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Sold to the soul

This year Kolkata lost Carlton Kitto and India lost its true jazz man who remained steadfastly loyal to the music and the marginal culture it produced

A file photo of Carlton Kitto
A file photo of Carlton Kitto

It was around 1980 when I met Carlton Kitto. It was a narrow street close to central Calcutta’s Ripon Street area where he lived and gave music lessons. It was while taking lessons from him there that I got familiar with some strange musical terms: sixteenth note phrases, eighth note phrases, altered harmony, dominant seventh arpeggio, etc.

It is true that these are words which sound meaningless to a lay person, but are the real ingredients that make up a good piece of music.

Carlton’s house was about a 10 minute walk from my Lower Circular Road house and I still remember my first day of lesson with him. It was a late Sunday morning and, as I walked in, I noticed several students, some of whom could more or less play Carlton’s lessons. I immediately felt nervous. When it was my turn for the lesson he grabbed my book and started writing innumerable notes and chords on my notation book. As he kept on writing I wondered when he’ll stop. But he did not for a long time. In fact, he carried on to the next page. I could see a million notes over strange chords and scales.

Eventually, when he finished I felt a sigh of relief. I was very doubtful whether I could learn the lesson by the following week. This thought barely crossed my mind when Carlton said to me, “Okay, so you learn this." As he closed my book, he added, “learn it backward too". I almost fell off the chair.

But like all young aspiring guitar players (or, at least they should be), I put in many hours each day to learn his lesson, in both directions. It goes without saying that I was bombarded with even longer lessons and different chord inversions in the next class. One of which was jazz guitarist’s Larry Coryell’s circular picking technique. Later, as he realized that I was working on his lessons and I was serious, he took a liking towards me.

Few years later, Carlton moved to Alimuddin Street. It was a stone’s throw from my back gate. But by then I had stopped going to him for lessons. I often heard that he was strict and sometimes temperamental with his students. Frankly, I never saw that side of him. Having said that I must mention that he was pretty set in his own ways and thinking. Carlton did not care much for rock and pop music. He was a pure jazz man.

In the 1970s, Carlton was playing in Blue Fox restaurant on Park Street with musicians Louiz Banks and Pam Crain. It was the Louis Banks Brotherhood that became a legendary band that people still talk about. Park Street was the place to hang out. Bands were playing in the bars and restaurants on both sides of the road. Music was a livelihood that many Anglo-Indian and Goan boys pursued, it became their job. Older generations would dress up in black to listen to a jazz band and maybe have dinner with a drink or two. The youth would grab a coffee just to sit there and listen to these serious players. It was a thing to do.

The bands would meet and jam after working hours and then go home in small groups as many of them lived nearby around Park Circus, Ripon Street, Elliot Road and Kidderpore. Carlton, though, was originally from Bangalore.

Music, dancing and singing were part of Anglo-Indian culture as the boys played in many bands and at Sunday morning Masses. The girls also sang in bands. It was fun for all of us. But part of this music community had “too much fun" and began to drink heavily and simply wasted time in their lives. Some of them were my friends. They were talented too but talent alone was never going to be enough. A serious musician need to study, practice, and work on his/her craft for years before it gets to a certain level. Most of my friends at that time did not really “woodshed" and as a result they had to rely on their not-so-developed instincts only. Thinking through Carlton’s lessons opened my mind and I became more analytical, deeper, self critical and realized how profound this subject was.

Only a year back I met Carlton over a discussion for a Bengali magazine that wanted to cover him elaborately. This was where he spoke about how he started out by listening to records and by practicing long hours. He also joked about people who laughed at his strange dissonant sounding chords. But his appetite for learning jazz took Carl to a place where he became a walking dictionary of chords and jazz standards. In Calcutta, he became known as the ultimate musician to play authentic bebop guitar. He was the “first call man for any jazz gig".

Carlton was a rare phenomenon born out of sheer dedication and commitment where time and space are irrelevant. He stuck to the kind of music he wanted to play and remained unchanged. Through the ’70’s, ’80’s and ’90’s quite a few rock bands were operating within the Kolkata music scene, but this did not alter Kitto’s mindset. Fortunately, for musicians like Carlton several restaurants on Park Street hired live jazz bands. The yearly Jazz Festival, organized by Jazz India Calcutta chapter at the grounds opposite Victoria Memorial, was of much importance. Kolkata had some jazz lovers who organized and found sponsors for jazz concerts.

Unfortunately, there was never any real support from the system and the departments that could improve the scenario of this art form. As long as I remember, this kind of music has always struggled. To make matters worse, most of the restaurants and bars stopped having “live" bands due to economic reasons. Countless musicians were out of their jobs. It was a struggle to survive. The situation became desperate. Sadly, this reality was ignored by our society. The entertainment world came to a halt. For any serious art, it was even worse. Then came the Bollywood invasion and all you heard anywhere you went was Bollywood music.

To my mind jazz or any such music was never part of the popular culture. Only a few listeners, musicians and enthusiasts kept it functioning, but for many obvious reasons that too came under threat.

Carlton may have stepped on to a narrow path, but he walked it on his own terms. He will remain as one of the true jazz legends of the Indian music scene. Now, we can mourn and discuss how great he was. But one question crosses my mind. As a society what have we really done for the man while he was alive?

Amyt Datta is a guitarist and music teacher based out of Kolkata.

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