In tribute, Pallavi Shroff remembers Soli Sorabjee and his love for jazz

Perhaps the influence of Jazz explained Soli Sorabjee’s direct and uninhibited demeanour, writes Pallavi Shroff who knew him from the 1960s.

May 02, 2021 / 05:40 PM IST

My earliest memory of Soli is from the 1960s in Amdavad where my father was posted as a judge. Soli was a close friend of my father’s and was invited home for a vegetarian Gujarati meal. I recollect watching the dinner party from behind a lattice frame that made me invisible.

One gentleman seemed the life and soul of the party regaling the dinner guests with his infectious sense of humour and mimicry of some of the most eminent names in law and politics. His one-liners found their mark directly but harmlessly. I found him so entertaining and endearing.

Later I was told that person was Soli Sorabjee related to our neighbour Mona Chinubhai. Several decades hence, my family’s friendship with Soli survived, secure in the conviction that if ever a friend was needed, he was just a phone call away.

Quick Wit, Razor Sharp Mind 

When I became an active practitioner of law in the 1980s, I really got to know him. He was a man with a quick wit and razor-sharp mind. In the initial months, we were interacting on a matter where I had to brief him. Given my age and relative inexperience, I was understandably nervous.

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At the conference, he was unrelenting in his grilling but I stood my ground. At the end of the meeting, he paid me a rare compliment addressing me as “Jhansi” (ki Raani, I presume). I was delighted. It meant he thought of me as a worthy colleague.

Over the years we worked on many commercial and constitutional law cases with him and with every interaction our bond grew stronger. He was kind, compassionate and caring. When I had my spinal surgery he arranged all the conferences at his home so I didn’t have to climb the many flights of stairs to reach his office.

Soli was a man of music and poetry. He was a great promoter and connoisseur of Jazz in India. I recall our several discussions on jazz that we had in between briefings and I was enchanted by his wide knowledge and understanding of this very nuanced genre of music.

For Soli, “Jazz is very warm and personal. It speaks to the heart.” Perhaps the influence of Jazz explains Soli’s direct and uninhibited demeanour. Soli didn’t build boundaries in conversations and spoke from the heart, of the heart.

All That Jazz

When Soli was a young 18-year-old boy in Bombay, a visit to the renowned music shop, “Rhythm House” changed him forever. A salesman there gave young Soli a 10-inch record of Johannes Brahm’s Hungarian Dance. Soli had heard “nothing like that before as it played some very different sounds.”

Soli was hooked and he played the record on a loop.  Thus began his initiation into Jazz. Soon he discovered “Tiger Rag”  by Billy Goodman and the fascinating track proved to be an education and a delight. From its origin as a French quadrite to its transformative performance by Billy Goodman, demonstrated to a young Soli the variations one tune may inspire.

Jazz happened to Soli before law happened. In college Soli started a “Jazz crew” called “SS Quartet” and he was often seen playing his clarinet and humming “Who’s sorry now” in college socials and was also invited to perform by the All India Radio, something that he wore as a badge of honour.

At Shardul’s 50th birthday party, Soli surprised everyone by taking the microphone from the singer and bursting into a song, “All of Me”. This has been the best birthday present that anyone could ever give Shardul.

Once I asked him, “What is your first love, law or Jazz?”, he promptly quipped, “Both keep me alive, but Jazz keeps me spiritually alive.”

Soli loved that a Jazz tune provided ample opportunity to improvise, he enjoyed the freedom it gave to a musician to bring their own thoughts and emotions into a musical piece. The idea of not being constrained was appealing to him because in his ideology and his practice of law he strongly advocated and defended freedom of speech and dissent.

In the 1950s Soli, who was three years into the practice of law ditched a court hearing to fly to Karachi to hear the Jazz trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy’s compositions had become a part of Jazz canon and their effect on Soli cannot be overstated. This excursion further simulated Soli’s musical interest as he began incorporating different ethnic elements into his music collection such as the Afro Cuban rythms.

Soli and I were in Kashmir for a matter and after a hard day’s work we went to a restaurant and while relishing the scrumptious meal he informed me about how Jazz influenced his practice of law. Soli said he prepared for a case by jotting down headings and didn’t indulge in writing copious notes.

He thought that allowed him to improvise, modify and re-modify like he did while composing or playing a tune in Jazz. This was further aided by his incomparable knowledge of Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems of Keats, which travelled with him wherever he went.

Soli believed that promoting Jazz as a creative and educational tool will do a lot of good especially in countries that were poor and did not have much media exposure. A tribute to Soli’s lasting contribution to Jazz, is Jazz Jatra, an annual Jazz festival started by Soli in 1978.

The festival travelled to Delhi, Bombay, Pune, Bangalore and Kolkata and everywhere Soli’s perennial request was his favourite, “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Soli lamented the declining interest of the youth in Jazz and their preference for “pop music” over Jazz but towards his later years, he witnessed a gradual revival of this dipping interest which brought him great joy.

Soli graced India’s history and for those of us who knew him, he graced our lives. I bid farewell to the legend and know that wherever he may be, he must be playing his favourite music with a glass of wine and feeling rather happy with all the tributes pouring in for him.
Pallavi Shroff is Managing Partner and National Practice Head (Dispute Resolution), Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas
first published: May 2, 2021 05:22 pm

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