In the closing stages of the 75-minute documentary, Finding Carlton: Uncovering the Story of Jazz in India, it seems that the film-maker is taking sides.
There is musician Louiz Banks’ story: a true-blue jazzman who moved from Calcutta to Bombay after being noticed by composer R.D. Burman, made his money from corporate gigs and advertising jingles, among others, and while at it, found a fusion sound that took him across the globe.
And there is Carlton Kitto. True-blue jazzman, but who refused to shift from Calcutta despite offers from Burman, music director Bappi Lahiri and entreaties from former bandmate Banks. A plush home, brand appeal and appellations like India’s Mr Jazz—all of which belong to Banks—escaped Kitto. Indeed, the musician, wearing neatly-ironed formal clothes and a bright tie, riding a hand-pulled rickshaw through the crowded streets of Calcutta, is like a leitmotif in Finding Carlton.
Kitto never left his self-admittedly shabby home, neither did he leave bebop, his favourite jazz style—an association between a form of music and a kind of musician that has survived for half a century. Finding Carlton, made by New York-based adman and debutant film-maker Susheel Kurien, got its name from Kitto.
The film is not about Kitto exclusively, though it is pivoted on him. Kurien begins with an endearing visual of a musician offloading a giant instrument, a double bass, from a yellow Kolkata cab. He carries it to the rehearsal pad of Kitto’s band. The music begins and, before you know it, you are in the swing of things.
It’s a riveting ride to the little-documented metropolitan history of two Indian cities, Calcutta and Bombay, their socio-cultural settings different from Kolkata and Mumbai. While Lucknow gets a passing mention with an absorbing nugget of jazz history, and Bombay had its early stellar moments with jazz, Calcutta, the narration informs, was the most swinging city for many. “All night was jazz. There was no unpleasant music,” says Violet Smith of Kolkata’s Fairlawn Hotel, stressing on the words jazz and music, making it sound like one is indistinguishable from the other.
Finding Carlton flows smoothly through time, going back to what some consider India’s jazz age—from the 1920s, when foreign bands started arriving in Bombay and Calcutta. A 1926 recording of Jimmy Lequime’s Soho Blues at Calcutta’s Grand Hotel (now The Oberoi Grand) is claimed as India’s first jazz recording.
It focuses on musicians like Herb Flemming and Teddy Weatherford setting up base here (the film retrieves a 1946 Downbeat report on Weatherford’s eventual death in Calcutta), the American state department-sponsored concerts featuring musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, the arrival of bebop and Indo-jazz fusion (there’s a recording of Dave Brubeck jamming with Carnatic musicians; 30 years, Banks admits, before he thought of it), the emergence of Indian jazz bands, and the decline, especially in Calcutta, after the 1977-installed Communist government imposed a heavy entertainment tax.
Ironically, Kitto’s home in Kolkata’s Alimuddin Street is about four houses away from the state headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), trivia Finding Carlton, otherwise full of interconnected details, overlooks.
Well-researched and stylishly filmed, it works through rare archival material, gorgeous music and interesting conversations with jazz loyalists like Niranjan Jhaveri, Rubin Rebeiro, Pam Crain, Farrokh Mehta, Anto Menezes, Micky and Christine Correa, Stanley Pinto, Jehangir Dalal, Ranjit Barot and Naresh Fernandes, who talks about how racially discriminated Afro-American jazz musicians in the 1920s found a home in Montmartre, Paris, shifting later to cities like Shanghai and Bombay.
But what shines is the film-maker’s passion for the subject. The camera is often found weaving through the sullied alleys leading to Kitto’s house. For a man who had once been on stage with Ellington and Larry Carlton, the wretchedness of his neighbourhood lends high narrative contrasts. Much like “the green light” in Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz-era novel The Great Gatsby, Carlton—and what the name represents—comes across as a metaphor for unflinching devotion.
Finding Carlton: Uncovering the Story of Jazz in India will be screened at the ESG Centre, Panaji, Goa, on 13 October; the Bangalore International Centre on 15 October; Opus, Bangalore, on 16 October; Alliance Française de Bangalore, on 17 October; and the Films Division Complex, Mumbai, on 20 October.