Johnnie Baptist – Eminent Musician from the 1940’s to the 1980’s
JOHNNIE BAPTIST (1919- 1984)
The parish schools of the villages of Goa have been the nursery of a galaxy of talented artistes who later shone in Bombay's music world. Johnnie Baptist was one of those luminaries.
Born in 1919 in the quiet village of Shiroda, in the district of Novas Conquistas on the eastern boundary of Goa, Johnnie Baptist learned his first notes of music at the age of eight, when he started playing the violin in the church choir at St. Joseph's Church, Shiroda. Later, on his own, he picked up the clarinet. In 1939 he went to seek his fortune in Bombay. Johnnie's first public performance was in Paul Frank's Group at a concert in St. Xavier's College. Soon after that, L.A. Abreo, leader of the popular Goan dance band "Rhumba Boys", took him under his wing and schooled him in the finer points of clarinet playing. The following year he joined Sebastian Vaz's trio, playing light classical music at the Mongini Restaurant, where his talent was spotted by Rudy Cotton. Johnnie joined Rudy's band at the Taj Mahal Hotel, then the Mecca of Bombay's musicians. Here, Johnnie also played for Cricket Smith, the Afro-American jazz man, as well as for Chic Chocolate. At that time, the jazz fever that had infected America was beginning to hit Bombay, with Afro-American bands established in all the leading hotels.
But Johnnie's instinctive search for betterment spurred him on to greener pastures. During the war, he went up to Mussorie and Delhi, meeting more and more musicians, mastering new instruments like the alto saxophone, perfecting his technique, and in the process acquiring considerable distinction. He also mastered the tenor and baritone sax. Back in Bombay, Johnnie's fluent technique, wonderful tone and exciting improvisations made local jam sessions into very popular events.
In 1948, Johnnie set up his own "Combo" with experienced musicians who could all read music. They played at the Ritz, the Ambassador, the Grand Hotel, the W.I.A.A. Club, Bombay Gymkhana, Eros Ballroom as well as at private functions and weddings. Johnnie did his own musical arrangements for his band. Although he catered for the crowds, his innate musical ability brought him to the notice of organizations specialising in serious music. In 1960, this popular dance-band leader was the star soloist at the saxophone concert of BALOS, playing Paul Creston's "Concerto for Saxophone" under Victor Paranjoti at the Birla Hall. He had also found a niche in the Hindi film studios, playing for Shankar Jaikishan, Laxmikant Pyarelal, R. D. Burman and others. Johnnie also enjoyed playng in Goa for the Carnival.
In the late seventies, Johnnie's health began to fail and his eldest son, Mario, took over the band, calling it the "Johnnie Baptist Revival". Three of Johnnie's sons and two daughters played together in the Revival.
In 1981, Johnnie staged a big come-back as the veteran exponent of alto-sax with the "Inner Lights" backing him at Centaur Hotel. His special jazz programme at this event, composed of old favourites, almost brought the house down. Even though this great horn has been silenced forever, those who heard him blow, as well as those who learned music under him, will be haunted with his tone forever.