Song sung blue

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By The sound of jazz vanished from Park Street after the Seventies. But some of the musicians survive. Metro finds out how they are - and where CHANDREYEE CHATTERJEE AND MOHUA DAS
  • Published 18.03.07

Carlton Kitto, one of the most popular jazz guitarists in the city, began his musical journey at Moulin Rouge in the early Seventies. “The restaurant was owned by a French lady called Delilah who would sing along with our band Carlton Kitto Jazz Ensemble. Cancan dancers would delight the guests later in the evening,” recollects Carlton.

After performing for two years at Moulin Rouge, Kitto moved a few blocks ahead to Mocambo, where Pam Crain, the queen of crooners, made her debut in the Sixties. The interiors of the place remain frozen in time with its red Rexine sofas and continental fare but the voices that drew an elite audience are gone. Even as Calcutta rock bands and Bangla bands take over Park Street, why is the blaring of a trumpet, or a blues note from a saxophone, still missing? Where are the Anglo-Indian and Goan musicians who made Park Street the capital of Indian nightclub music from the mid-Fifties to early Seventies?

Where are the ladies with magic names from another world like Ripsy, Marlene, Shelley Myers, Marie Samson, Colin and Gene Mac? Ripsy was known as the Marilyn Monroe of Calcutta and Shelley was a lookalike of actress Jane Mansfield. “But Pam Crain was ahead of them all,” smiles Kitto.

Drink and oblivion

“While some turned to alcohol or drugs, many died of starvation,” remembers Kitto, who switched over to teaching at the Calcutta School of Music for 12 years. Now he teaches jazz and classical guitar at schools and at his residence. “I’m trying to keep authentic jazz alive in the city,” says the survivor. Every evening Kitto is strumming on his guitar accompanied by a pianist at the Chowringhee Bar at Oberoi Grand. “The jam session at Mocambo and Blue Fox on weekends had the youngsters queuing up to shake a leg,” he says.

Like Kitto, Noel Martin still plays at Trincas, with his band Sweet Agitation. He has been there for 21 years. All the other members are much younger. He earns about Rs 10,000 a month. “I have a large family and almost no savings. The situation is the same for many guys like me,” says Martin. With no savings, no pension and investments solely in instruments, old age looks bleak.

Tax-ing times

The introduction of entertainment tax by the state government on restaurants and bars with live music put an end to the show in the late Seventies. “Things also changed when Trincas introduced Hindi music in the mid-Seventies,” remembers Kitto, who says Park Street restaurants then started to become “plain eating joints”.

Many migrated to Canada, Australia and the UK. Some went back to Goa. Some turned into solo acts and others joined the Hindi film industry as studio musicians. Calcutta remains home to only a few.

Rubin Rebeiro started his career at Golden Slipper, a place that would remain open till 6 am. Live jazz music and cabaret dancers made it one of the most happening night spots in Calcutta in the swinging Sixties. The place is now known as Hotel Raunak, facing Elite cinema.

American jazz

Popular for his Nat King Cole voice, Rebeiro had done his bit to popularise American jazz. “I’ve performed with Louis Bank Brotherhood at Blue Fox for six years after which I went on to sing for Sunny Lobo’s band at Grand Hotel,” says Rubin. “I’m lucky that I’ve managed to carry on with music, unlike many others who simply had to leave this city,” says the singer and double bassist who occasionally appears in gigs with Kitto or Banks.

Rubin remembers performing with saxophonist Joe Pereira, more popular as “Jazzy Joe” in Goa these days, who chose not to let go of music and returned to his hometown to pursue his passion and release his solo album.

The city gradually lost sight of other saxophonists like Nickey Kohlo and Dominic Fernandes apart from drummers like Johnny Edmund, Victor Shreeves and Clive Hughes who would perform at Great Eastern, Spencers and Grand Hotel. Bosco on the trumpet and Blasco on the trombone, together known as the Monserrate Brothers, moved to Mumbai and now perform live with international jazz acts.

Rock, not jazz

There is more music happening now with the new bands. Nondon Bagchi, ace drummer of Hip Pocket, a classic rock band, started out when he was 15 at Trincas playing for a band called Checkered Tricycle. He feels that the success of the Bangla bands in Calcutta has reinforced the need to pursue music among young musicians. “There are young kids in every block trying to do music seriously. We should sit up and take notice,” he stresses. But this doesn’t mean good news for the old-timers.

It is not only their age; the music has changed. “New-age bands do not want the older musicians. You can’t blame them since they are more into rock and electronica and young faces look pleasant,” says Kitto. The new bands are more rock and hip-hop than jazz and thrive on live gigs around the city. And they have enough difficulties of their own. “It is not easy to strike a deal with record companies who are apprehensive about taking out English albums by Indian artists,” says Avinash of Supersonics, a rock band.

New is old

The young bands, in fact, look at themselves the way the older musicians perhaps did when they were just setting out. For Rahul Guha Roy, lead vocalist of alt-rockers Cassini’s Division, music is a “really risky business”. “Most of our earnings go into upgrading our gear to keep up production standards,” he says.

Monojit Dutta of Orient Express, the lead man of the only Latin band in the city, agrees. Musicians today also live from gig to gig, without a pension scheme or savings. “Many take up part-time jobs, as a result of which the music suffers,” says Dutta.

More news

Meanwhile, there’s news of some more of Park Street’s leading lights of yore. Usha Uthup is an Indi-pop diva. Louiz Banks, who was Louis then, is now a popular music composer in the Mumbai music industry. He had his first brush with fame in The Louis Banks Brotherhood, shaking up the evenings at Blue Fox with Pam Crain and Braz Gonzales by his side. Kitto joined the The Louis Banks Brotherhood for six years where he had Don Saigal, Pam Crain and Braz for company. Braz made it big with his saxophone in the city but had to return to his home in Goa. He pursues spiritual and gospel music now. Pam Crain has retired today but Donald Saigal, her husband, performs solo around the city.

Marie, a crooner at a restaurant on Central Avenue, is now an established jazz singer in Sydney, while Gene Mac has travelled all the way from Great Eastern and Grand Hotel to singing jazz in Canada. “There was Eve, a singer at Trincas, a complete knock-out because of her lovely voice. She got married to a rich Armenian and lives in Tehran now,” says Bagchi.

One of the last Cancan dancers was seen 10 years ago in an old-age home, more than 80, and abandoned.