The history of jazz remains to be written...,” says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies, in one of the first sequences in the documentary Finding Carlton. The focus so far, he says, has been on its origins and how it developed in the US, while the details of how it spread to various other countries across the world is yet to be told. Bangalore-born Susheel Kurien, a former advertising hand and management consultant now based in New York, has risen admirably to this challenge with Finding Carlton, which narrates the story of jazz in India through the journey of Carlton Kitto.
The name might not find resonance with the average Indian today but Kitto was at the forefront of the jazz and bebop fever that once gripped cities like Bombay and Calcutta, as they were then called, and has played with legends like Duke Ellington. As an old proprietor of a Kolkata hotel recalls in the documentary, it was a time when the city was “Oh Calcutta,” when people danced till dawn and there was “no unpleasant music” — a comment that drew sympathetic chuckles from an appreciative audience at Opus, the popular restaurant-and-watering hole where the documentary was screened last week.
The film traces the history of jazz in India from the first performances and recordings in the 1920s, to the influx of foreign bands during the Second World War and the shaping up of the jazz scene following their departure after the end of the war. The story of jazz is skillfully interwoven with the story of Kitto, who taught himself to play after being brought up on a diet of jazz records his mother used to play at home, and other artistes like Micky Correa and Louiz Banks. One of the most moving scenes in the film is when Kurien plays a recording of Correa’s performances to his daughter, who had just remarked regretfully that there were no recordings of her father playing. Her eyes widen in incredulity when she recognises that’s her father on the saxophone, a performance she thought she would never hear again. The film maker’s personal favourite, though, is the segment of a Bengali student of Kitto’s who travels 150 km for his lessons — he doesn’t have “jajj” in his blood, he acknowledges, but that has only increased his determination to practice more.
Kurien’s “jazz yatra” began in his teens, when he began listening to jazz-influenced rock, later moving on to “real jazz”. The idea for the film took seed four years go, though the making of it was a much-interrupted process, until Kurien decided to plunge into it fully and devoted three months to it. The most difficult part? “That I had never made a film before,” he guffaws. Perhaps because he is a debutant, he still has a tone of wonder when complimented for his film, despite the favourable reviews and the fact that it was screened at the United Nations as part of International Jazz Week. Kurien says his next projects would also relate to the extensive material he has collected during the research.
In the film, an artiste remarks that jazz in India is nearly dead. “For jazz to flourish,” says Kurien, “you need artistes, an audience and a venue.” Opus, last week, had all three, with the Carlton Kitto Quartet giving a special performance after the screening. Kitto looked dapper in a suit and the familiar childlike smile he had flashed on the screen moments before. He and his band worked their magic and for one evening, it was yesterday once more.