamant that Jazzfest would have to be cancelled if it didn’t receive adequate financial support because “this is more than a festival”.

He explained: “Jazz is about musicians who have reached the highest order in terms of playing their instruments and they play it with the fluidity of speech where they’re talking to themselves and to the audience. We want to keep this conversation going but not by compromising on production or ethics.”

Nishad Pandey, an internationally touring musician, agreed that there was something special about Jazzfest. “This festival has a very distinct vibe, because of how it is run... and the type of people who attend the event,” he said. Kolkata “certainly is a city with a literate and discerning musical audience [especially for classical music]. However, a dearth of venues and festivals means that connections to jazz are sporadic, unfocused and, therefore, often tenuous. This is why Jazzfest really is something to be supported.”

Credit: Simon Ghosh
Credit: Simon Ghosh

Jazz’s relationship with Calcutta goes back nearly a century to a time when, as the seat of the British empire, the city was the first port of arrival for cultural trends. It was here that the Lequime’s Grand Hotel Orchestra recorded The House Where the Shutters Are Green in 1926, the first jazz disc to be made in India. They had been playing at the Grand Hotel (an establishment immortalised in Sankar’s novel Chowringhee) for a few months, evidence that jazz had found its way to the city not long after its birth in New Orleans the previous decade.

Between the 1920s and the 1970s, Calcutta enjoyed a golden age of jazz that was rivalled only by Bombay. In 1978, Jazz India, a group of jazz aficionados began to organise a festival that would eventually include performances in several cities across the country. The Calcutta chapter, Jazzfest, comprised of working people who loved jazz and did whatever they could to make it succeed, calling noteworthy international acts. However, since individual schedules made coordination difficult, Jazzfest was put on hold after the departure of founder Satrajit Roy Chaudhury to America. It was only after his return that Congo Square, a non-profit society, was formed to help organise an annual jazz festival again starting 2002.

Tapan Desai, vice-president of Congo Square and Varun Desai’s father, appears wistful as he recalls those days in the 1980s.

“I remember walking into the green room to find [keyboardist] Herbie Hancock and [saxophone player] Wayne Shorter meditating before a small gilded Buddha statue,” he said. “There was also the time [trumpet player] Dizzy Gillespie was playing with his band in 1986 and there was a power cut. The crowd hushed to hear him play acoustically when suddenly a nearby mosque broke out in azaan. The audiences always numbered upwards of a thousand (4,500 during Hancock and Shorter’s performance) and comprised of young people, musicians and aficionados.”

Desai continued: “We had the privilege of hosting jazz greats such as Erik Truffaz, Bobo Stenson and Jonas Hellborg. We’ve had various formats over the years, from single events to four-day festivals and have also hosted in multiple venues such as Nazrul Manch, Maidan, St. Paul’s Cathedral and of course, the Dalhousie Institute. Calcutta’s crowd is really polite and responds to life. We never had a security issue in all these years.”

Of these places, it is Dalhousie Institute that is most associated with the jazz festival. Every November, the courtyard of the recreational club is transformed into a live music venue for three days. While festivals have a tendency to make one feel lost in the crowd, at Jazzfest there is a strange familiarity which owes much to the informal, college-fest style setting (complete with coupons for everything) and no restrictions on movement or seating. This lends the event a unique charm as people of all ages and backgrounds come together to listen to jazz in the slight winter chill. The cheap alcohol helps one revel in the drummer’s helter-skelter rhythm or make sense of the beautiful melancholia emanating from a trumpet.

Credit: Red Bantoo
Credit: Red Bantoo

It is no secret that Kolkata does not have many Western music events. International acts shun the city for more commercially viable destinations such as Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru. To add insult to injury, there has been a brain drain of the city’s local talent to these cities. The long economic depression that the city has been subject to since the 1970s has made it lag behind in terms of industry and job creation. During these four decades, nightlife suffered too. But today things are different.

Credit: Red Bantoo
Credit: Red Bantoo

There are several cafes, bars and nightclubs opening in the city. Kolkata residents are earning more, dining out and stepping out for entertainment more than before. Any EDM gig (like a recent one featuring Martin Garrix) is quickly sold out. Nightclubs that play generic electronic music do well. Live music is the only industry taking a hit.

“There is immense talent here and a lot of musicians are working hard to make it work but when the economy of the place is weak, everything gets affected,” said Nishit Arora, an event manager who runs a weekly alternative event called Jamsteady. “The ideal situation would be when people start coming to gigs and pay for it. This dependence on sponsors is what makes everything so difficult. Once the numbers are big and the scene becomes vibrant, sponsors will come on their own.”

Kolkata residents need to take a deeper look at the local live music scene and find ways to support it. Their indifference may drive away their local talent to other cities and leave them at the mercy of visiting acts. Every city needs to foster a community that can give voice to its sentiment. American bandleader and orchestral director Paul Whiteman had said that “jazz is the folk music of the machine age” and the Jazzfest is an ideal environment for Kolkata to ponder over the value of live music.

Jazzfest runs from November 25 to November 27. You can find the line-up and other information here.