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The Hindu
The Hindu
Meghna Majumdar

Louiz Banks, the godfather of Indian Jazz, is teaching children again

The godfather of Indian Jazz has fond memories of teaching. Having spent over half a century as a musician — performing in smoky Kolkata pubs and glittering international stages, composing with Bollywood’s best and Indian advertising’s most creative — Louiz Banks has much to look back at, at the age of 81. His gaze is set forward, however, his most recent initiative brings back simpler memories of “good old Darjeeling”.

“My earliest memory of teaching music is to a group of students in good old Darjeeling,” says the iconic Mumbai-based composer. He recalls: “After I graduated from St Joseph’s College, I decided to pursue BT: Bachelor of Teaching. With a BA BT under my belt I did precisely three years of teaching music theory and practice. I have vague memories of that phase in my life, but I had fun. I have met some of these boys after a span of many years; they still remember those days with me as their teacher very fondly.”

Those memories belong to the early-career avatar of Banks, a man with a lifetime of achievements, awards and prolific compositions still waiting ahead of him. Today, his repertoire is wide: he has co-created, with the likes of Pt Bhimsen Joshi, iconic tunes like ‘Freedom Run’ and ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’ — songs synonymous with the early emotions of a young, 40-year-old India still finding its feet, songs that are still being reprised today. He has composed over 1,000 ad jingles, including the classic Dairy Milk ‘ asli swad zindagi ka’ tune. He has lent his talent to numerous tunes of RD Burman, who famously invited him to Bollywood after hearing his jazz performance in Kolkata’s Blue Fox Restaurant in the late 1960s.

Just as iconically, he has played, popularised and experimented with Jazz in myriad forms: belting out jazzed-up variants of popular songs in Kolkata’s nightclubs, incorporating Indian classical scales and instruments to his very own music, playing with Pt Ravi Shankar’s jazz suite Jazzmine; creating multiple ensembles and groups to carry forward this musical playfulness with enthusiasts from around the country. If Jazz is synonymous with the nightclubs of Mumbai back in the golden years of the ’70s, Louiz Banks is to be thanked for it.

The lower age limit for his new music course is six years old (Source: Special arrangement)

Beyond boundaries

Now, Banks has returned to teaching. This time, his medium of instruction is the Internet, and his students are not bound by age or classroom structures. Looking back at his previous teaching experience, he finds “No comparison at all. This course is my baby, something I have designed and developed after many years of playing and studying music in different styles, with Artium Academy.”

The academy is essentially an online learning platform, based out of Mumbai, that provides courses from certified trainers and maestros, including Shubha Mudgal, KS Chitra and Sonu Nigam. Here, the Louiz Banks’ course focusses on the piano, giving students the chance to learn through one-on-one, hour-long sessions with him online. “It’s my course totally, designed and developed from scratch… from learning music notation (which is mandatory) and developing the physical aspect of finger dexterity, to the study of harmony and its relationship with melodic construction and stimulating creativity in every student as he begins to write his own music and songs,” he says.

The focus is on the progression of a student from the basics of music to becoming composers in their own right. This, naturally, turns the conversation towards Banks’ own musical education, provided primarily by his father George Banks, a man who was drawn away from his hilly Gurkha home in Nepal, down the mountain slopes to the plains of Bengal, pulled only by the tug of music.

He named his son Louis after musician Louis Armstrong. “My early inspiration was my father. He was my god of music, and he made sure I got off to a good grounding in the fundamentals of music learning through reading music notation , practising my scales and arpeggios regularly and understanding music theory. God bless him … eternally grateful for his tutoring and for giving me a great start towards a career in music,” says Banks.

Louiz Banks on stage (Source: Special arrangement)

But learning from a teacher is one thing, and learning on stage is another entirely. Banks elaborates, “First of all it’s a totally different ball game. Even if you are prepared with your repertoire after days of rehearsal, you need nerves of steel and super confidence when you face an audience who can be very judgemental… or very appreciative. You gotta take it in your stride and give out your best.”

What follows is a list of lessons learnt from decades of live performance: “Do your homework, gauge your audience reaction to your performance and choice of material… make changes in your repertoire and approach and put your best feet forward. It ain’t easy and you learn progressively after every performance, even after you’ve established yourself as a great musician or singer.”

But no matter how prepared and quick on their feet a musician is, nerves — says Banks — are only natural.

“It’s a good sign if you are nervous before the first number… your best will come out if you are confident of your abilities and your repertoire. When the first number goes great and the audience responds with applause and cheers, you are on your way to putting out a great performance. That has been my own experience.”

His final word of advice to performers harks back to his first one, “I’ve also learnt that one has to be open to altering the repertoire that you’ve decided on if you need to.”

So is that the first lesson he will be teaching? Or will the fun and playfulness of Jazz be his focus? Turns out, it’s the latter.

“I’ve always maintained that learning music should be a fun thing. This attitude works because the student is building a strong foundation and learning all the rudiments without stress… Stress is counter-productive,” he states categorically.

Indian musician Mohini Dey (Source: Special arrangement)
The next generation
Banks is optimistic about the current crop of Jazz and Western musicians in the country, including Sheldon DSilva, Rhythm Shaw, Mohini Dey, Rahul Wadhwani, Rhys Dsouza, Vasundhara, Isheeta Chakravarty, Thomson Andrews and many more.

Better days ahead

Having said that, Banks is nothing but optimistic about the current crop of Jazz and Western musicians in the country.

He finds that they “have serious intent in giving out their best in a performance… mind you they practise a lot! The tribe of good musicians with a willingness to work hard is growing day by day. Given the right opportunities, they will make a mark on the world stage.”

His own son, Gino Banks, has been performing and touring incessantly since the lockdowns wound down. Freshly returned from the Jazz Weekender in New Delhi, Gino is as optimistic about the Indian scene as his father, if not more. He states, “There are many young Jazz artists nowadays, more than when I was starting out.”

Gino reiterates, “There are many promoters wanting to do Jazz concerts. There is an audience for the shows. Venue owners and performing art centres need to host events for this music to thrive… to help India become a concert touring country again for the world’s best to come and play.”

Gino and Louiz Banks (Source: Special arrangement)

His father reiterates that, regardless of genre or platform: “Good music is good music. It will always be appreciated! There is no bad music, only badly played music. In my case, some of my best music creations have not got wide appreciation, because they don’t fall into the popular music culture category. But that does not deter me from following my true path and creating music that meets my standard of good music first.”

And with a final, emphatic word of advice, Louiz Banks signs off: “Be original and let your voice be heard!”

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