Jazz Exotica – Indian Music and Jazz

Published: 2019/12/11 Number of words: 3352

One of the key elements underlying the development of jazz has been the willingness of musicians to incorporate influences from a wide variety of global musical traditions. From the very beginning jazz took its cues from African rhythms, primarily the music of the Yoruba people of West Africa. Jazz drummer Art Blakey’s study of African rhythms in the 1950s continued this trend, which was owed to the growing political awareness – and increasing identification with Africa – amongst African Americans. Berendt discusses how early New Orleans jazz was heavily influenced by the ‘Spanish’, or what we would today call the ‘Latin’ sound, owing to the prime location of New Orleans in both North American and Latin/Creole cultural spheres (1992:358). Jelly Roll Morton went so far as to say that the ‘Latin tinge’ was what differentiated early New Orleans jazz from ragtime (ibid.:359). Cuban rhythms and percussion instruments reached Modern jazz in the late 1940s, with Dizzy Gillespie employing a number of Cuban percussionists[1] in his big band, leading to the short-lived trend of ‘Cubop’. During this time, many Cuban musicians played with jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and Herbie Mann, with the collaboration usually taking the format of a single Latin percussionist performing alongside a conventional jazz rhythm section – a phenomenon that was owed mainly to Cubop being considered fashionable at the time (ibid.:351). Latin bandleader Machito encouraged jazz musicians not to simply add a Latin percussionist to their ensemble, and instead envisaged a dialogue between complete Latin rhythm sections and Jazz rhythm sections. Unfortunately for Machito, the trend for Latin percussionists in Bebop ensembles did not last beyond the early 1950s[2]. By the early sixties Brazilian music was the new ‘in’ thing, with records such as ‘Jazz Samba’ by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd proving extremely popular. Also in the sixties, and the area upon which this paper focuses, a wave of jazz musicians turned to the Classical music traditions of North and South India from which to draw inspiration, including John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Yusuf Lateef.

This essay provides a reading of why jazz musicians so frequently turn to global traditions in their music, with the overarching aim being to show how theories of orientalism and exoticism, as described by writers Edward Said and John Hutnyk in relation to literature and popular music respectively, can be applied to the appropriations of global music traditions by jazz musicians. Beginning with an overview of jazz developments that utilised Indian classical music from the sixties onwards, I will go on to discuss the similarities between how both jazz and popular musicians utilised Indian classical music. There will be a focus on why Indian music in particular has had such a vast impact on many jazz musicians, and a deeper analysis of what is usually recognised as the major underlying concept that is said to unify jazz and Indian music – improvisation.

It would be useful here to consider the social context underpinning the development of ‘Indo-Jazz’. While records of Indian musicians performing in North America date back at least a century, ranging from street performances to circus sideshow spots (Hutnyk, 2000), the arrival of sitarist Ravi Shankar in the early 1960s truly marked the beginning of an Indian music presence there. It must be noted that it was during this time that many practitioners of Transcendental Meditation and self-proclaimed gurus such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi were arriving in the US en masse (Maharishi, 1986), with many musicians, actors and other public figures turning to them for enlightenment. It was not just the music of the Orient that interested the West during this time – it was also the perceived spirituality and inherently ‘unknowable’ nature of Eastern philosophy. Growing up in Paris, Shankar had the opportunity to collaborate with many Western Classical musicians during the late 1930s and early 40s including Andrés Segovia and Yehudi Menuhin – Menuhin in particular becoming a major advocate of North Indian Classical music in the West as a result. Shankar was thus considered very highly amongst Western musicians and, combined with the recent surge of interest in the East, many American musicians from both Classical and Jazz backgrounds were extremely keen to work with him. He consequently influenced and worked with important jazz musicians such as Eric Dolphy, John Handy, and John Coltrane.

The impact of Coltrane’s contact with Indian music was such that it aided a dramatic shift in his playing style, to the extent that he was booed during a recorded performance in Paris for not continuing with the sound he had developed on records such as ‘Kind of Blue’ and ‘Giant Steps’ (Zwerin, 1994). Following a series of lessons with Shankar, Coltrane even named his son ‘Ravi’ after the sitar player. Later records such as ‘Ascension’, ‘Meditations’ and ‘Om’ reveal Coltrane’s fascination with Eastern spirituality, with the sleeve notes of ‘Om’ showing a profound influence from Hindu and Buddhist philosophical thought –

‘Om means the first vibration – that sound, that spirit that sets everything else into being. It is the Word from which all men and everything else comes, including all possible sounds that man can make vocally. It is the first syllable, the primal word, the word of power.’ (Sleeve notes from ‘Om’, 1965).

Although Coltrane attempted to incorporate certain Indian musical features such as raga[3] and drone notes[4] as well as Eastern philosophy, his growing interest in free jazz seemed at odds with his interest in Indian music – the approach which differs greatly from the idea of free jazz improvisation, as I will discuss later.

Similarly, Miles Davis’s recordings from the late 1960s and 1970s also indicate a fascination with the East. Utilising a number of Indian musicians[5] throughout his career, Davis’s 1974 LP ‘Big Fun’ contains compositions that use Indian instrumentation in addition to traditional jazz accompaniment. It is clear from listening to ‘Big Fun’, however, that it is only Indian instruments that are being incorporated – not Indian music concepts. The Indian tabla drummer on ‘Big Fun’ plays the same role as a lone Latin percussionist dropped into a jazz rhythm section would have during the late 1940s – an addition of colour and flavour as opposed to providing a well thought out musical dialogue. There is an interesting comparison to be made between the India of Coltrane and Davis and the India of Madonna as described by Hutnyk.

Madonna’s foray into the Orient, ‘Shanti/Ashtangi’ from her 1998 album ‘Ray of Light’ earned her the title ‘mercantile girl’ (Hutnyk, 2000:90) for her strategic appropriation of any culture that may help sell records. The intentions of Coltrane and Davis were nowhere close to the level of sheer cynicism that is evident in Madonna’s musical tourism, but there is a similarity in the representations of India that the three artists portray. Promotional videos for Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ contained ‘decontextualised symbols of Hinduism’ (ibid.:120) – similar to Coltrane’s use of the sacred Hindu ‘Om’ symbol – as an album cover. The use of Hindu and Buddhist spiritual concepts such as ‘Shanti/Ashtangi’ (Madonna), ‘Om’ (Coltrane) and ‘Agharta’ (Davis) as album and song titles show how the artists perceived India as a ‘land of timeless spirituality’ (ibid.:125). In Said’s terms, the artists are portraying ideas based on a latent Orientalism – an unconscious certainty about the Orient being separate, eccentric, sensual and passive, with an unchanging notion of spirituality (1979). Perhaps it was partly these surface aspects of Indian-influenced jazz that led Ravi Shankar to form the opinion that, ‘from what we hear, jazz has only borrowed a flavour [of Indian music]. I like it, but truthfully we think it very childish’ (Farrell, 1997:189).

It remains one of the greatest incongruities of modern music history that the classical systems of Indian music should have found their biggest audience in the West not through thoughtful experiments in classical music or jazz, but through the channels of the pop song – short, catchy, and ultimately ephemeral. (1997:200)

From the above examples of Coltrane and Davis we can see how some jazz musicians tend towards orientalism. Before moving on to look at the possible reasons for their use of Indian music, I will address the fact that several writers have argued that the interactions between jazz and Indian classical music have been more natural, more authentic, and more ‘musical’ than the largely superficial ties that bound Indian music and Western popular music during the sixties. Ethnomusicologist Gerry Farrell’s work Indian Music in the West (1997) stands as one of the only texts mapping the story of Indian music in the West. Utilising some of Edward Said’s perspectives from his polemical Orientalism, he looks at how Indian music historically functioned as ‘a backdrop for exotic and romantic fantasies’ in the West (1997:3). In particular his examination of Hindustani Airs – late eighteenth-century Indian songs arranged for Western instruments – follows from Said’s treatment of orientalist literature.

Hindustani Airs were collections of Indian songs that formed picturesque images of the Orient, and Farrell believes that they represent a genre that has resonated ‘into the nineteenth century and beyond’ (1997:31). They functioned to provide images of a far and distant culture, in fashion at the time due to public interest in Britain’s recent encounters with the East through the East India Company. Marking some of the first attempts to transcribe Indian music in Western notation, they are an example of one musical system being enveloped by the demands of another through the process of translation. The Indian concept of ‘tāla’, the underlying additive rhythmic structures in all Indian music, was subsumed into time signature with little attention paid to retaining the nuances that define tāla. One of the first musicians to publish a compilation of Hindustani Airs even commented that ‘it cost him great pains to bring [the compositions] into any form as to time [rhythm], which the music of Hindustan is extremely deficient in’ (1997:33). While the trend for Hindustani Airs faded, they marked the beginning of the musical and cultural exchange between India and the West, with many of the Western representations of Indian music that followed being just as distorting as these early attempts.

For Farrell, the trends in popular music during the 1960s are the best example of a continuation of these distorted attempts at translating the Indian classical music system. In 1966, the popular music world became enamoured with the Indian sitar, the instrument popularised in the West by Ravi Shankar, leading to what Farrell terms the ‘Great Sitar Explosion’ in the mid-sixties. Many groups such as the Rolling Stones, The Byrds and Manfred Mann used the sitar, generally as an interesting sounding replacement for a lead guitar. Farrell is critical of a number of aspects regarding popular music’s appropriation of Indian music. He criticizes the ephemeral nature of the appropriation, claiming it was only a duration of a ‘few months in 1966 when pop musicians “went Indian”’ (1997:197). The copious drug taking that became associated with rock music fans attending Indian Classical concerts in the West constituted a misreading of Indian music performance practices, where drug taking was rare. Also, he suggests that the roots of the 1960s Indo-Pop phenomenon lie in commercialisation, with rock bands eager to cash in on the sitar craze.

In contrast, he portrays jazz and Indian music as having ‘deeper conceptual roots’ that led to a genuine musical connection between the two forms. My argument is that the same criticisms levelled at popular music’s appropriation of Indian music can be applied to the appropriations of some jazz musicians. Farrell may contend that the experiments of Western pop musicians with Indian music were ‘ultimately ephemeral’, but it is difficult to find a more apt descriptor for the Indo-Jazz movement of the 60s/70s. In recent jazz tomes, the contribution of Indian music to jazz is generally reduced to a footnote when considering the overall history of jazz (see for example Berliner 1994, Ake 2002, and Gioia 1998). By discussing the association made between drugs and Indian Classical music as being symptomatic of the misinterpretations made by rock musicians and fans, Farrell appears to suggest that jazz musicians and audiences were immune to such vices and misunderstandings. Far from constituting a moment of genuine musical hybridity, some jazz musicians were drawn to Indian music for the same reasons as popular musicians in the 1960s – new exotic sounds, an opportunity to gain a competitive edge over other ‘less hip’ musicians, and pandering to an audience that craved exotica as a form of escapism.

Jazz musicians were also fascinated by the improvisational aspect of Indian music. When Ravi Shankar declared during the introduction of a 1964 concert in California that ‘most of our music, as you know, is improvised…almost 90 percent…sometimes 95 percent!’ (1985:157), it is likely that he did not consider the possibility of his audience having a very different view from his of what constituted ‘improvisation’. As Derek Bailey discusses, the nature of Indian improvisation is much more limiting and restrictive than it is in jazz (1993) and utilises several rigid frameworks, with the melodic framework of rāga being a central element. At a basic level, a rāga is a series of five or more notes (Bor, 1999:1-5) arranged in an ascending and descending scale. More than this, a rāga lays down a framework for the musician to play or sing within. Each rāga has certain notes which need to be emphasised and notes which should be used sparingly. Similarly there may be certain notes which should only be approached in a certain way, such as a slide or modulation from an adjacent note. Most rāgas are also associated with particular seasons or times of the day, although these are no longer strictly adhered to. Above all else, the aim of the musician in Indian music is to render the rāga in a manner that displays complete mastery of the melodic content. Generally musicians do not divert from the notes of the rāga, although modern musicians are allowed more freedom to experiment with mixing rāgas and producing original material. It can be said that the improvisational aspect of jazz is much less restrictive, but less focussed than it is in Indian music.

Most interesting is the comparison that can be made between the composition of a rāga and the composition of a jazz standard. A rāga can develop over a period of many years, passing through the hands of different musicians and receiving several interpretations until it is considered to be part of the musical language. Similarly a jazz standard will be performed again and again, with definitive versions arising and eventually becoming a recognised part of the jazz language. Berendt (1992:155) describes how the jazz chorus develops from improvised roots to becoming almost a fixed composition that would disappoint the listener if they were suddenly played differently. Similarly, there exists the concept of the ‘gat’ melody in North Indian classical music, which is a fixed composition that is generally repeated with minor variation during a performance. Both musical traditions share this idea of ‘community composition’ through the use of improvisation.

The improvisational aspect of Indian music provides the most convincing reason for jazz musicians to be attracted to Indian music. It is unfortunate that so few musicians have been able to channel this cross-cultural musical relationship without resorting to misplaced ideas regarding a spiritual, mystical India. The work of John McLaughlin and Shakti has perhaps come closest to the realisation of truly hybrid music stemming from the two traditions, but there are still inherent problems, as Indian pianist, Madhav Chari, observed:

None of the music of “Shakti” is even remotely close in expressive power and depth to the jazz music of John Coltrane or the Hindustani music of Ravi Shankar. The “mix and match” approach that is endemic to much new “world music” […] hardly communicates any of the energy of the so-called “ethnic music”, and buries this music amid an array of not-so-tightly organised sounds.’ (2003)

Independent of jazz, Indian music continues to develop to meet the demands of globalisation, leaving many opportunities for jazz and Indian musicians to collaborate in the future – as Farrell concludes, ‘much still remains to be discovered, and other histories of Indian music and the West to be written’ (1997:220).


Ake, D. (2002) Jazz Cultures, University of California Press, California

Bailey, D. (1993) Improvisation: Its Nature and Practise in Music, Da Capo Press, UK.

Berendt, K. (1992) The Jazz Book – From Ragtime to Fusion and beyond 6th ed.

Berliner, P. F. (1994) Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Bor, J. (1999). The Raga Guide – A Survey of 74 Hindustani Ragas, Nimbus Communications Intl. Ltd., UK.

Chari, M. (2003) Reflections in Jazz: Hybrid music forms, The Hindu, Sunday September 21 2003, Available online: [http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/mag/2003/09/21/stories/2003092100380400.htm]

De Clue, D. (1999) Korla Pandit – A biographical sketch, available online: <http://www.korlapandit.com/historyparttwo.htm>

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Gillespie, D. & Fraser, A. (1979) To Be or Not To Bop, Memoirs- Dizzy Gillespie, Double Day, New York.

Maharishi, M. (1986) Thirty Years Around the World: Dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, MVU Press, the Netherlands.

Hutnyk, J. (2000) Critique of Exotica, Pluto Press, London.

Said, E. (1979) Orientalism, Penguin Books, UK.

Smith, R.J. (2006) The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance, PublicAffairs, USA.

Welters, L. & Cunningham, P.A. (2005) Twentieth-century American Fashion, Berg Publishers, New York.

Zwerin, M. (1994) An Empire Built on Jazz, International Harold Tribune, Wednesday November 23 1994, Available online: < http://www.iht.com/articles/1994/11/23/tenot.php>


Coltrane, J. (1965) John Coltrane, Om. Impulse! [sound recording:CD].

Davis, M. (1975) Miles Davis, Agharta. Columbia Records. [sound recording:CD].

Davis, M. (1974) Miles Davis, Big Fun. Columbia Records. [sound recording:CD].

Madonna & Orbit, W. (1998) Shanti/Ashtangi, Madonna, ‘Ray of Light’. Warner Bros. [sound recording:CD].

[1] Including the mysterious figure of Chano Pozo, who was rumoured to have been murdered for making public the secret rhythms of the Nigerian Abaquwa cult (1992:350).

[2] Although a second wave occurred in the 1970s with the rise of Salsa music in the barrios of New York and Miami (1992:351).

[3] A deeper discussion of raga in relation to improvisation is provided later.

[4] On records as early as the 1959 ballad ‘Naima’ from Giant Steps.

[5] Most notably tabla player Badal Roy, significant for being one of the only professional tabla players who is essentially self-taught.

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