His music is complex, hummable and foot-tapping all at once; in person, legendary guitarist Carlton Kitto is quiet, economical with his words. Carlton was in town to play a concert to mark the screening of Finding Carlton, a documentary on Carlton’s life filmed by Susheel Kurien. “It’s nice to have a film made on me,” he agrees, barely audible over the music playing, “but there was more talking than playing. I prefer playing.” Even in the occasional video online, with him seated alongside vocalist Rueben Rebeiro, he is all quiet focus. Typically, bebop music is fast-paced, with instruments playing intricate improvisations on a set of chords (if you’ve heard any Coleman Hawkins or Charlie Parker, you’ve heard some form of bebop).
Carlton was born in Bangalore, and studied in St. Germain High School. His father’s transferrable job in the police force took him to cities such as Coimbatore, Trichy and Chennai, and finally Calcutta, where he still lives today.
He was first introduced to jazz from his mother’s sizeable collection of 78 rpm records, which she would play on a winding gramophone. “She would play it through the day… that’s when I first heard Frank Sinatra. I made up my mind as a child that I was going to play jazz.” When his father would travel and ask his mother what she wanted, she would ask for records by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
Still, it was only as a 24-year-old, in Chennai, that Carlton was to pick up a guitar. The clubs of Calcutta, such as Moulin Rouge, gave him ample opportunities to play his music; he started out solo, but soon formed an ensemble. “Calcutta was doing very, very well in those days. Just as I would finish one concert, I would be booked for another,” he says.
Why was Calcutta such a hub? Carlton attributes it to the many pubs and nightclubs that supported live acts; there was a shortage of these in the south, he says, making an exception for Bangalore. “Bangalore has always been wet,” he grins, referring to its lively culture of watering holes in the past. In particular, he recalls Ams’ Café, which used to be located near Richmond Road. “They would serve beer and stout, and on the jukeboxes – only jazz.” Here, he would collect four-anna-bits and seek out songs from the Nat King Cole trio.
It hasn’t been easy for him to make a living as a full-time bebop guitarist; he says he knew he wasn’t going to make enough, but somehow managed, through teaching. “It’s painful to teach, unless we get the right guys who take music seriously. There are students who are tone-deaf, who still want to play jazz…they’ll have to work hard,” he says.
Carlton’s life as a musician has been marked by a refusal to compromise: for instance, he led his own band much of the time, because he didn’t want to be in the background. And despite many requests to join Bollywood, he chose to cement his identity as a jazz musician first and foremost. He recalls his Bollywood offers with exasperation. “I’ve been asked many times,” he says, with a wave of the hand. “Bappi Lahiri asked me, many others asked me. I didn’t want to – I just don’t like that music. I’ve always been into jazz, only played jazz.”
Through his long career, Carlton has played with some of the biggest names in jazz history. For instance, at a concert by Duke Ellington’s orchestra, he joined the group on stage. Carlton recalls that at a rehearsal, he went in, and the Duke said, “Hey, what do we have here!”, and asked him to join. “I was shaking like a leaf.”
Given all the legends he’s played with, what might stand out?
Carlton doesn’t hesitate: “The time I played with Stan Getz, in Delhi, sometime in the ‘80s.”