Soli Sorabjee was equally passionate about the law and jazz, but the latter harnessed his spirit, writes Pallavi Shroff
My earliest memory of Soli Sorabjee is from the 1960s, in Ahmedabad, 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. I found him very entertaining and endearing. Later, I was told that person was Soli Sorabjee, who was related to our neighbour, Mona Chinubhai. Several decades later, 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.
I really got to know him when I became an active practitioner of law in the 1980s. 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, and in 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 that 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 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 the 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 can explain his direct and uninhibited demeanour. Soli didn’t build boundaries in conversations, and spoke from the heart.
When Soli was 18 years old, a visit to the renowned music shop Rhythm House in Bombay (now Mumbai) 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”. He was hooked, and he played the record on a loop. Thus began his initiation to music. Soon he discovered Tiger Rag by Billy Goodman, and the fascinating track proved to be an education and a delight. The 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, he 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 my husband Shardul’s 50th birthday party, Soli surprised everyone by taking the microphone from the singer and bursting into a song, All of Me. This was the best birthday present that anyone could ever give Shardul.
Once I asked Soli: “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, and 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 his legal practice, ditched a court hearing to fly to Karachi to hear jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The effect of Dizzy’s compositions on Soli cannot be overstated, and this excursion further stimulated Soli’s musical interest as he began incorporating different ethnic elements into his music collection, such as the Afro-Cuban rhythms.
Soli and I were once 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 John Keats, which travelled with him wherever he went.
Soli believed that promoting jazz as a creative and educational tool would 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 Yatra, an annual jazz festival he started in 1978. The festival travelled to New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Kolkata, and everywhere Soli’s perennial request was his favourite, Sweet Georgia Brown. Soli lamented the declining interest of 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 him farewell, 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.