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SOMNATH BATABYAL
NOMAD NOTES

Somnath Batabyal is a backpacking social theorist. When not travelling, he teaches at SOAS, University of London.

Baby toddler jazz, Ma and Dee Dee

Dee Dee Bridgewater.

he London Jazz Festival is 21 years old and, for half of that, I have visited the London South Bank in the month of November. During student years, it used to be trying to catch every free concert that is played outdoors or in the foyers of Queen Elizabeth Hall. When money was less of a concern, there were choice performances: experimental and classical jazz, guitar maestros, singing sensations. This year, as I explored the listings, the priorities were different.

First, I tried to book a session at the workshop for toddlers. I was told that it was one of the most popular sessions of the festival. I did not want my 11-month-old to miss out on any advantages that his peer group might be benefitting from.

"Date of birth, please?" the man asked over the telephone.

I passed on the information.

"Oh no," the voice exclaimed. "These session are for toddlers."

"My son toddles," I assured the man. "He toddles beautifully. Particularly to jazz, rest assured."

The voice was firm. "I am sorry, but he is not a toddler."

"What is a toddler?" I tried in desperation, hoping to engage the man in a metaphysical conversation about crawler versus toddler, as the line went dead.

I gave up my noble attempt to get my son interested in jazz and instead focused on entertaining my mother. This is the first extended duration Ma is staying with me in a very long while and, while her grandson seems entertainment enough, I still did not have the heart to leave her behind as I go off for a concert. Especially as the festival coincides with the week she leaves.

After much thought, I settled on Dee Dee Bridgewater. I am not sure what the thought countenance was but it might have been that the singer is about the same age as Ma and brings a whole host of childhood memories. My first tape of the singer was a collaboration between her and Dizzy Gillespie. I was just waking up to the sounds of American jazz and the tapes; Davis, Coltrane, Holiday and Simone played incessantly on our mono cassette player. Even my father, brought up on a diet of Indian classical and Rabindra Sangeet, would allow himself a tapping of his feet. Perhaps I was hoping that a residue of those happy days remained with Ma.

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Even my diminutive mother had a definite spring to her step as we left the auditorium and walked down her favourite part of London, its riverside.

The South Bank at this time of the year is beautiful. The Christmas lights are up, the food stalls are buzzing and, of course, there is music in the air. Even the rude skateboarders seem somehow bearable. As we walked into the Queen Elizabeth hall, the foyer was filled to capacity with a free concert on.

I saw my mother's skeptical face as the clarinet and the sax boomed and the vocalist produced incredible sounds that barely sounded human. "Do you not remember Dee Dee Bridgewater? I used to play her all the time?" I asked, hoping to reassure her. No, she shook her head steadfastly.

The act was both a classic Bridgewater, paying tribute to the greats while collaborating with a new, young and energetic band of talented musicians with a standout trumpet player. There were songs of tribute to Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk, there were rearranged Cole Porter beauties, and yet, as Dee Dee reminded us, jazz and her music is relevant today and she continues to produce young musicians through her own record label.

Towards the end of the concert, as she rode into her final songs, we were putty in her hands. "Thank you for coming," she said and we roared back. Even my diminutive mother had a definite spring to her step as we left the auditorium and walked down her favourite part of London, its riverside.

 
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