Badal Roy, a tabla player who transcended his roots in traditional Indian music to become a groundbreaking percussionist in the world of jazz and improvisational music, died January 19 in Wilmington, Delaware, of complications from COVID-19. He was 82. His death was announced on Twitter by his niece, Piali Roy.
Dabbling in the tabla as a child, Roy had no intention of becoming a professional musician; he immigrated to the United States to earn a Ph.D. in statistics and played music at an Indian restaurant between shifts as a busboy. However, guitarist John McLaughlin was impressed with the percussionist, recording with him in 1971 and soon afterward introducing him to trumpeter Miles Davis. Work with Davis established Roy’s reputation: He would go on to work with Dave Liebman, Jon Hassell, Leni Stern, and Ornette Coleman (becoming a member of the latter’s Prime Time ensemble). Roy also built a formidable legacy as a leader in his own right, executing a vision that fused jazz, Indian music, and other world musical traditions.
Later in life, Roy acknowledged that he’d had no initial idea how pivotal the gig with Davis had been. For one thing, he thought at first that Miles didn’t approve of him, because Roy didn’t recognize the trumpeter’s use of “bad” as slang for “good.” He also regarded his first recording session with Davis, 1972’s immensely influential On the Corner, as a disaster.
“[Miles] looks at me and he says, ‘You start.’ I don’t know anything,” Roy told the website All About Jazz in 2009. “So I started my groove…. Then everybody starts and I’m drowned out. I can’t hear myself and I am not enjoying it at all because it’s chaos. I’m still grooving but not hearing myself. Not hearing a note after about 15 or 20 minutes and this went on for almost an hour. If you don’t hear yourself, how can you enjoy it?” He did not listen to the finished album until decades after the fact, when his grown son inquired about it; at that point, he discovered its brilliance.
“I sat back and said, ‘Wow,’” he recalled. “Everything opened up, man.”
Amarendra Roy Choudhury was born October 16, 1939 in Cumilla District, in what was then the British Raj (now Bangladesh). His grandfather was the patriarch of a powerful landowning family in Bengal; his father was a joint secretary to the Government of India, a senior civil servant in the British Imperial administration. The young Roy earned the Bengali nickname Badal (“thunderstorm”) when, as a baby, his grandfather saw him crying in the rain.
When he was between the ages of 10 and 12, Badal began learning to play the tabla from his uncle. He never graduated to formal lessons; young Badal was more interested in the pop music of Elvis Presley and Nat King Cole and the jazz of Duke Ellington than in the Hindustani classical tradition, and his father discouraged him from pursuing music as a profession. Instead, Roy studied computer science and earned a master’s degree in statistics, then traveled to New York City to study for his Ph.D.
“I came to the U.S. with $8.00 in my pocket and had to get a job. I knew no one and stayed in the YMCA,” he told Drum! magazine in 1997. “After six months as a busboy and waiter, I got a job as a tabla player in the Taste of India restaurant [in New York]. A vegetarian guy used to sit in and play with me.”
The vegetarian guy was British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, who one day invited Roy to play on an album with him. The result was McLaughlin’s classic 1971 album My Goal’s Beyond, on which Roy also played with future collaborators Dave Liebman and Billy Cobham. He then played on two records by Pharoah Sanders before McLaughlin returned to the Taste of India to invite Roy to meet Miles Davis at the nearby Village Gate. The tabla player brought a sitarist, Khalil Balakrishna, to the club, and Miles invited them to play during his intermissions. He was impressed enough (despite confusing Roy with the term “bad”) to hire both players for his next album, On the Corner.
Despite his unhappiness with that session, Roy remained in Miles’ band for another year, appearing on several more albums, before departing to join Liebman’s fusion band Lookout Farm in 1973. (Liebman gave Roy the nickname “Sweet Hands,” which became the title of a 1975 album and its centerpiece track, “Sweet Hand Roy.”) 1975 also saw the making of Roy’s first album as a leader, Passing Dreams. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1976.
Roy continued working in the jazz-rock fusion genre for the remainder of the ’70s and into the ’80s, when he began to turn toward the wider-ranging world fusion style, particularly with Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos and American bamboo flutist Steve Gorn. He also experimented with Yoko Ono, performing on her 1982 album It’s Alright (I See Rainbows). Later in the 1980s he began collaborating with free-jazz multi-instrumentalist Kali Fasteau, followed by Ornette Coleman—joining Coleman’s Prime Time in 1988 and appearing on the 1995 album Tone Dialing. The 21st century saw him continuing his solo career, as well as appearing on the 2007 tribute Miles from India and several albums with pianist Michael Wolff and his band Impure Thoughts. His final recording, Helix, was in 2016 as a member of flutist Michael Moss’ Accidental Orchestra.
In addition to his niece, Roy is survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, Geeta Vashi, and their son Amitav Roy Chowdhury; two sisters, Kalpana Chakraborty and Shibani Ray Chaudhury; and a brother, Samarendra Roy Chowdhury.