Not that the legend needs an introduction, but if we must, then, Carlton Kitto is a Bebop jazz guitarist based in our city. He was born in Bangalore, but moved to Kolkata in 1973, and became a part of the band, Jazz Ensemble in Moulin Rogue, an upscale restaurant in Park Street. Eventually, he started playing in Mocambo. Currently he is a teacher of jazz and classical guitar in Calcutta School of Music and also performs in some of the restaurants and pubs like, Chowringhee Bar, Trincas, Blue Fox, Someplace Else in Kolkata.
At 73, Mr Kitto can be found playing his heart out at Grand Hotel and Hotel Park Plaza often. Here’s his story.
Q. Since the beginning, you have been associated with Bebop jazz. Could you please explain this form for us?
A. The founder of this jazz was Charlie Christian. He died at the very early age of 25. Before that, he had been hospitalised for tuberculosis. But he would jump over the hospital walls and run to Harlem where a club called the Mintons had this group experimenting there with all the greats! There were Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Stan Getz and others. These experimental sessions that they were doing was on ‘bebop’ jazz. The word is just a slang. Somebody asked them what music it was. One of them, Dizzy Gillespie, said that we call this ‘bebop’. And the name stuck. And it is the most complicated form of jazz in the whole history of evolution of jazz. It is also the most exciting- from all angles. It is the most technical. Previously, music was for dancing and jiving. But when bebop came in, it was so fast, so frantic, that you couldn’t dance to it. You just had to sit and listen. So it became a music for listening- it used to be packed with a audience. Now, I took up this music, and have continued with it till today, with Lew Hilt and Nondon Bagchi, my right-hand guy. We have had Anto Menezes and Joe Fernandez on the piano. Pam Crain would sing with us on occasions. Usha Uthup has also sung jazz with me. She did a very good job.
Q. What was the jazz scene like in those days in Kolkata?
A. During those years, Park Street was like Hollywood. During Christmas, there used to be spot singers from abroad. There were cabarets. There were magic shows. There were clowns, and people dressed as Charlie Chaplin. They would all roam about in the hotel, walk up to tables. The whole thing was what you would call a sort of exotic experience. The hotel would have a menu like roast turkey, roasted duck, Christmas puddings and everything.
In those days if you walked down Park Street, when the doors opened and closed as people were going in and coming out, you heard jazz from every place, from every restaurant. Starting from Mocambo, Trincas, and ending at Park Hotel. At that time, all these places- Magnolia, Bar-B-Q, Moulin Rouge, Mocambo, Trincas- every place out there had a band and really good singers.
Also, the Golden Slipper was the talk of the town. It has now become the Raunak Hotel. All the musicians used to gather there after their work at other places and jammed till 5 in the morning to a common tune. Booze used to be flowing. I used to drink fruit juice.
When all of Park Street fell through, private parties kept us going. They still wanted to listen to Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, and they paid us well
Q. What happened to that scene?
A. A drastic change took place. In the tea sessions, the hindi bands crept in, and anyone could walk in. Prior to that, the rights of admission were reserved, where you had to be dressed like this [points towards suit]. Even to get on the dance floor, they would give you a jacket. When the hindi bands came, fights were breaking out. So the government imposed a 90% tax. People were not paying for the bills, smashing tables and chairs, and there was gunfire once! So, the bands were given one week’s notice to quit. They paid them all off, and then there were no more bands in Park Street. Suddenly it was deserted. Suddenly after the tax, it collapsed. Park Street became, you know- I wouldn’t know what to call it- just a deserted street.
Q. How did you manage to get through such times?
A. When all of Park Street fell through, private parties kept us going. They still wanted to listen to Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, and they paid us well. The tax got lifted with the help of the wife of American Consulate General, who got together with Usha Uthup and O’Brien, MLA of Anglo Indians. We all went down to the Writer’s and put the situation across- how the musicians were starving. Later on, when I was teaching at the Calcutta School of Music, the Principal used to give me the opportunity of five to six bebop concerts a year. The American Consulate and the Max Mueller Bhawan helped too. We are still doing it now.
Q. Between playing for a live audience in pubs and hotels and playing concerts on stage with an orchestra, which do you prefer?
A. See, playing in pubs was more relaxed. There was no tension, you know. When I played the first jazz concert, in Bombay, all the world’s great musicians were in the front row! And my hand was trembling. I recognized all of them- idols I would listen to- whom I played with later on. There were people like Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, Larry Coryell, Stan Getz, Stephane Grappelli, Charlie Byrd, Chico Freeman, Kenny Barron, Billy Taylor and many more. At one point of time, I had a regular contract in Darjeeling with the Glenary’s. It was a very musical place at that time. It is a small, little place where people still go. That I enjoyed.
Q. Do tell us about your experience of playing with Duke Ellington.
A. Back in Chennai, when I was playing with Colours and Sound. I went alone on stage where they were rehearsing, and I played with them. I was stunned. [Laughs] With their entire orchestra, they came to the music academy in Chennai. My fans pushed me on stage with my guitar. And he welcomed me on the stage. After I played, he was thrilled. He asked me, “Why don’t you come to Berkeley?” But I had settled myself here in Cal (Calcutta). To do a concert was a different thing. I would go anywhere.
Q. Where all has your journey taken you?
A. The Jazz India Chapter would fly me every year, Louiz Banks and all of us, to Bombay. I used to do these jazz concerts with all jazz greats from America at the Rang Bhawan. There used to be at least 3000 to 4000 people there, listening to jazz. When Park Street fell through, due to the tax, most of the Anglo-Indians ran away to Australia and Canada and England. I had my brothers there. I could have easily gone and stayed. But I just wanted to stay here. I played in Delhi. But back I came here. We played for the Maharaja of Coochbihar in Simla.
Q. Was it because you had already settled here with your family that you chose never to move out?
A. At that period, I wasn’t married. See, it’s not only in Calcutta that bebop has died. That is why I took up this venture of reviving this beautiful music. And I played in all the states. Last year, we went to Bombay and Bangalore for concerts. I was surprised by the reaction we got in Shillong! So I am keeping up this movement. But wherever I went, I came back here.
Q. So, what is your vision about the future of jazz in Kolkata? Do you think it is coming back?
A. It’s not coming back. It’s coming back in the form of fusion. Fusion is very popular here. Also, money is a very important thing. I have over a hundred students working in Bollywood.
Q. Where would your fans find you playing live now?
A. In Grand Hotel, I only play jazz-four days a week. And I play one day at the Park Plaza which I really enjoy. I have my full band there- a four-piece band. Nondon is on drums, Willy Walter, Arunava Chatterjee, and myself of course.