Charles ‘City’ Gatt, father of Maltese jazz, passes away at 77

Inspiration for generations of Maltese jazz musicians and director of the Malta Jazz Festival, Charles ‘City’ Gatt was one of the greats of Maltese jazz

Charles ‘City’ Gatt. Photo: Joe P. Smith
Charles ‘City’ Gatt. Photo: Joe P. Smith

The eminent Maltese jazz percussionist and painter, Charles ‘City’ Gatt, has died. He was 77.

The inspiration for generations of Maltese jazz musicians, Gatt was a father figure for the jazz scene and served as musical director of the Malta Jazz Festival, having also recorded music by the Maltese composer Charles Camilleri, and performed at London’s Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican Centre.

Jazz guitarist Sandro Zerafa said Gatt was one of the reasons he got into jazz.

“When I was a kid you were a role model, a mentor, a drinking buddy. You used to say, ‘lay back and let it happen’... something which I am still working on. You were one of the passionate guys I ever met. Later on when I got married, it felt natural that I would ask you to be the witness. I owe you a lot. Malta owes you a lot. The Malta Jazz Festival owes you everything. Going back to Malta will never feel the same.”

The photographer Joe Smith said the Maltese jazz scene had lost its father. “It will not be the same without you,” he said. “Farewell dear Charles, and keep on jazzing up there in the firmament. It was a pleasure working alongside you since the first edition of the first Malta Jazz Festival in 1991. Thank you for your trust and appreciation. Fly high my friend. Till we meet again.”

Toni Sant, the music documentarian, said few people had left such an impact on Malta’s musical scene as Gatt. “An old friend of my father’s and mine, we spent hours working, chatting, planning and creating against all odds. My memories are many and they are fantastic, because they were formative of my own life qualities. My heart is broken.”

Guitarist Pawlu Borg Bonaci said Gatt was a great gentleman. “I will always cherish watching you play with your unique pose, the moments spent telling jokes, and your tummy bouncing up and down while laughing your heart out, listening to you while you told your funny stories, discussing music.”

Gatt’s name as the percussionist of choice was made in Malta but he performed the world over, from the United States of America to the Soviet Union, and Australia.

His journey as a musician started with a varied menu of styles from pop to rock, jazz, classical and contemporary percussion. After playing with local musicians and other international artists like Albert Mangelsdorff, Bobby Shew, Bertil Strandberg and Gilbert Holmstrum, he was involved with Charles Camilleri’s percussion music and then went to study in Boston.

At Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Gatt furthered his studies under Joe Hunt, Mike Metheny and Andy Jaffe, joining the latter’s ensemble for a year, then joining the David Kikoski trio, as well as playing regularly as percussionist for the Boston Melrose Symphony Orchestra with, amongst others, Albert Mangelsdorff, Charles Byrd, and John Dankworth.

Gatt’s time at Berklee College was indeed influential: the experience was key to his decision to kick-start the Malta Jazz Festival in 1990.

The festival, one of the most enduring events on Malta’s cultural calendar, has had a largely uninterrupted long haul from 1990 to the present – having a direct impact on the ‘health’ of the local music scene.

“Thanks to the Festival, we have had more musicians, a more receptive audience towards jazz music, bars and restaurants with jazz music, jazz education and even local musicians studying and playing abroad. I think that, directly or indirectly, the festival has generated work for musicians and more activity in the catering and cultural industry,” Gatt had said in an interview to MaltaToday in 2013.

But despite its sterling reputation, for three years the annual event was besmirched when it was transformed into a rock and jazz festival by a commercial promotions company, populating the line-up with tribute bands and prog-rock ensembles, leaving little room for the kind of high-quality contemporary jazz the Festival had become identified with – both locally and internationally.

Gatt spoke about that infamous three-year ‘lull’ with some bemusement. “Whoever tried to change the direction of the Jazz Festival did not have enough knowledge of the music or any respect for it,” he said, but agreed that change was not bad in itself.

“There comes a time in every form of art when changes take place and new movements are created. This happened many times in the short history of jazz. Today there are many young musicians who are trying to break free of idioms and conventional styles in order to attract a wider audience.

“It’s impossible, for example, to appreciate Robert Glasper without absorbing hip-hop, just as ‘Bitches Brew’ by Miles Davis couldn’t be understood without foreknowledge of the music of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown.”

Born on 16 August, 1944, Gatt was from Żebbiegħ. A teacher by trade, he joined the education department in 1961 and pursued a training course at St Michael’s College of Education, to teach art from 1968 to 1974, before joining the school of music to teach percussion. He held that post up until 1995.

Married to Frances Mangion, Gatt was father to two daughters.