Kitto's jazz yatra

Print edition : July 14, 2006

For Carlton Kitto, Kolkata's uncrowned king of jazz, it has been a lonely crusade to keep the tradition of Bebop alive.

CARLTON KITTO, A legend in his own right.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

IT is the year 1941. A group of jazz musicians, including Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke, are jamming late into the night at Minton's, a jazz club in Harlem, but it is still too early for them to call it a night, for one member of the group hasn't arrived yet. In one corner of the stage is a chair reserved for him and next to it is an amplifier. Not far from Minton's, in a hospital, a young man waits for the lights of the wards to go out. Then, climbing over the boundary wall, he arrives at the club, takes his place in the chair and plugs his Gibson ES-150 guitar into the amp-box and joins the show. The guitar player, Charlie Christian, affectionately called Mr. Bop, was to die a few months later of tuberculosis at the age of 22, but not before changing the face of music forever. The nightly jam sessions at Minton's were taking jazz to its next stage of evolution - the Bebop era.

Sixty-five years later, in Kolkata, at the Chowringhee Bar inside Oberoi Grand, an elderly man sits hunched over his guitar, accompanied by only a pianist. A jazz aficionado could easily, even amid the haze of smoke and the clinking of glasses, catch in him a glimpse of the gaunt shadow of Christian. In an age where jazz has changed, perhaps unrecognisably, Christian's legacy still remains strong in Carlton Kitto. His story is one of artistic integrity and refusal to compromise one's passion for fame and fortune. An acknowledged maestro in the Indian jazz circuit, and a legend in his own right in Kolkata, Kitto's success lies in the respect he commands from fellow-musicians rather than in financial gains. Where many of his peers, in jazz chose the greener pastures of the film industry in Mumbai and the advertising world, Kitto preferred the relative obscurity of Kolkata to the corruption of his art. "I took up the guitar not as a profession, it was because of my love for jazz. Actually the guitar was only a tool to express my musicianship."

His love affair with jazz started early in life, mainly through his mother's huge collection of 78 rpm (revolutions per minute) records of jazz greats. It was while listening to these in his winding gramophone that he first heard the Benny Goodman Sextet featuring Charlie Christian. "It was a tune called Memories of You. I suddenly heard this guitar come and go - barely 22 bars, but it blew my mind. That was a turning point in my life," he said.

It was in Christian's playing that Kitto first came upon chord clusters, parallel progressions, vertical progressions, comping - the subtle art of playing chords behind a soloist or a singer. When most young people were swaying to the rock'n'roll of Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard, Kitto was analysing and learning chord embellishment, substitution, and connection - the means by which Christian revolutionised the world of jazz.

He managed to make a name for himself as an up and coming musician in Madras in the late 1960s, around the time that Duke Ellington and his band came to the city. The young Kitto, armed with his guitar, walked into the Duke's rehearsal one day. "Hey guys what have we got here, said the Duke," and invited Kitto to play. Ellington's group never had a guitar player, and so it was with some trepidation that young Kitto started jamming with the giants. "I played Satin Doll, Take the A Train, How High the Moon and stuff like that. And some of those guys started playing with me, and then the whole band joined in."

Ellington was so impressed that he volunteered to help Kitto out in his formal training as a musician. Needless to say, Kitto also got a front-row ticket to the concert. True to his word, the Duke, on his return to the United States, arranged for Kitto to receive instructional materials and sheet music from Berkeley. "They were very boring materials, but I went through them diligently, hoping they would help me out someday, but then again I went back to Bebop," Kitto said. Ellington died a few years later, but long after that Kitto kept receiving materials from Berkeley, some of which he has preserved till date.

Later, in international jazz fests held in India, Kitto jammed with legends like Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, David Leibman, Larry Coryell, Chico Freeman and Charlie Byrd. He has been hailed as the greatest exponent of Bebop jazz in India, but the experience with Ellington will remain special.

Going abroad to pursue a career in jazz was something Kitto could not afford. So he chose the next best thing for a jazz musician - shifting base to Calcutta. "There were some incredible musicians playing here at that time - Benny Rosario, Cecil Dorsay and Braz Gonzalves. After playing with them for a while, I decided to branch out and play what I wanted to play. By that time (late 1970s) I had acquired good knowledge of Bebop and had made up my mind to only play that," said Kitto.

In Bebop improvisation, vertical progression is used, where the notes of the chord from the progression are applied together with chromatics, passing tones, and the notes of the embellished and substitute chords. Though in the new jazz concept it is the horizontal progression, where the scale for each chord is applied in the improvisation - for example by John Coltrane in `Giant Steps', or Miles Davis in `So What' - Kitto prefers the variety that vertical progression offers with its combined scales, arpeggios of the chords, and chromatics.

"I personally find it, in every way, more exciting to make use of this progression. One very important player is Jimmy Raney, who seldom left a chord unturned. Besides him there were others like Dick Garcia, Joe Puma, and early Pat Martino." Ever the purist, Kitto never uses hammer-ons in his solo, nor does he employ any shortcuts in his chord work. Though technically flawless, he never allows melody to take a back seat, and his phrasings are both lyrical and complex.

But for all his talent and ability, it has not been an easy life for Kitto. "In the early days, as I was finishing one contract, I was getting two more offers for double the salary. But things have come down to such an extent now, with Bangla bands and fusion bands capturing the market, it's the youngsters," he said. But on those rare occasions of a Carlton Kitto concert, it is invariably a packed hall.

He does not bemoan his lack of financial success, nor is he bitter that his popularity is restricted only within the jazz circuit. "It's not just me. Barring a few, it's very hard for jazz musicians all over the world. I know of Bebop players in Australia who play ragtime and honkytonk just to make ends meet," he said.

He does not have any regrets of not leaving Kolkata even when jazz departed from it. "Kolkata was the place that encouraged me and made me what I am - the audience, the students, the jazz club members who were mostly all Bengalis. I would never like to leave this place," he said.

Ten years ago, lamenting the slow demise of jazz in the city, he told this reporter, "My mission is to keep Bebop alive through teaching". But things have improved since then and he admits that there seems to be a resurgence of jazz in the city. Today, Kitto does not have to rely only on tuitions for his livelihood. The Chowringhee Bar has brought him a whole new set of fans, many of them foreigners staying at the hotel.

After a long wait, Kolkata's uncrowned king of jazz finally has a place to play his kind of music without having to cater to demands of pop tunes by uninformed audiences. "The main thing is that the general manager of the hotel is a jazz lover. He has even set up channel music which plays only mainstream jazz. Most important, I have found a regular place to play my music," said a beaming Kitto.

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