All that jazz

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By Legendary guitarist Carlton Kitto is the star of a documentary on jazz in India, says Aarti Dua
  • Published 4.09.11

It’s a poignant opening scene. An ageing gent in a formal shirt and red tie is wending his way slowly along Alimuddin Street in a hand-pulled rickshaw. His face is a bit weather-worn and there’s little to indicate that he’s a musical legend of sorts in the city.

The gentleman — there’s no better word to describe him — who’s making his way to his home in Alimuddin Street is Carlton Kitto, the city’s legendary bebop jazz guitarist, who has been strumming his stuff for decades.

Now fittingly, he’s the star of an upcoming documentary on the history of jazz in India. It’s called Finding Carlton and it’s made by non-resident Indian and jazz aficionado Susheel Kurien.

The hour-long documentary is an unusual venture for Kurien who’s a former KPMG partner-turned-entrepreneur and who decided to make this movie in his spare time as a labour of love. Obviously, Kurien’s a jazz-lover but it was a stray remark about the absence of a jazz culture in India that led him to investigate whether this was indeed true two years ago. “Everyone knows the story of how jazz came about in America but they have no idea of how it went to India,” he says.

His research quickly led him to Kitto. Kurien is an amateur jazz guitarist himself and Kitto’s riffs immediately struck a chord. Several long-distance phone conversations later, Kurien was hooked. “Anyone who plays this music knows that it requires years of hard work, discipline and an environment too. I was most intrigued by what was the environment that had unleashed this guy’s passion and skill,” says Kurien.

As he dug further, Kurien realised that he wanted to “create awareness of this musical evolution and what brought it there” and to “recognise” the musicians’ talent and struggle too.

So Finding Carlton “tells the story about jazz in India in a historical arc from the 1920s to the 1980s”, tracing everything from the foreign bands who came to India to the emergence of Indian bands to the connections between jazz and Bollywood. The focus is on jazz in Calcutta and Mumbai. And the tale is captured through the story of musicians like Kitto and Louiz Banks — and the different paths they took.

The documentary also covers musicians like Louiz Banks (in white) who had Calcutta swinging to his Louiz Banks Brotherhood in the 1970s

Remember the Louiz Banks Brotherhood at the Blue Fox, anyone? Says Banks, who came to Calcutta from Nepal in the 1970s: “It was an unforgettable experience. The film will definitely create an awareness of jazz in the country.”

And Kitto, who learned jazz guitar by listening to his mother’s 78rpm records of greats like Charlie Christian and who’s jammed with legendary musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, says: “It was amazing in those days because musically Park Street was like Hollywood with shows and bands in every restaurant all playing jazz.”

“Carlton is the only practising pure jazz artist in Calcutta today,” says Ajoy Ray, who runs the Jazz Listeners Forum at the Calcutta School of Music.

The film covers other musicians too like the vibraphone player Anto Menezes, who died just 10 days after Kurien interviewed him. He also got Kitto to jam with his old buddies, the drummer and vocalist Clive Hughes and upright bassist George Chator. “Finding Carlton is a metaphor for many Carltons,” says Kurien.

Moreover, the documentary’s making, says Kurien, has been “a journey full of experiences, part of which is of how a group of people, many of whom I didn’t know before, came together around this film”. Indeed, Kurien has crowd-sourced — and even crowd- financed — the film by collaborating with jazz lovers across the world.

This includes authorities on jazz like the Virginia-based Jehangir Dalal, Niranjan Jhaveri, the late founder of Jazz Yatra, and journalist Naresh Fernandes. There were others like former jazz musician Stanley Pinto, whose seminal article on the Mumbai jazz scene got Kurien started, saxophonist Nakul Mehta, and jazz lovers like architect Ratan Batliboi too.

In the process, Kurien has unearthed rare photographs and archival footage. For instance, he found rare footage of Duke Ellington playing in India from the National Archives in Maryland, USA. He even got restored reel tapes discovered in the basement of a home in Canada, only to uncover a rare recording of Micky Correa, the famous bandleader at Mumbai’s Hotel Taj Mahal — the film captures Kurien playing this to an astonished Christine, Correa’s daughter in Brooklyn. Kurien’s old college mate Sunil Shanbag, whose Chrysalis Films provided production support, says: “I think a lot of people will be amazed by the film and it will open up a lot of very interesting discussions.”

Kurien plans to complete the film by October and then release it through the film festival route. But he’s already held two private screenings of its rough cut at the Oberoi Grand in Calcutta and the Taj in Mumbai. He wants the film to strike a chord with not just jazz lovers but with people unfamiliar with jazz too. That’s already happening if the early responses on the film’s blog sound a prelude.