When Soli Sorabjee planned to turn Karnataka’s Raj Bhavan into a jazz club
Soli Sorabjee was one of India’s most prominent men. A prominent jurist, who almost became governor of Karnataka, except that the government of the Center changed and the new one threw out this idea. It was sad. I can imagine our faithful Raj Bhavan swaying to the sounds of Duke Ellington. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
I first met Sorabjee in the mid-1970s. Niranjhan Jhaveri, the country’s biggest jazz fan at the time, had the idea of starting India’s first international jazz festival. . And of course he called upon Sorabjee and me to join him in this endeavor. Jazz Yatra it was called.
I lived in Calcutta, where I ran the advertising agency Lintas, but I went down to Bombay for our first meeting with Niru, because we knew Jhaveri. Sorabjee arrived from Delhi. Together, we decided to launch the jazz festival. Sorabjee agreed to use his relations with foreign embassies in Delhi to bring as many jazz greats as possible to India. Some of the biggest names in world jazz arrived – from 1978 it was a godsend for jazz fans nationwide.
I had decided to hold an international jazz festival in parallel in Calcutta. Bengal was then ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). I met Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, a full-fledged Renaissance man, through mutual friends, sold him the idea of an international festival in a city that, more than ever to l epoch needed to be written positively in the international press.
Basu instructed his Minister of Culture to introduce me to the consulates of Poland, Hungary and Russia, Eastern bloc countries which had flourishing jazz movements. I had their groups for free; the Poles brought an entire plane with three groups – a trio, a quintet and a big band – and all the sound equipment we would need for the festival, which was held on the lawns of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
So I got in touch with Sorabjee again, I convinced him to convince Niru Jhaveri to exchange bands with me and send me some of his for our festival in Calcutta. It was not easy. Jhaveri was reluctant to send me ten famous bands in exchange for five strangers from the Red Countries, but Sorabjee was all for it. A true jazz fan, he was deeply interested in spreading the faith.
There were three or four Jazz Yatras and as many Calcutta Jazz festivals over the following years. Then I moved to the Far East to run my business activities in Indonesia and Malaysia. My relationship with Sorabjee has become a stain in the rearview mirror; there was no email or WhatsApp at the time.
But when I returned to India and decided to settle in Bangalore in 1994, I met him again. He had an apartment in Bangalore not far from mine, and we met at a mutual friend’s place, Ranga Bedi, and that’s where our friendship really started. It was a friendship that never ended.
Sorabjee came to Bangalore every few months and we always spent evenings together at my house listening to my jazz CDs. Sorabjee’s love for jazz began during his school years, as did mine. Rooted as we were in what was called contemporary jazz in the 1950s, neither of us were fans of the newfangled jazz fusion that had invaded the genre. We listened to the greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington.
One day, to my great joy, the Bangalore newspapers reported that the central government had decided to appoint Sorabjee as governor of Karnataka. I called him immediately, and his immediate response was that he was eager to get his hands on my collection of a thousand and more jazz CDs. When I told him that Raj Bhavan was only a hundred yards from my house, he typically started planning jazz listening sessions at the Raj Bhavan himself.
Unfortunately, this was not the case. The government changed, the new one wanted nothing to do with Soli Sorabjee and Raj Bhavan from Bangalore lost the opportunity to transform into a jazz club.
As Sorabjee got older, his visits to Bangalore became less and less. We kept in touch via email and occasionally chatted by phone. Last month on March 9, his 91st birthday, when I called to wish him his wife Zena asked me to keep it brief as he was getting forgetful and couldn’t hold long conversations. He looked tired and frail, but happy to hear me.
It was the last time we spoke. Now he’s gone and I look back with sad nostalgia at one of the great friendships of my 78-year life. Rest in peace, dear Soli, dear friend. Hope we will be together again someday, alongside Miles and Coltrane and Dizzy and the Duke and all those greats that have brought us together over the years.
Jazz musician Stanley Pinto worked in advertising.