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A jazz yatra

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JAZZ HANDS: Jazz great Duke Ellington was so impressed with Kitto (top), at a chance meeting, that he helped train him

From a railways job in Chennai to the once glittering and celebrated jazz bars in Kolkata, Carlton Kitto in spite of his talent as a guitarist has struggled. An Indian origin entrepreneur from the US traces his journey in a new and acclaimed documentary.

Astray remark in New York has led to the discovery of a treasure trove in India. In 2009, an acquaintance of Susheel Kurien, an Indian-origin entrepreneur and jazz aficionado, wondered what India had to do with jazz. That set Kurien, who grew up in Mumbai where he had listened to a lot of jazz, on a quest to find out how jazz came to India. He started trawling the web for information and connected with jazz enthusiasts from all over the world who provided him with leads and information on jazz culture in India from the 1920s to the 1980s. Kurien, who migrated to the USA in 1981 and lives with his family on Roosevelt Island, New York, soon realised that he needed to document the rich jazz culture that existed in India.

And around this time, he came across an item in the travel section of the New York Times that advised visitors to Kolkata to check out Carlton Kitto's jazz performance. Four years back, Kurien managed to get Kitto's phone number and called him. Many more phone conversations followed and Kitto's riffs struck a chord in Kurien, who decided to make a documentary on jazz and this legendary jazz guitarist of Kolkata. The result: a 73-minute documentary titled Finding Carlton - Uncovering the Story of Jazz that was released earlier this year and was the piece de resistance at the first International Jazz Day celebrations at the United Nations on April 30.

The documentary traces the evolution of jazz in India from the early 1920s and prominently features the 68-year-old Carlton Kitto, who stays in a tiny, cramped apartment in central Kolkata. Kitto, who grew up in Madras (now Chennai), was introduced to jazz by his mother who had a rich collection of 78 rpm vinyl records of jazz greats like Charlie Christian. Kitto recalls being swept off his feet while listening to a tune called 'Memories of You' in Benny Goodman Sextet featuring Christian. "I heard this guitar come and go, barely 22 bars in all, but it was enough to get me hooked to jazz, " says Kitto, defining that as the turning point of his life. At a time when youngsters his age were jiving to Elvis Presley's rock 'n' roll and Cliff Richard, Kitto was learning chord embellishment, substitution and connection through which Christian had revolutionised the world of jazz and ushered in what is called the 'Bebop era'. Kitto started performing in the late '60s and made quite a name.

His next big moment came when jazz great Duke Ellington and his band landed at Madras. Kitto, armed with his guitar, walked into Duke's rehearsal one day and was invited by the legend to perform. He played numbers like 'How High The Moon' and 'Satin Doll' and so impressed was Ellington by his performance that he offered to help the young Kitto train formally as a musician. Wellington kept his promise and got Berkley to send sheet music and instructional material to Kitto regularly. Kitto, who by then had a job in the Railways, decided to pursue music as a full time career. "Since I decided to stick to jazz, I was told by my friends that the place to be in was Calcutta. I resigned from the Railways and shifted here in 1973. A French lady (Delilah) who owned Moulin Rogue on Park Street interviewed me and offered a handsome salary of Rs 600 a month, " recalls Kitto.

He played with 'The Jazz Ensemble' for the next two years before shifting to Mocambo further down the same road. "Those were the days. Foreign jazz bands would come down to play at Park Street's establishments regularly and this city also had some incredible musicians like Benny Rosario, Cecil Dorsay and Braz Gonsalves, " he says. Louis Banks, another legend who had his own group (The Louis Banks Brotherhood) used to be a big draw at Blue Fox, another of Park Street's restaurants. Kitto reminisces about those glorious days: "The customers were genteel and knew a lot about jazz and soulful blues music would play at most restaurants on Park Street, which was the premier fun street in the country at that time".

The big party came to a sad end after the new communist regime in the state slapped steep entertainment tax on Park Street's restaurants in 1979. Live music was the first casualty and all the famous musicians like Louis Banks, Dominic Fernandes, Johnny Edmund, Victor Shreeves, Clive Hughes, the Monserrate Brothers and Braz Gonsalves gradually left the city. Kitto was one of the very few to stay on. "This city made me what I am. Material riches don't matter much to me. I want to play and teach music and am thankful to all those who love my music, " he says. Kitto jammed with old buddies like drummer and vocalist Clive Hughes and bassist George Chato in Finding Carlton, which also features Louis Banks and other greats like vibraphone player Anton Menezes who died just ten days after Kurien interviewed him. Kitto now coaches students privately and also performs at Kolkata's Oberoi Grand hotel.

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