April is Jazz Appreciation Month. Hot music or jazz traces its roots to New Orleans in Louisiana. It was in New Orleans that Bardu Ali or Bardou Ali or Bahadur Ali was born in 1906 to an African-American mother and a father who came from India. Interestingly, Ali’s father Moksad Ali is believed to have come from Bengal in India. Sometimes Ali’s father is described as being from Arabia.
Ali was a musician, bandleader and an actor. Ali’s name might not ring a bell, but the singer he helped promote will most certainly ring a a bell. She was Ms. Ella Fitzgerald – who became the first lady of jazz. She helped change the face of jazz, and became the first female singer to join a mainstream jazz band.
By all descriptions Ali was a charismatic person, who knew how to negotiate. He was the frontman for Chick Webb, a well-known musician, who played regularly at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. Webb was known as the “king of swing,”
Ali heard Fitzgerald sing at a talent contest at the Apollo Theatre in New York. He was captivated by her voice and wanted her to be a part of Chick Webb’s band. But, Webb, according to this article in Ebony, “disliked” having girls in his band. Ali is supposed to have smuggled Fitzgerald into Webb’s dressing room and had her do an audition. Webb reluctantly agreed to have Fitzgerald in his band and pay her a weekly salary of $12. Webb and Fitzgerald played at the famous Savoy Club. Webb took Fitzgerald under his wings. And when he fell ill Fitzgerald stepped in to become the bandleader of Chick Webb’s band.
One of the early songs Fitzgerald recorded with Webb was A Tisket, A Tasket. Here is Fitzgerald singing It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.
During the 1940s Ali moved to Los Angeles, where he worked with the Rhythm and Blues (R&B) singer Johnny Otis, who inspired musicians like Frank Zappa and Beach Boys. Ali then went on to become the manager for Redd Foxx, a comedian. Ali died in 1981.
You can read more about Ali in Vivek Bald’s book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America or watch this clip on Savoy King: Chick Webb and the music that changed America. It should probably read Chick Webb and Bardu Ali, who changed the music of America.