Vol 1 No.2
A Newsletter Dedicated To Chet Baker And His Music
Conversation with Russ Freeman
By Betty Little
May 29, 1991
Russ Freeman was there almost from the beginning of Chet Baker’s professional musical career. Following the break-up of Russ’s first marriage, he, Chet and Charlaine, (Chet’s first wife), shared a house in Hollywood, CA. They met after Russ had given up hard drugs and Chet had not started using. Russ thinks that the story about Bird telling Miles, “There’s a little white cat on the West Coast that’s gonna eat you up”, may be apocryphal. He can verify the story about Chet’s showing up for an audition with Bird who asked the assemblage of trumpeters if Chet Baker were there. After two numbers with Chet, Bird announced that the audition was over. Chet had the job. Russ also had an opportunity to play with Bird when both worked with Howard McGee’s band.
The friendship lasted as long as Chet lived, although, they did not see each other regularly. The warmth of remembered good times is evident as Russ talks about their times together and mutual love of jazz. Now it wasn’t all work and no play. Russ recalls the time that he, Chet and some other guys were hanging out with Jack Sheldon, the trumpeter, whose mother ran a swimming school. In the middle of the night, they decided to climb over the fence and go swimming in Mrs. Sheldon’s outdoor pool. Russ couldn’t even swim but joined in the fun of paddling around and trying not to make so much noise that it would wake the household. Yes, they got away with their little escapade.
About six or seven years ago, Chet was booked to play a gig at MY PLACE in Santa Monica. Russ went over around ten PM to hear Chet play and reminisce. The place was dark and the few patrons in the parking lot said that Chet had not showed up so the club had closed. This behavior was not unusual for Chet. He always did what he felt like when he felt like it.
Chet played almost entirely by ear and, contrary to what has become conventional wisdom, he could read music. A single line of notes he could handle, not well enough to sight read for movie or studio work, but he did read notes. When someone would request a standard, Chet, who was familiar with the tune, would ask Russ what note to start on and he would play the tune beautifully. He knew no harmony and had no structural knowledge of music to fall back on when he was having a bad night.
Russ emphasized that playing the clubs is where the really good jazz occurs. The atmosphere is warm and when the musicians are on a roll, the music can be great. “Chet was absolutely amazing. He didn’t have a great deal of consistency but he could be absolutely astounding. When he was at his best, he was as good as anybody I’ve ever heard.” Russ explains that after more than forty years in the music business, one way or another, he’s heard them all.
When Chet and Richard Bock, the record producer, thought Chet should sing in the early 50’s, Russ was against it. “I thought the trumpet was the thing, and I tried to discourage the singing. I was a jazz purist; I felt we should just play.” After listening to the Mosaic reissues, he enjoys Chet’s singing, but still thinks the trumpet is Chet’s strong suit. His main objection to LET'S GET LOST is the focus on the singing and lack of attention to the trumpet. Bruce Weber brought a film crew to California but he did not appear in the film. He does not know why Weber Chose not to use the interview.
One might speculate that Russ’s memories of Chet did not fit the director’s vision for the film; however he says he had no idea why the interview was not used. Russ and Chet spent lots of time together in the 50’s even before Chet went with Gerry Mulligan. After the pianoless quartet, Chet formed his own quartet with Russ as pianist. Chet had little interest in the details of the quartet, he just wanted to play so Russ functioned both as manager and musician. He booked the engagements, handled the payroll as well as being composer, arranger and keyboardist.
Chet decided to take the quartet to Europe in ’55. Russ was having migraines and didn’t want to leave the country, so Dick Twardzik was hired on piano. When Russ left the group, he turned over to Chet the separate bank account in which the withholding for all four members of the group had been deposited. Rather than paying the deductions to the government as he was required by law to do, Chet went to Detroit and bought a Jaguar with the money. Russ recalls, “From that time on Chet had trouble with the IRS.” He was a terrific driver, but he always drove too fast and totaled a lot of cars. Several others who knew Chet have commented to this interviewer that LET” GET LOST started on a false note with Chet riding in the back set because, “He always had to drive.”
I commented that down South, someone who was so impulsive, loved fast cars, etc. would be called a “good ole boy.” Russ thought that would be a good description, however, he thought “the world’s oldest juvenile delinquent” might be a more apt description. Russ never found Chet to be manipulative; he didn’t talk much, and wasn’t an educated person, he was very quiet. Chet was always consumed by his music; that was the focal point of his life. They hung out at Russ’s house because he had a piano. Ironically one of the things Chet mentioned in the Weber film (and in later interviews) was his plan to get a house and a piano and compose. Russ was interviewed by a Dutch crew who made a film called CHET BAKER, THE LAST DAYS. He recommends the film. They did quite a good job.” There are interviews with musicians who lived with and worked with Chet. Russ, however, thinks the definitive movie about Chet Baker’s life is still to be made. Given Russ’s career following his stint with Baker one can surmise that they were opposites in everything but their talent and love of music. Russ went on to be musical coordinator with LAUGH IN and other jobs in music and television which require that one be consistent, attend to details and, more particularly, not only show up but be on time. When Russ told me about handling the business end of the quartet, I wondered if Chet’s behavior didn’t make him crazy. He agreed that it was very aggravating at times but Chet was amazing when he played and Russ handled details so Chet could just show up and play.
As to the bad rap some critics have given West Coast Jazz, Russ was very specific that he didn’t like labels. Labels, of course, tend to categorize and act as barriers. He thinks jazz would be better off without the labels. Russ thinks some of the critics just misread the whole scene. “No one said let’s sit down and create something new; we were just playing our music.”
Some of the younger critics are now beginning to see West Coast Jazz as being very reflective of the environment and lifestyle on the Pacific Coast and an innovative, respected musical form.
Bob Oakley in his article, THE WAGES OF LYRICISM: CHET BAKER IN RETROSPECT in the 1990 JAZZ JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL writes: “ …Russ Freeman was, like Baker, someone who didn’t sound like anyone else around at the time - his playing an intriguing mixture of the spare, than austere and the slightly abrasive when soloing, and romantic, opulent chord voicing shen backing.”
Russ retired four years ago; he’s in good health, and keeping very busy. Most Jazz fans recall his marvellous compositions: THE WIND, BEA’S FLAT, MAID IN MEXICO and RUSS JOB to name only a few. He is now co-writing the lyrics with Ruth Price to a song he composed for his daughter’s July wedding as a surprise. He concludes by saying “Don’t ask me what I do, I can’t tell you, but I keep busy all the time.” When one is a creative artist, the activity of the mind does not stop when the regular work schedule ceases. Perhaps that is part of the fascination in trying to understand the creative process and the artist.
At Jazz West Coast 2 in May of 1999, a group played Russ’s original charts from the Russ Freeman/Chet Baker Quartet album. It was eerie to hear these arrangements that I knew so well played just a little off. Russ was there and spoke about his time with Chet. There was still wonder in his voice when he said “But, oh the music”.
A few weeks later I wrote to him to say how much I had enjoyed the music and his talk and to ask if any of the piano parts were available from the quartet music. That very nice man sent me all the parts he could locate plus the music for “The Wind”.
(Advisory Board Member)
Born Copenhagen, Denmark, September 22, 1946. Music librarian (since 1970), jazz critic for “Berlingske Tidende”. Author of discographies on Duke Jordan, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Chet Baker. Married, 3 sons.
I first heard Chet Baker when I was 7 or 8 years old. The Danish Radio ran a bi-weekly news program on jazz and they had the 1952 recording of “Utter Chaos” as their signature tune. Honestly, I don’t know what attracted me, but it did, and I kept on listening, paying attention to names and titles (so my mother told me). Around the same time, I got a bag of 78’;s from a grown-up uncle: Armstrong, Basie, Lunceford, Mills Bros., etc., and somehow it whetted by appetite further.
A little later, I caught one of my school teachers playing piano in the classroom between lessons and I asked him if he liked jazz. He said, “Yes, but why do you ask?” I answered, “Because you sound like Teddy Wilson.” I think he was a bit surprised. A few years later, the same teacher ran a course on The History of Jazz, which I attended, and it turned out that he was particularly hooked on Bebop and West Coast Jazz.
The first time I heard Chet in person was in 1978, and since that time I heard him every time he came through Copenhagen. When I talked to him, he turned out to be a mild-mannered, kind man, maybe a little introspective, and was pleasantly surprised when people came up to him and told him how much his music meant to them.
When, in 1985, Hans Henrik Lerfeldt and I released the discography, Chet was scheduled to play in Copenhagen on the very same day, and he attended the little party we had during the afternoon. He was visible surprised that someone had taken so much interest in his music as to spend so much time indexing it. He said that to him it was very unusual that some people would do so much work on his behalf.
Of course, you can have some objections to the (seemingly) never-ending flood of posthumous releases. Certainly, some of them are below par. But most of them, however, capture moments of that rare beauty: a man opening up, completely and honestly himself, and revealing his innermost secrets for us to share. Having heard him and met him, I will always feel privileged. July 3, 1991
NOTE FROM THE EUROPEAN EDITOR
THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU ...
but fans commemorate. That’s why Gilberto Baroni and his brother, who run a "live Jazz" place in Bologna, Italy, renamed their club THE CHET BAKER JAZZ CLUB exactly three days after Chet’s death. I visited the place on July 3rd, while on a business trip.
After dinner, an Italian colleague and I set out to find the place, on Via Polese 7A. It was one of those nights where the temperature was 80+F with about 75% humidity. We were ready for a cold beer and hot jazz. We entered a long, narrow street, barely lit, and crept along till we saw a poster on a window, showing the cover of the AT CAPOLINEA LP/cd, some light, a closed door and NO NOISE. Irony has it that "Capolinea" means "final tram station."
I knocked and carefully opened the door a little. A man behind the bar came around, while we "invaded". After some multi-linguistic exercises and the help of my friend, I was able to establish my "badge" and we sat down along with a beer. A combination of Gilberto’s Italian-English, my German-English, and my friend’s Italian and English, and the conversation slowly developed.
Gilberto, a very forthcoming and friendly person, renamed his club because he just felt that Chet was a person worthy enough to be remembered. That’s all. The club does not recreate Chet -- no pilgrimages required or desired.
Presently, from July through mid-September, the club is closed. The brothers are working on a complete renovation/redoing job. Their facilities are a long bar and room on the street floor and then, down to the jazz cellar, to a large room with a bar where the live jazz happens. All in all, a classic spot which reminds you of the 50’s, and 60’s, when listening to jazz made you a member of the outcasts hiding away in catacombs. And, after all the work, the place will still generate that feeling, but with an update for technology and services.
The club features Italian, other European, and American names. As for the latter, the names are not always so "shiny", but included e.g. Clifford Jordan, Tommy Flanagan, Sal Nistico, Tony Scott. Europe is full of Traveling Jazz during the summer festival season, especially American groups. Reading August issues of jazz magazine, this "Summer" lasts until November. A gig in a club between two major events is always welcome to the wandering musicians.
After another couple of beers and long talks about Chet, jazz, and the "theory of life" in general, my friend and I finally departed. Needless to say, Gilberto and I exchanged phone numbers and have kept in touch since.
Outside again, the narrow street back to the center, walking again ...
CHET BAKER’S ROMANCE IN FILM
by Mike Zwerin
International Herald Tribune
11 May 1988
Paris - maybe you remember seeing "Swing Romance", with Fred Astaire winning his sweetheart’s hand between somersaults by twirling his trumpet with Artie Shaw’s band. You can forget about "Young Man With a Horn" and "Paris Blues". Until "Round Midnight", the movies did not treat jazz with much understanding.
One low budget Swedish feature called "Sven Klang’s Quintet" told of how the passion of a saxophonist from Stockholm changed the lives of a provincial band of amateurs, as Charlie Parker changed his life. Only a few short subjects attained the creative and emotional level of the music they were dealing with.
Happier days appear to be here. Insiders sound positive about Clint Eastwood’s "Bird", to be premiered at the Cannes film festival on May 18 (1988). Eastwood has also financed a feature-length documentary about Thelonious Monk, now being edited in New York. And "Chet’s Romance", a French production, is in the short-subject competition at Cannes. One nice thing about this one is that the hero is still alive.
This 9-1/2 minute film, composed principally of Chet Baker’s rendition of "I’m a Fool to Want You", cost less than $20,000. It is in black and white, not for financial reasons but because the director, Bertrand Fevre, thinks "black and white are the colors of jazz". Minimalist in the largest sense, no longer than necessary, essence without fat or polemic, the film’s sharp-contrast lighting and appropriate pans and angles recall Gjon Mili’s classic "Jammin’ the blues". This is Fevre’s second short subject. His first, "Bleeding Star", featured the American film director Samuel Fuller. And he was assistant director for Luc Besson’s "Le Grande Blue", which opens the Cannes festival Wednesday.
With a production company named Full Moon Films, Fevre considered his first meeting with Baker on Friday the 13th when the moon was full to have been a favorable conjuncture. Calling the Cannes screening committee to Chet’s Romance", he was told that the final projection that very evening was fully booked. He brought this reel down anyway. A scheduled candidate cancelled and he was selected.
The story of "Chet’s Romance" - it was shot in one day in a Paris studio - could in itself be a sequence in a Baker biography. He has lived in a land of Friday the 13ths, full moons, foolish love, one-day shoots and last-minute selections. The pathos of the music this life has produced touches people in some special place. The fashion photographer Bruce Weber has also made a documentary about Baker, "Let’s Get Lost", expected to be ready for release in the fall. Explaining why he made it, he says, "I’ve always loved the purity of Chet’s music".
Thirty years ago, Baker’s starry-eyed country-boy good looks were compared to James Dean’s - which also turned out to have a certain karmic validity. (Doom takes many forms). Baker’s pretty young face is pictured on the cover of a book about the influence of 50’s style on the 80’s, called "THE HIP ... Hipsters, Jazz and the Beat generation". The Beats considered Baker, along with Slim Galliard, the quintessential jazz musician.
His singing made him star material. The girls swooned over this lost skinny kid with the vulnerable voice who looked like he needed a big hug. Even critics who find his trumpet playing "too white" (whatever that means) admit to a weakness for the voice.
Swing and improvisation are indispensable elements in any definition of jazz. Few singers fill this definition. Baker is one of them. A third element is an immediately recognizable sound and here he stands pretty much alone right now in that his soulful trumpet and vocal voices are one and the same and there is never any doubt who you’re listening to. Urgency is a fourth element, not the least of them. Chet Baker’s rendition of "I’m a Fool to Want You" gives the impression that the song is the foolishly loved one and that song is all he has to give.
(The editors would like to express their appreciation to Mike Zwerin and the International Herald Tribune for allowing us to reprint this article.)
CAROL BAKER: KEEPER OF THE FLAME
By Betty Little
Carol Baker was born in Mitchem, County of Surrey, England, but despite her country of origin she reminds one of the Steel Magnolias thought to be endemic to the south and southwest of the USA. Attractive, soft, savvy, vulnerable, yet anyone who thinks this adds up to weak or passive should beware. Traces of the English accent remain, but the voice has been burnished by all the other places she has lived - NYC, Italy, Paris, California and Oklahoma to name a few - into a musical instrument which conveys the mood she is in.
When she was only nineteen Carol was swept off her feet by one of the most talented, gentle, and handsome men in the jazz world. Only later did she realize that he would struggle with a serious addiction problem for the rest of his life. She remembers the good times, and always the talent; but Carol Baker grew up fast. A pragmatist, she realized that she couldn’t raise her three children and travel with Chet all over the world. This was difficult because she knew how other women pursued him, even when she was there. She also knew that Chet would probably handle the loneliness of the road by succumbing to his pursuers - women and drugs.
There were several visits back to Oklahoma every year to see the family: Mrs. Vera Baker, his mother; Carol and their three children, Dean, Paul and Missey. When Vera had a stroke in 1989, Carol became head of the clan. Chet’s and her first grandchild, Chad Anthony Baker, was born this year. Paul and Michelle Baker are the proud parents. With the escalating interest in Chet’s work since his death, Carol has been occupied with handling his estate.
The whole family was devastated by the film LET’S GET LOST. In going through some papers, she learned that Chet had asked the director not to involve his family. They did not know this and were overwhelmed by the film entourage which descended on Yale, OK. The experience was painful, but Carol has learned. When I was able to reach her to tell her about our wish to do something to preserve Chet’s music, she was delighted. I was shocked that she had not been informed of Chet’s posthumous induction into DOWN BEAT’S Hall of Fame. Carol is a resilient woman who intends to protect her family, her husband’s legacy, and get on with life.
I admire her courage and her intent to hold her family together and preserve her husband’s musical contribution.
MEMORIES OF A LYRICAL TRUMPET PLAYER
Jeroen De Valk
In 1989, my biography CHET BAKER, Herinneringen aan een lyrisch trompettist (Memories of a Lyrical Trumpet Player) was published by Van Gennep, Amsterdam. As I write these words, the German translation has just been finished and will be on sale by October 1991. This German version will be issued by Oreos Verlag. Gunther Skiba, the European editor of CHET’S CHOICE, asked me to write something about my book.
Of course, the main reason for writing this biography was my admiration for Chet’s music. When he died I owned about 150 records, 50 compact discs, and many newspaper and magazine articles. I noticed that no one had written a biography on Chet Baker, so why shouldn’t I, after having been working as a professional music journalist for ten years, try to do the job?
I started doing research in December 1988. Very soon, I realized that most of the information circulating about him was incorrect. Journalists, looking for a sensational item and a fast buck, were hastily composing pieces for magazines that in their turn were used as a basis for other articles. The only way to get out of this vicious circle was to interview many people who had known him. I did thirty interviews with, among others, Russ Freeman, Carol Baker, Jacques Pelzer, and Peter Huijts. I had had a chance to talk to the subject himself half a year before his death.
The most common misunderstandings were:
A. After the fifties, Chet almost stopped working and was hardly able to play the trumpet at all.
B. His life was more interesting than his music.
C. He died after having been pushed out of the window and the Amsterdam police handled the case negligently.
All these misunderstanding were greatly enhanced by Bruce Weber and his film Let’s Get Lost. The music in this film is horrible and not representative of Chet’s work at all. After listening to almost all his LPs and CDs, it was clear to me that the best of Chet’s recordings made after his come-back in 1973 were the best of his entire career. Unfortunately, Chet was the most inconsistent artist jazz has ever known. Record companies were issuing scores of disastrous sessions and are still doing this right now. By the way, I consider the two choruses he played in My Funny Valentine in Tokyo, June 14, 1987 (issued on MEMORIES,, to be his greatest solo on record.
Weber, who by many people is considered an authority on Baker, has told in every interview that Chet was murdered. This is odd, as he never took the trouble to look into the facts. I extensively talked about the matter with Mr. Bloos, the police inspector concerned. All these rumors amazed him. “Why don’t they ask me?”, he said. He told me that, after a thorough investigation of the hotel and interviews with the hotel guests and personnel, the police concluded that Baker was alone in his room that night. The door was locked from the inside. Moreover, marks from his trousers were found in the dust on the window-sill. These traces would have been wiped out if he had been pushed out, as the sash-window could only be opened about fifty centimeters. Baker had been sitting there for awhile and then fell or jumped under the influence of a huge amount of both cocaine and heroine. Mr. Bloos provided me many more details, but I think this newsletter is not the place to discuss this painful subject at great length.
Last year, I had the honor to collaborate with the Dutch director Willem Ouwerkerk and RNTV-producer Peter Landman on the TR-film CHET BAKER, THE LAST DAYS.
This documentary was received enthusiastically in many European countries but has not shown in America. At the moment I am working on a Ben Webster biography which will be published in 1992.
CHET BAKER IN WORDS AND PICTURES
By Thorbjorn Sjogren
(A Survey on the Books About the Legendary Trumpeter-Singer)
For many years, much of what was written about Chet Baker in newspapers and magazines often focused on the more "eye-catching" aspects of his personal life.
Certainly, his personal hardships for many years supplied material for the tabloid papers, but when you consider his importance - musically as well as historically - it was somehow surprising that the first real book on Baker and/or his music was not published until 1985:
Thorbjorn Sjogren & Hans Henrik Leffeldt: CHET - The Discography of Chesney Henry Baker. Copenhagen, 1985, 128 pages with 37 pages of photographs. (Now out of print).
If you’ll allow me a personal note: We spent most of our spare-time over a two-year period writing letters, comparing tapes, picking information from catalogs, record covers, magazines, record companies, and listening to different releases of the same material. Not to speak of the obscure albums that Chet appeared on.
And though I can see that the book is not without its errors and shortcomings, I can honestly say that I enjoyed every minute of the work that was put into it. And furthermore we had the pleasure of presenting the book to Chet, when he played in Copenhagen on the day of its publication (Feb. 28, 1985).
Next is LETS GET LOST starring Chet Baker - A Film Journal by Bruce Weber. New York, 1988, 160 pages of photographs.
A large-scale (13 x 10") photographic excursion into all phases of Chet’s life, mainly in black and white. Very few of the photos are without any interest, several are very moving, and most of them will be unknown to even the most hare-core Baker-aficionado. However, I would have liked to have a few more action-shots, but you can’t have everything, not even at $60. Most probable the book is out of print by now, but definitely worth searching for.
1989 brought the small, but beautifully produced CHET BAKER IN CONCERT, edited by Ingo Wulff. Nieswand-Verlag, Kiel. 64 pages (half of them photos).
A report in photos and musicians’ statements of a Chet Baker concert in Kiel on December 6, 1985. At the end is a useful CD-listing. Editor Wulff’s skill also makes this book an aesthetically satisfying one.
The first (and to this date, the only) full-length biography of Baker is Jeroen De Valk: CHET BAKER. Herinneringer aan een Lyrisch Trompetist. Van Gennep, Amsterdam, 1989. 178 pages (12 pages of photos).
Anyway, the book gives a good, straight-forward account of Baker’s life and career, and though sometimes leaning towards previously published material, there are also many details, picked up from the author’s own interviews, which add new bits to the total picture of Baker. A genuinely sober work.
Completely different is Thorsten Wollmann: CHET BAKER’S SOLOS. Advance Music, 1988. 30 pages.
A transcription of Baker solos, as he played them on the night of October 4, 1979 in Copenhagen and released on the SteepleChase LPs DAYBREAK and SOMEDAY MY PRINCE WILL COME. Essential if you are a musician and interested in Baker’s music.
In the same area is Mikael Voss Gjesing: CHET FOR SALE. - Chet Baker, the musician, with particular reference to the improvisational techniques in his trumpet playing during the period 1973-1988. Arhus, 1990, 124 pages plus supplement (Privately printed and not commercially available).
The author provides a thorough, in-depth analysis of the elements in Baker’s music, as exemplified by 3 recordings, including lots of transcriptions. Everything in his analysis seems well-founded with a lot of well-chosen quotations to support and a detailed bibliography at the end. The only alas is that the book is written in Danish (it is a University Thesis). It should be translated - the sooner the better - and published by an American publisher with an interest in serious jazz research.
Another small tribute is Bjorn Borgstrom: CHET BAKER. Stockholm, 1990. 74 pages.
Though a bit sketchy, this is clearly a labor of love. What underlines this is Christer Landergren’s twenty impressive b/w photos from Baker’s final appearance in Stockholm in 1987. Also included is a comprehensive record listing (however, giving only record dates, LP titles and catalogue numbers).
The most recent book on Chet (so far) is also the most unusual one: Herbert Joos: CHET - AN ILLUSTRATED PORTRAIT. Bonz Verlag, 1990. A bibliophilic book, 20" x 17" weighing approximately 10 pounds. Semi-transparent paper with Joo’s drawings of Baker, often based on existing photographs. Often poems and personal comments (and quotations) are written next to the drawings, which are mostly in b/w, sometimes with a few dashes of color creating an impressive effect.
In every respect a breathtaking book by Joos, who himself is a gifted trumpet player. Only 1000 copies were printed and the price is around $250, which, I do admit, is an awful lot of money, but the book is a work of art, and rather unique.
This makes a total of eight books about Chet Baker, which is more than have been writen on most jazzmen. And to top this, three more are in the making: Frenchman Gerard Rouy is working on another biography; a German, Lothar Lewien will have a personal tribute published shortly: BLUE NOTES - CHET BAKER, ENGEL MIT GEBROCHENEN FLUGEL. EIN HOMAGE (ANGEL WITH BROKEN WINGS. A TRIBUTE). And this author is currently (together with Klaus Gottwald) at the point of completing the new edition of the Chet Baker Discography, to be published early in 1992. This will contain at least twice the amount of information of the 1985 edition.
So, as you see, not only is Chet Baker one of jazz’ most well-documented soloists as far as the sound is concerned, but also, and certainly not unimportant, neither words nor pictures are in short supply.
Author’s note: Please bear with my "broken English". I’ve done the best I can, but it is not my native language. 1991