The pianist and the python

A little while ago, I bought an album by the trumpet player Bill Coleman, who had performed in Bombay during the 1936-’37 season as part of violinist Leon Abbey’s band. The earliest recordings on the collection were made just a few months after Coleman returned to Europe and I was delighted to see that one of the tracks was titled Back Home Again in India.
It turned out to be a tantalising typo. When I slipped the disc into my CD player, I realised that the tune was actually Back Home Again in Indiana, the song Coleman is performing in this clip below. Nonetheless, it’s clear that India held a special place in the trumpet player’s heart. Fifty years after his engagement at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Coleman painted a vivid picture of the life he and his wife Beezie led during their six-month stay in Bombay in his excellent memoir, Trumpet Story.

He was immediately enchanted when he landed in Bombay on November 2, 1936, after a voyage that had started in Venice. “We had seen many exciting things in the port towns we visited but Bombay gassed them all,” he wrote. “There were so many sights that I almost had a sore neck turning it so much from the time we left the port until we reached the Taj Mahal Hotel. One sees newsreels and movies about India which are very interesting but when you see these things with your own eyes, it’s fantastic.”

Trumpet Story is bursting with little details about what the musicians ate, their accommodations and the clients at the Taj. One of most colourful episodes that he recounts involved his fellow-musician, Charles “Dizzy” Lewis, a pianist with a great affinity for the bottle. One day, Coleman recalled, Lewis had a bit too much to drink and wandered into the street, where he made friends with a snake charmer.

Bill Coleman (front row, third from left) with the Leon Abbey band at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, 1935-'36.

“Dizzy bought a python and took it home,” Coleman writes. “No one was there when Dizzy arrived and the juice started getting Dizzy down, so he got on a bed with the python and went to sleep. When his girlfriend Ivy came home, the sight that she saw sent her out of the house screaming like mad. Dizzy was lying on his back with his mouth wide open. The python was coiled around his body and its head was five inches from his mouth. The alcohol from his breath must have paralysed the python to the point where it could not squeeze the life out of him.”

It all ended well. Ivy went and got her brother, and he and his friends wrestled the snake into a cloth bag and gave it to the zoo.

Coleman returned to Venice in April 1937. He was most satisfied with his subcontinental sojourn. “I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity of going to India,” he wrote. “I had a horn and would travel, and faraway places were the ones I wanted to see the most.”

Read a section of Trumpet Story here.

Here,  meanwhile, is a newsreel shot just a few years before Coleman came to Bombay which captures all the cliches Westerners found fascinating about the city.

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