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In 2012, I completed a documentary film that provided an interesting insight into the transmission and diffusion of a uniquely American music culture and an art form to India. What made it intriguing is that this transmission took place in the 1920’s and continued to evolve and mutate until it embedded itself into the popular music of India. The film – Finding Carlton – Uncovering the Story of India has been screened to many audiences and is in the collection of major university libraries all over the world. It is the first film that has focused on this interesting branching of the international river of jazz.

One outstanding aspect of this journey of jazz in India is the role of African-American jazz musicians who were instrumental in its transmission and diffusion to South Asia and, of course, India. The history of the arrival of Jazz in India is anchored by the arrival of small groups of African-American musicians whose skills and talents were economic engines that fueled the salons and grand hotels of a late 1920’s India. In stark contrast to the Great Depression of the 1930’s, this exotic locale offered, for many, opportunity, riches and acclaim that was often not available or impossible to achieve stateside.

Another aspect of the film is its portrayal of one of the few remaining but very talented musicians who once made their living playing jazz in long vanished nightclubs, lounges and hotel bars. The guitarist, Carlton Kitto, who gives the film its title, brought a personal and endearing touch to the film, and through his voice and those of others helped create an intimate and enduring portrait of a musical culture. The film begins and ends with scenes from Carlton’s life.

About a month ago, I learned from a flurry of electronic missives, that Carlton Kitto had passed away. Carlton, a superb jazz guitarist, along with the masterful Louiz Banks, were the key musicians in my 2013 documentary film, Finding Carlton – Uncovering the Story of Jazz in India. He was 74 years old or so, they say.

Remembering Carlton

Carlton Kitto was an extraordinary self-taught musician, who mastered the intricacy of jazz guitar and the instrument’s complex chordal, rhythmic and melodic capability. Blessed with a musical ear, and bereft of any formal music education or conservatory discipline, he had learned his craft and honed his skills -”from listening to ‘78 records on the winding gramophone.” Along the way he taught himself the sophisticated musical theory that underpins every jazz musicians work, delved deep into the canonical foundation of jazz – the Great American Songbook – and developed an amazing repertoire of the classic jazz “standards.” He was encyclopedic in his knowledge of these standards and their authors, as well as the musicians who made certain tunes so endearingly famous. He came from a lineage of largely self-taught Indian jazz men and women: people who were once well-known musicians and bandleaders of Indian or South Asian origin and, in some cases, had very successful careers. Others were journeymen musicians without whom the early sounds of Bollywood would not have existed. And now Carlton Kitto has joined them in the Big Band in the Sky.

Carlton Kitto is sitting in the guitar chair of the Great Indian Big Band in the Sky. They are playing a tune made famous by Duke Ellington. Mickey Correa leads the band and he is smiling, but not too happy because Carlton insists on playing altered dominants and extensions, and refuses to “comp” in staid, rhythmic fashion. Says Carlton, “the bass player has got the quarter notes… so why do I have to comp every beat?!” The band is powered by a rotating cast of bass players. Bimbo, Lups Theodore from the Correa band, Clement and Balsie Balsara. But it is Clement who is now thumping away on the upright, trying to keep pace with Carlton’s blistering sixteenth note runs. The bassist sticks to playing the vanilla changes, leaving the extensions to the chords, the flat 5’s, sharp 9’s and 11’s for Carlton… 

I’ll never forget my first conversation with Carlton Kitto. It was on the phone, in May of 2008. I was at home in New York, and had tracked his number down thanks to a reference in a New York Times Sunday Travel section about him and his gig at the Chowringhee Bar at the Grand Hotel, Kolkata. I was truly excited to be finally on the phone with someone I had never met but had researched somewhat extensively for almost three months. “Mr. Kitto,” I said, “I loved your guitar playing on this recording of ‘The Nearness of You’ and the voice leading technique…” Carlton said, “With Sonia? From that Jazz Yatra? Yes, yes! I am playing some Barney Kessel things, I think!” I could feel a smile radiate all the way from his home on Alimuddin Street as he tore into the structure of the tune and why he loved the way it found the G minor chord in the bridge section!

I had learned about Carlton over the previous six months as I researched what I then thought would be an essay or short nonfiction piece about the story of how Jazz found its way to India. Triggered by my foray into actually trying to play the music I had listened to and loved for decades, I was trying to answer a question that I was being asked more frequently: “How did you come to hear Jazz in India?”

Google turned up a scholarly work from 2003 by Dr. Warren Pinckney with astonishing information about the arrival of jazz in India and descriptions of early and more contemporary musicians. More Googling, more information and a pattern of musical diffusion emerged that showed a spread beyond the big cities of India and names of bandleaders, piano players, and singers who seemed to have had local celebrity. As I foraged various sources, Carlton Kitto’s name emerged, and his choice of instrument, the same as mine, offered what turned out to be a fortunate bias.

By then I had talked myself into letting the intended essay mutate into a “I went to India with a cheap video camera looking for a jazz guitarist” documentary film of sorts, and more research was the order of the day. Friends in India introduced me to their friends – Naresh Fernandes, Stanley Pinto and Jehangir Dalal amongst them. Soon I was in a network of fellow travelers on the same road. A lineage of legends emerged, including predecessors and sometimes teachers, to Carlton.

…The Great Indian Big Band has the groove going and Carlton is riding it. Norman Mosby on sweet tenor sax gets it, as does Anibal Castro on trombone. Rudy (Cawas Khatau) Cotton steps in on tenor sax to experiment with a raga-based scale, pissing off old timers who are still content with staying with the chord tones. Jazzy Joe Pereira shakes his head and tosses off a blast of notes from his sax. The Green brothers are blowing like crazy now, stacking the horns in brackets of thirds and fifths, keeping out of the way of Carlton’s intervallic leaps. Chic Chocolate can’t resist and screams out some high notes from his trumpet. Lester Godinho is firing on the drums and he is hearing those bebop accents that Carlton throws at him, and he fires them back with a touch of Philly Joe and more…

Carlton Kitto playing the guitar at one of his concerts.

Carlton Kitto playing the guitar at one of his concerts. Photo by © Susheel Kurien.

References to Carlton Kitto kept turning up, all positive, along with a few snippets of sound. However words don’t make a jazz guitarist, it is the music they make that speaks to who they really are. Especially a bebop playing guitarist in India. Nobody had been playing this genre of jazz with any passion or sincerity in India for years, indeed for decades. As background, bebop jazz had emerged in the mid-1940’s in the USA as a reaction to slower moving swing styles of the past. It brought awesomely expressive creative possibilities and breakneck tempos that demanded technical virtuosity. It was music that demanded listening and emerged only where there was a community of musicians, and if there ever had been such a community in India, it was long gone. The markers all pointed to Carlton as a solitary remaining Indian exponent.

This was absolutely intriguing and my commitment to a film featuring Carlton demanded that I had some conclusive proof of his musical ability. It was the recording from the Jazz Yatra that put my concerns to rest. I played some of the recording to my friend, the great guitarist Jack Wilkins (and as I found out later, one of Carlton’s heroes.) “This guy is a guitarist,” said Jack, in his understated way. With that affirmation, I could proceed!

But where was Carlton Kitto? Many of the people I was in contact knew very little about him, and only a handful had even heard him play. Some were even dismissive of him. My contacts in Kolkata were still limited and I was long way from India. In the end, it was the NY Times article that finally gave me contact and a breakthrough. Everything that followed was a whirlwind. With support and encouragement from my college classmate, Sunil Shanbag, and many many others, the film got underway.

…The tune is well known, but Carlton is doing stuff with it that the band has never heard before. He weaves lines of chromatic triplets through the familiar melody. After all, this is the tune that he got to play when he was pushed forward onto the stage and impress the Ellington Band at rehearsal in Chennai, back in 1963! Carlton plays faster and faster, Pam Crain steps up to sing an improvised line over Carlton’s guitar. The diva of the Blue Fox and Trinca’s has her favorite guitarist again! The vibraphone of Anto Menezes leaps in and out and around Carlton’s guitar. This is pure Carlton Kitto, he is channeling Pat Martino, the band is playing on adrenalin, driven by the machine gun staccato of notes streaming from his guitar…

Carlton Kitto rehearsing with other jazz musicians at Clive's.

Kitto rehearsing with other jazz musicians at Clive’s. Photo by © Susheel Kurien.

There was no one left in India who could play jazz guitar like Carlton, and even today, the few guitarists who have studied their trade in conservatory and music school and returned to India with the benefit of modern music education, are hard pressed to replicate his extensive technique, years of assimilating the standards that are the foundation of the music, and his mastery of reharmonization.

My words cannot express how special he was to me and how much I respected him, both as a musician and a family man who worked so hard to give his family a good life. It was only fitting that that my film should be titled with his name.

He had a way of touching people and always left a mark on them. He continues to do it through the film.

For me, he was not just a jazz guitarist. He was an exceptional jazz guitarist who had earned his musicianship by talent, hard work and unstoppable passion. This is what it takes to play the music that he loved. It does not come any other way. His lessons live on in many of the working/gigging guitarists you hear in India today. He taught hundreds of them and gave them the foundation to earn a living, and in doing so, shared his wealth of knowledge of jazz theory, technique and harmonic movement.

My heartfelt condolences to the entire Kitto family.

…But our Carlton doesn’t care. He is swinging away, running bebop lines on Satin Doll, throwing in those wonderful substitutions and altered chords. And freaking out some of the older timers. But he is true to the progressions and “just like Charlie Parker” is reharmonizing them, because he knows them so well. Guitarists Ike Isaacs and Cedric West are standing up and applauding. In the background, Ken Mac, Goody Seervai and others are throwing tantrums… but Carlton does not care… Bebop! Bebop! Carlton finishes his solo, and suddenly all the air goes out of the room… Welcome to the club Carlton! RIP.

– Susheel Kurien, New York, 2016. For more information about Finding Carlton – Uncovering the Story of Jazz in India, visit the film’s official website.

Susheel Kurien, author of this guest post, and writer and director of Finding Carlton - Uncovering the Story of Jazz in India (Carlton Kurien).

Kurien himself poses for the shot. Photo by © Susheel Kurien.

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