music

Louiz Banks: The jazz veteran on his musical journey, RD Burman and playing with Dizzy Gillespie

The 77-year-old looks back on his rich and eventful life in an interview with Nasreen Munni Kabir.

It was thanks to my friend Ayesha Sayani that I got to meet Louiz Banks. She knows him well and called him to ask if I could interview him. Then some weeks passed and I kept trying to catch him in Mumbai between his gigs in India and abroad. Finally, we met on a Monday in April, a few days before he left for a long tour in the US with the band Cross Currents.

This wonderfully gifted jazz pianist has led a rich and eventful life and given the limited time we had to chat, it was unlikely we could cover every aspect. I asked him as many questions as time permitted and he answered me with full attention. He is a man who wears his success very lightly. He is generous, youthful and open-minded with a sharp wit and an unending passion for music.

Nasreen Munni Kabir: On Wikipedia, you’re described as an Indian film composer, record producer, Jazz musician, keyboardist, singer in various trends of music – Indi-pop, modern progressive, contemporary jazz, Indo Jazz – and you are also referred to as the Godfather of Indian Jazz. How would you describe yourself?
Louiz Banks:
The singer bit is wrong. I can sing a bit to explain my music to other singers, but I am not really a singer. I am a musician who lives music, breathes music and who does not exist without music. That’s my life.

You grew up with many musical influences. What was it about jazz that made you think, “Ah! This is it, this is what I want to do.”?
We have to go back many years. I come from a family of six generations of musicians. We’re originally from Nepal. It was my father who first got interested in Western music and became a very accomplished trumpet player. There wasn’t great Western music being played in Nepal in those days, so my father decided to spread his wings and followed his friends’ advice: “Calcutta is the place to go. It’s all happening in Calcutta.” Mind you, we’re talking about the 1930s.

With his brother and my mother, my father moved to Calcutta. We kids were not born as yet. At that time, Calcutta was buzzing with music and Western culture. Dad told me about the many great American, European and British bands living and working in Calcutta back then. The Bengali babus were steeped in British culture. They went to clubs, drank and smoked, listened to music and danced.

Dad joined a band in Calcutta and played the trumpet. He was not totally into jazz but he was a man who was keen on learning, and he was a fast learner. Then we kids were born.

A young Louiz Banks (extreme right) with his family.
A young Louiz Banks (extreme right) with his family.

Your Wikipedia page said you were born in Darjeeling.
No, wrong. I was born in Calcutta. My mother said I nearly died at birth. I fell very sick and had double pneumonia. My parents had lost all hope of their child surviving, but somehow I did. Divine intervention.

My parents were Hindus and my mother was very religious. She wanted to thank God for saving me, so she made a vow that I would not eat pork for 12 years. I don’t remember all that, but these were the stories I heard much later in life. She took this vow and when I was 12, she took me back to Nepal and fulfilled the vow. Only after that I ate pork. To tell you the truth, pork does not agree with me, so I hardly touch it.

What was your mother’s name?
Saraswati. Coincidently the road on which I live here in Bombay [now Mumbai] is called Saraswati Road. And the road my sister lives on in Toronto is St George’s Road and that’s my father’s name – George. Amazing coincidence!

We were five kids – three brothers and two sisters. I am the eldest. All the brothers were given Christian names – Louiz, Peter and Stephen – and the sisters were given Hindu names – Ganga and Jamuna.

Banks is the professional name that my father adopted in Calcutta on the advice of his friends who said, “Hey, what are you doing with a name like Pushkar Bahadur Budaprithi? Never heard of a jazz musician with a name like that. Get yourself a nice hep, funky name that suits your profession.” Someone suggested, “How about George Banks?” “Sounds great! Short and sweet.” So that’s the name in our passports and is now our family surname.

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And I believe Louiz came from Louis Armstrong?
Yes, that’s right. Dad wanted me to learn the trumpet and play like Louis Armstrong who was the king of the trumpet then. So the trumpet was the first instrument that I learnt.

Did you play it well?
I was so good that I could sit in with Dad’s band and play, but eventually I gave it up because I couldn’t think on it.

I couldn’t improvise on the trumpet with the trumpet in mind. I was thinking via notes on the piano and trying to figure it out on the trumpet. It wasn’t the right way round. I could read music from an early age and had already started studying classical piano. It was clear to me that my heart was in the piano. Dad was both a pianist and trumpet player. He was a very strict teacher and made us all train in music, but none of my siblings stuck with music – only me.

Sometime in the 1950s, the family moved from Calcutta to Darjeeling where Dad formed a band and played at the Darjeeling Gymkhana Club, a very British Club with a British manager. It was all very proper. You had to wear the right clothes and have the right shoes to get onto the dance floor. I used to play with Dad’s band sometimes. I learnt hands-on.

Dance was the big draw at the club. The band had to play dance numbers – the cha-cha-cha, the foxtrot, waltz, samba, mambo, rumba and tango. The club manager got us sheet music from London, and we would practice the charts and play those tunes for people to dance to. Now we don’t see those dances anymore – so nobody plays that music. It’s sad. But that was the popular music of the time, not complex improvised modern jazz, but mainstream, danceable jazz.

One day, Dad made me hear a pianist on the radio. I was amazed and said, “Who is this guy?”

“Oscar Peterson.”

“Dad, I like his playing, it’s so exciting and jazzy. I want to play like him.”

That was the turning point for me and I got into jazz very seriously. Dad used to help by writing solos for me. He was very talented and gifted and was definitely one of the best trumpeters India ever had.

Do you have any of his recordings?
That’s the unfortunate thing. I feel very sad but I don’t have a single recording.

How do you separate a good jazz musician from a great jazz musician?
All great jazz musicians are good musicians, but not all good musicians are great musicians. It’s that special something that separates them. There are musicians who have all the technique in the world and who can play as fast as a great musician, but there’s something missing. Is it charisma? Showmanship? Extraordinary mastery? Could be, I don’t know. It’s the whole aura that captivates the audience. Proficiency on the instrument and its mastery is a given. But they go beyond that and when they play, the audience is mesmerised. Something makes them legendary.

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Sounds like you immediately recognised that quality in Oscar Peterson’s playing.
Yes! It was the sound and his facility on the piano. His playing was so exciting! Over the years, I have listened to other great piano players and they all have influenced me.

There was a British pianist called George Shearing who took America by storm. He was blind. He developed a style of playing which we know as the block chord harmony. At that time it was unheard of. I used to love the way he played a tune, not single notes, but with chords. It’s called the Shearing Sound.

You play melodies with a single note, but then you can play the same melody with chords moving in unison.

There is another funky jazz pianist called Ramsey Lewis. I love his playing. And the pianist who really blew my mind was Erroll Garner. A totally unschooled musician who could not read a note of music, but was a genius. He could play anything by ear. An absolutely prolific player.

I used to love these pianists and try and emulate them, copy their solos. That’s how I started to develop my own style. That’s what I tell youngsters today – what’s the first thing you must do? The three ‘i’s – imitate, integrate and innovate.

When I interviewed Zakir Hussain, he talked about concert performance being a musical conversation between musicians.
Absolutely! It is a conversation and interaction between the band members is crucial. The other great thing about jazz is that every time you play, it’s different. Jazz musicians do not write their solos and play them note for note, hence it’s never the same twice. You are not confined to a certain way of playing, sticking religiously to certain patterns and not changing it. With other forms of music, you play a piece of music, and then you have to play it exactly the way you had played it before. Pop music is like that.

Photo credit: Gino Banks/Facebook
Photo credit: Gino Banks/Facebook

How versatile an instrument is the piano for you?
You can play anything and everything. It’s just your own limitation or lack of technique that limits its potential. It’s the greatest instrument, the king of instruments!

I have practiced a lot – every musician does that. You encounter different kinds of patterns, scales, arpeggios, counterpoints, etc. Yet sometimes you feel something is missing in the execution, so you take that pattern, practice and perfect it. Then on stage you just ripple through it. Along with a fertile imagination, your practicing works spontaneously in your solos.

This is probably a naïve question, but how does the brain cope with the very different left and right hand movements? Few people are even ambidextrous.
I don’t know, but that’s how it is. I am not left-handed, but I use the left hand extensively in my playing and improvisations.

There are two ways of using the left hand. One is to provide the root of chord and harmony, and to support what the right hand is doing. The right hand is the melody and all the improvisation that goes with the melody in relation to the harmony. So, the fast finger work is done with the right hand, supported by the left hand. You have to practice to develop speed in playing. You can’t just get on stage and play something very fast on the spur of the moment. You cannot, your fingers won’t move unless you have put in a lot of practice.

Is there a moment on stage when you realise your playing has shifted levels?
Sometimes in the heat of a performance you can get onto that other level. Sometimes the people you’re playing with provide amazing accompaniment that gets you all fired up and your playing becomes inspired and elevated. It’s great when that happens.

Sometimes the other band members can pull you down, if they are not in tune with what you are playing. But if they’re with you, thinking with you, going along with you, then you’re on fire.

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In Indian classical music, you have to improvise within a rhythm cycle and return to the “sum”. Is there an equivalent in jazz – this coming back together?
Yes, there is. It’s the downbeat, the first beat of the bar. It is determined by the format of the piece that you’re playing. Suppose your piece has 32 bars, your improvisation must stay within those 32 bars. You have to be aware of the downbeat at all times, as well as keep track of the predetermined format of the song.

You can have a second chorus which also has to be 32 bars, and a third chorus of 32 bars, but you have to always keep in mind that you’re playing a 32-bar format. If you break away from that, then it is wrong, unless the whole group has preplanned it. And you have told them, “In the second chorus I feel like extending those 32 bars to 40 bars.” But the other band members must know that’s what I am doing. Sometimes it can happen spontaneously and by visual cues you alert everyone that you’re extending – because you wanted to do more and you didn’t want to move back to “one”.

In music, you want to do different things all the time and jazz allows you that freedom. That’s why I don’t find any other music as stimulating. Every day you can learn new things and new approaches. You can even discover more about the same piece of music that you may have played 100 times.

With Zakir Hussain at a tribute concert in Mumbai in December 2017.
With Zakir Hussain at a tribute concert in Mumbai in December 2017.

How do you plan a concert?
Let me give you an example. For Cross Currents [an all-star jazz and fusion band of which Banks and Zakir Hussain are members, with several other musicians], we sort of follow a set order of pieces, which Zakir Bhai and the others have finalised. It works beautifully.

We start with a piece of mine called The Dove. It’s a slow melodic piece, and builds up and up. It’s a kind of haunting piece – great for the saxophone. Zakir Bhai loves it. We try to take a fresh approach to our playing in every concert. There’s the mood of the moment, the audience, the ambience of the hall. I sit at the piano with a blank mind and the sound of the notes leads to the next note, then the next and the next.

Is the love of jazz growing in India?
There were rumours – oh, jazz is dying. It is slowly on the decline, nobody is listening to it now. But I interact with a lot of youngsters because of my son Gino, who is an excellent drummer, and his bunch of friends – inspired by him – are all getting into jazz in a serious way. That tribe is now growing and Gino tells me, “Dad, they want jazz in the clubs today.”

I don’t know if there’s a revival. It looks like it. But the youngsters are more into dance and visual-related material. They want something to motivate them to get on the floor and dance.

With the band Cross Current. (From left to right) Zakir Hussain, Sanjay Divecha, Chris Potter, Dave Holland, Shankar Mahadevan and son Gino Banks (front)
With the band Cross Current. (From left to right) Zakir Hussain, Sanjay Divecha, Chris Potter, Dave Holland, Shankar Mahadevan and son Gino Banks (front)

The composer C Ramachandra introduced so many new sounds in film music from the early 1950s. Did you know him?
C Ramchandra! He was my Dad’s friend. Nice guy. And then I heard some of his music and I would say, “He’s aping the West, Latin rhythms, and phrases from different songs.” It was full of all that. Now we call it Bollywood, but film music still apes a lot from Western music. I guess it’s all part of the universality of musical forms across the globe. The West apes the East and vice-versa, the North and South [India] ape too – it’s one big happy family.

Then there was RD Burman.
He was so innovative, even when he copied, he made it his own. A jazz piece that was heard very occasionally became a popular piece once he had grabbed hold of it; it got a new lease of life. People did not even realise it was a Western tune. It became RD Burman’s tune.

Genius! He had a gift for melody. I am glad I met him. That was another turning point in my life. It changed the course of my life. He was responsible for my moving to Bombay.

Another mistake on Wikipedia – someone wrote that RD Burman had offered me a job and I had refused it. That’s not true. What happened was RD asked me to come to Bombay and play the piano for Mukti [1977]. It was the first movie I did with Pancham-da. Shashi Kapoor was the hero of the film and the character he plays in the film loves the piano. He expresses different moods and emotions through music – sad, romantic, happy, angry. I played for all those piano scenes and Shashi acted them out beautifully.

With RD Burman and his group. Photo credit: Gino Banks/Facebook
With RD Burman and his group. Photo credit: Gino Banks/Facebook

Then I said, “Pancham-da, I have to go back to Calcutta now because I have a band there. When I complete my contract, I want to take up your generous offer.” So I never really refused RD.

In 1979, I moved to Bombay and worked with him. I guess I was one of his favourite musicians. All the piano solos that you hear in his film scores from 1979 are played by me. He had the best musicians in his orchestra, including Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma and others.

Pancham-da usually came sort of half-prepared to the studio. Things happened spontaneously and the song would be composed and arranged. But it was not the final arrangement, and just like a jazz musician, he would say, “No, I think we should do it again. Make a few changes. Let’s forget what we planned yesterday.” He was very good at experimenting. “Let’s put a piano solo over here. Okay, Louiz come. Sit down, play me something.” I loved his open and imaginative thinking. RD was not a jazz musician but he thought like one and composed with a very open mind, assimilating all kinds of influences from around the world and incorporating them into his beautiful melodies.

We usually recorded at Film Centre in Tardeo. Whether it was the piano or later the synthesiser, I would play with the orchestra. RD’s orchestra would have 100, and sometime 120, musicians. In the violin section there would be about 50 violins. The most accomplished violinists would sit in the first two rows. The next two or three rows were occupied by guys who could play well. From the fifth to the ninth row were the supporting musicians. Some were just about keeping up with the piece. They were there to support the volume and density, the fullness of the string section.

From the console room, RD would sometimes shout, “What are you all doing? You guys at the back, play correctly.” He would not call out their names, but he would say loudly, “I know who is playing out of tune!”

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How is your Hindi?
Bad. I can’t speak it well. I speak street Hindi. It’s terrible!

When you were recording film songs, were you interested in the Hindi/Urdu lyrics?
Not at all. Never thought of the lyrics! The leading playback singers would come to the recording sessions, sit with RD Burman, learn the song and then sing it. They were so quick and super talented. Legendary names, including Lata-ji, Asha-ji, Kishore Kumar, Rafi Sahab and others.

From the mid-forties, there seems to be a fascination with the piano in Hindi cinema. You see a piano prominently on display and this great instrument would often be integrated into the narrative, as the hero, of past films would sit at the piano at a party, sing a song of rejection. The lyrics would be aimed at the heroine who moved about the guest-filled room looking crestfallen. And the guests would invariably pretend not to understand the cry of heartache and the subtext of the lyrics. There are some wonderful musical scenes in Andaaz, Babul, Awaara, Sangam, Waqt, etc, conceived and choreographed around the piano. Moreover, the piano in films was clearly a symbol of westernisation and affluence.
Not only in the movies, but for some people it is just a nice piece of furniture. The piano is kept in the corner of the sitting room, and covered with a tablecloth and a flower vase is placed on top of it! Nobody plays it. It’s a sexy-looking instrument. And yes, composers were fascinated by the sound and look of the piano.

Did film music pay well?
I discovered money after coming to Bombay. We were paid at the end of every recording session. We were paid much more than what we earned playing in clubs. There were fixed rates and the musicians’ union had grades for musicians – Special, A, B and C. If a musician was a very famous guy, he would be paid the Special rate.

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You also spent years composing jingles for adverts. And with Ashok Patki composed that very famous song Mile sur mera tumhara. How did that come about?
I was at the top of my game at that time. The number one music director for advertising. This is much after the RD Burman period. I worked for various agencies. The Mile sur [idea] was initiated by Rajiv Gandhi who wanted a song on national integration.

Suresh Mullick and Piyush Pandey from O&M and the director of the film, Kailash Surendranath, came to me and said, “You must do this.” It was a big deal, but it was also going to take a long time to complete, as we were using all kinds of musical influences from all over India and integrating it into one song. The main bandish [composition] is classical actually. I only developed it, composed the interludes, and the final ending to make it a well-integrated song format. Ashok Patki did some great work. He’s a very talented and humble soul.

This wonderful team also created Desh Raag and the Freedom Run, also called The Torch Song for Doordarshan. I composed the music and it’s now known as the Freedom Trilogy.

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We must speak about your encounter with the great Dizzy Gillespie.
One unforgettable gig night in Washington led to a tour with the iconic Dizzy Gillespie.

I was a great admirer of his playing, a genius and the greatest trumpeter that ever lived. In 1984, I happened to be in Washington with a friend of mine who took me to a club where Dizzy and his band were playing. That night it so happened that Dizzy’s pianist was unwell. Divine intervention! Even without the piano player, they were burning the stage. During their break, my friend said, “Would you like to meet him?” He took me upstairs and introduced me to Dizzy [saying], “This is Louis Banks and he’s an Indian jazz pianist.” Dizzy looked at me – “Jazz? Jazz pianist in India? Is that possible?” [And I said,] “Yes, we listen to jazz and play jazz.” He couldn’t believe it.

After the break, before he starts his piece, Dizzy announced: “I believe there’s an Indian jazz pianist in the house. I would like him to come up and sit with us.” My legs started shaking. I mean it was too much for me. I’m lucky my heart didn’t stop. I was scared, we hadn’t rehearsed, and there I was heading for the stage.

When I got onto the stage, Dizzy says, “Let’s do Stella by Starlight. Louis, you know it?” Thank God I knew it and so I could play the piano intro. He was quite happy with my playing and nodded at my solos. And then we played a whole bunch of originals and standards. John Lee, the bassist, helped me with their repertoire. What a great experience!

The following year, in 1985, another friend of mine, Rajesh Zaveri, brought Dizzy Gillespie’s band to Bombay. And Dizzy asked for me – “Is that piano player who played with me in Washington around?” So, I got the gig and played all five concerts.

Divine interventions bring happiness in your life and change it. After meeting RD Burman, meeting Dizzy was the other turning point for me.

So many of the jazz greats have passed on. Who do you still miss? As a friend and a musician.
Charlie Mariano, the great saxophone player. He used to come to India quite often, and we collaborated together and even toured Europe with a band called Sangam, my first fusion band. He was an amazing guy, a great player! And one of the guys I really miss.

With wife Lorraine.
With wife Lorraine.

I was wondering why you decided to change the spelling of your name from Louis to Louiz.
In 2001, my wife, Lorraine, took me to a famous numerologist to discuss an issue and after that was settled, I just asked him out of curiosity if the spelling of my name was good, as far as numerology was concerned. He wrote down Louis, looked at it, made some calculations and then said, “You need to change one alphabet and you’ll become very, very famous.” So Louis became Louiz. I loved it and from then on that’s how I spell my name. And it worked. God bless him. Life has been great!

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