Influence of Indian Music on Jazz

Jazz and Indian classical music—two of the great musical idioms of the world—at first would seem to have little in common. Indian music, with roots going back thousands of years, developed in the courts and temples of India, and now is performed in concert halls around the world.

Jazz, with its diverse beginnings in jam sessions, the black church, night clubs, and even brothels, was forged in the cauldron of 20th century segregated America in such places as New Orleans, Kansas City, and New York, and is now heard as well in concert halls around the world.

Yet when one examines them closely, we see just how much these musics have in common as modes of human expression, paths for spiritual advancement, and in the realm of pure music itself. We then can see just how much Indian music has influenced jazz, and will continue to do so on many levels.

Indian music’s influence on jazz is pervasive and longstanding. Its beauty, grace, and unique melodic phrasing has inspired musicians for decades, and its exciting rhythmic language has given percussionists, instrumentalists, and even vocalists new resources upon which they have drawn. Its philosophical underpinnings have allowed many musicians to deepen the spiritual aspect of their music. For many jazz musicians the influences have been personal, at times abstract; informing their musical choices, but not always in a manner overtly apparent to the listener. For a few however, the influence is so strong, it is immediately apparent at every level of their music.

In my opinion, among major jazz artists most directly influenced by Indian music, the two best known are saxophonist John Coltrane, and guitarist John McLaughlin. Two different generations—Coltrane the grand master steeped in be-bop and traditional jazz, eventually defining the avant-garde and transcending the idiom itself. McLaughlin, a jazz innovator who embraced electricity and Rock, and spearheaded what became known as the Jazz-Fusion movement. Both are consummate virtuosos hugely influenced by Indian music, and both opened the door for others to follow.

Coltrane was influenced mainly by Hindustani music—he befriended Ravi Shankar, and even named his own son Ravi. Coltrane’s famous quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones—one of the most influential jazz groups of all time—explored the extended modal improvisations and time frame found in Shankar’s music.

McLaughlin’s influence has been mainly Carnatic, as is evidenced by his groundbreaking electric group The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and his later acoustic group, Shakti. This group included Carnatic violinist L. Shankar, tabla player Zakir Hussain, mridangam player R. Raghavan, and ghatam player T. H. “Vikku” Vinayakram. Though Shakti also had Hindustani elements due to the presence of Zakir Hussein, the great sarodist Ali Akbar Khan expressed his view to me in 1975, that “McLaughlin’s style is more South Indian.” (Ali Akbar Khan was considering performing with him at that time.)


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