Soli Sorabjee: a patron to the jazzmen of his era

As the President of Capital Jazz, the Jazz India Delhi Chapter, he ensured that the music performed in Jazz Utsav was in tune with the times.

Soli knew he was going. ‘We are in the departure lounge waiting for visas to come through,” he told his friend Subash a week or so ago.

You wouldn’t have thought that a month earlier, when he was on stage at the India International Centre, bantering with Supreme Court judge Justice Rohinton Nariman at the launch of his collected works, Down Memory Lane.

The occasion was also the delayed celebration of his 90th birthday, twice postponed from last year due to Covid. It was time between the subsidence of one wave and the rise of another. In a life full of myriad achievements, Soli himself had ridden — and crested — many a wave himself, before being swept away by this dreadful one.

None would have pleased Soli more than being president of Jazz India Delhi Chapter (and later Capital Jazz). Jazz Yatra, the international festival of jazz music, was first held in Bombay, in 1978. It was Soli, along with fellow jazz-lovers (the above-mentioned) Subash Lal, Rudy Cotton, Harish Salve and a few others, who formed Jazz India Delhi Chapter to bring the Yatra to Delhi. The Yatra (and Jazz Utsav in its later avatar) became a staple of the Capital’s Cultural circuit. It was the forerunner to the “live” concerts by international artists taken for granted by today’s music-loving public.

I got to know Soli in the early 80s, first when I volunteered as backstage help for the Jazz Yatras and later as a member of the JIDC managing committee. I was a young sports reporter then, and in awe of him — the highest-paid lawyer in the country — as we would attend meetings at his Sundar Nagar office-cum-residence. But Soli never let that show then, or in the 35-odd years I’ve known him. I was an equal, a fellow jazz lover. When he visited Singapore while I was working there in the 1990s, much to my delight, he called me and took me out shopping.

Growing up in Bombay in the 1930s-40s it was natural Soli would “swing” to the music of that era — he passionately loved the music of Benny Goodman and played the clarinet himself. When Soli, as Attorney-General, was introduced to sax-playing American President Bill Clinton, he told him, “You are the second president who loves tenor sax, the first was Lester Young (the American tenor saxman of the 1940s was nicknamed ‘Prez’).”

The passion extended to people who made the music, too: he was a patron to the jazzmen of his era. A proposed line-up for a Jazz Utsav in the 2000s didn’t feature any Indian bands. Soli promptly shot off a note, saying: “I may frankly state that if there is no Indian band performing at the Utsav it will be very difficult for me to associate myself with the Utsav.”

Soli’s preferred music was that of a bygone era. Meetings of Capital Jazz would start with him talking about a particular solo Lester took in the latest CD he’d heard. But as President of Capital Jazz he ensured that the music performed in Jazz Utsav was in tune with the times. If the line-up had Grammy winner saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthapa to please the purists, he would also have Larry Carlton, the Grammy winning guitar virtuoso, to attract the youth. He did this by allowing younger people to have a voice in Capital Jazz: first there was (the late) Amit Sehgal, better known as a rock impressario; later Arjun Sagar Gupta, who runs the only Jazz Pub in Delhi/Gurgaon.

That was quintessential Soli – a traditionalist with one hand, so generous with the other. When finally his visa came, it was dated International Jazz Day.

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