Vol 1 No.4
A Newsletter Dedicated To Chet Baker And His Music
CONVERSATION WITH BILL PERKINS
June 30, 1991
Bill Perkins played tenor sax with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. Doug Ramsey, in the essay on Zoot Sims which appears in his book JAZZ MATTERS, describes Bill as being one of a group of tenor saxophonists "whose early professional experience came in big bands and who idolized Lester Young. They melded Parker’s complex harmonic discoveries with Young’s sound (light, dry, sunny) and rhythm (powerful currents of swing beneath a laconic surface)". Chet Baker recognized Bill’s talent early on.
In the 40’s Bill was in college in Santa Barbara and his parents also lived there. Bill met Chet when Chet and Jack Sheldon came to Santa Barbara to play a gig in a hotel. During this visit they played together. Bill was struck by their age difference. "Chet was about 16 years old then. I was 7 years older than Chet but he sat in and amazed us." Bill has not had an opportunity to see "LET’S GET LOST", but he’s been told the jam session at Santa Barbara is mentioned in the movie. (I reviewed my tape and Jack Sheldon mentions they were in town to play a gig, but his comments are about the party at Perk’s mother’s house).
In 1949 when Bill came to Los Angeles to go professional, "Chet was very nice to me." Though Chet was not widely known nationally he was well accepted in L A musical circles. Bill recalls that there were lots of sax players around; therefore, when Chet would say, "Let Perk sit in", that was a real complement. "I guess he like the way I played and he really helped me get started."
Bill describes Chet as a good-looking kid, living in the fast lane who took time to help a fellow musician. Bill didn’t see Chet again until 1983 in La Varienne, France. Chet immediately recognized him, and they had a good visit. Bill dud not see Chet during his troubled years, but he will always remember a young, talented kid who gave a sax player trying to break into the music business a helping hand.
Betty Little, Gastonia, NC
"CHET IS MY JAZZ MAN" Gunther Skiba, Nice France
says Tarass Bojtschenko from Charkow, Ukraine, CIS. Following is a slightly abbreviated translation of his letter to me. The contents do not need an intro. I just thought that our readers might enjoy this "now a reader" letter. Here goes:
Sorry I haven’t written in so long. In my country, the Ukraine, we are experiencing much that is new, as well as many old difficulties and problems. Yes, now the Ukraine has it’s independence and it’s sovereignty, but our life today is not easy and not jolly.
I’ve now received two issues of the Newsletter from the USA. Many thanks for the beautiful information about Chet’s life and work. It is very important and interesting to me.
I would like to correspond with other Chet-fans in all parts of the world. Please publish my address in the newsletter.
Now I will tell you about "my" Chet. In 1970, in the home of a friend here, I heard for the first time an LP with Chet. The LP had many defects and skipped a lot, but I listened with great interest and enthusiasm. Since then I’ve been searching for Chet LPs for my collection, but I’ve had a lot of trouble with this project. In the USSR we have no records with Chet. During the 70’s, our firm (recording company) Melodlen produced only a few LPs with Ella, Louis, Basie, Ellington, Oscar Peterson, and not one LP with Chet. I wrote many, many letters to western Europe and the USA to jazz collectors and jazz fans, but I didn’t get very far. At this moment I have only 4 Chet LPs in my collection. All of these are good quality and I listen to them with great interest and love. They came to me from some collectors in West Germany, Switzerland and the USA. I would love to have 30-40 Chet LPs. That is my dream. Some of my friends have a few Chet LPs, so now I know about 15-18 of his records.
Why do I love Chet? I love his melancholic way of playing, these intelligent improvisations, the technique, the Chet-orientation to the blues, his beautiful, human singing I especially love pieces in the blues style and ballads. I also Love Chet’s bebop records.
Yes, Chet has his sound and style. He is a big success in jazz history. We don’t know many jazz trumpeters with their own personal sounds - Louis Armstrong, Cootie Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge (Little Jazz), Clifford Brown and Chet Baker. Yes, Chet is a giant in jazz. He plays with interesting sidemen. He has beautiful musical taste and he produced a lot of music. Yes, Chet is "my" jazz man.
Very best regards,
ON FILM, CHET BAKER’S NEXT-TO-LAST TANGO
by Mike Zwerin
International Herald Tribune
17 Jan 1990
Paris - The longer he is dead, the harder it is to avoid Chet Baker.. He has three records on the charts, he was elected to the Down Beat Hall of Fame, there are a book and two movies about him. An excerpt from an unfinished autobiography in the current SPIN, a rock magazine, is titles “Rebel Without A Pause”, describing him as “cool, tortured, beautiful and damned”.
He keeps creeping into my petty pace. I fought writing about him, and when Bruce Weber’s great documentary film “Let’s Get Lost” opened and closed months ago in the States, I thought I’d just keep quiet, but now the film is about to open here (next month), and I saw it, and it’s wonderful.
I’m beginning to glimpse a flicker of a smile on Chet’s face out there in junkie heaven, where I imagine he has charmed himself through the gate.
It is a childish smile - childish not childlike. He’s bragging: “I’m a bad boy”. I once saw it in a populated dressing room after he opened a gram bag of smack and snorted it in one fell swoop. No retiring behind a closed door, no lines, no straw. If ever there was such a think as a fell swoop, that was it. The remains of the nose candy were all over his mustache, a quarter of it must have dropped on the floor. He was like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar with the whole family watching.
He was a natural-born charmer who remained, in a strange way, innocent to the end and who got away with, if not murder, suicide for 57 years, fell swooping it all over the place. The bad boy as much as the great artist is the subject of “Let’s Get Lost” the movie, which is one reason it’s successful.
“Let’s Get Lost” received largely negative reviews back home. Critics mostly said it was in bad taste, did not concentrate enough on his music and that much of the footage was irrelevant. “A high-gloss fashion spread for la dolce vita”, said The New York Times (if this is la dolce vita, give me “The Damned”). Jazz and movie experts alike said that Weber, a well-known fashion photographer (Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren) is too lightweight for his complex subject.
The combination is in fact brilliant. First, Weber is obviously touched by the man’s music and a fashion photographer is just the ticket for a subject who was once compared to James Dean and touted as a future singing and movie star before, let’s say, taking another direction. Robert Wagner once played a character based on him in a film, in which he serenaded Natalie Wood.
This tale of blown opportunity, physical decline, chemical dependency and finally unappreciated genius is not sad. When Chet says: “Bruce, I’m 57 years old”, he implies he knew exactly what he was doing, understood his weakness as well as his strength. He managed to survive in his ways, extreme as they were. This is somehow not a downer, though you may walk out with moist eyes.
Chet was an artful dodger, manipulative, he got what he wanted. He would switch from one emotion to another in a flash. The movie, in black and white, captured all of that in full color. The title is a stroke of genius and even the shaky form reflects the unevenness and disorder of the hero’s life. The screenplay for “Bird” - if not the film itself - accomplished something similar, jumping around in time and space with visual equivalents of the unexpected flick of an octave key and abrupt modulation to the bridge of “Cherokee”. (“Round Midnight” was predictable, it didn’t swing.)
When “Let’s Get Lost” opens with a bunch of young people dancing and giggling on the beach in Santa Monica, you know it’s the right track. Chet drives a dodgem car, grins in the back seat of an open convertible flanked by two beautiful, friendly young women, leafs for no apparent reason through a book of pinups. All of this footage has also been criticized as being foolish, unnecessary, sensational, and a fashion photographer running amok.
Many of Weber’s off-camera questions were called unnecessary, insensitive and naive. He asks Chet’s mother if her son was a disappointment to her. After a poignant close-up hesitation, she answers: “yes”. He couldn’t con her or did he?
Musically, Chet rarely played beyond his ideas. His punctuation was poetic. He left you trying to assimilate what you heard, and wanting more. Falling out of the hotel room window in Amsterdam in May 1988 (before the movie was released) was a logical, impeccably timed resolution. On the contrary, the two-hour film abuses its welcome by about 15 minutes. Ex-girl friends and wives talk too long and Chet sings too much. His trumpet playing was more imaginative (with the unmistakable soulful breath vibrato) than his (dead-toned) singing. I always suspected he sang so often at least in part to rest his dentured embouchure. And I suspect that Weber is pandering by including so much of it.
No critics discuss Chet’s place in history, few talking heads in general, few contemporaries, recall the old days - trumpeter Jack Sheldon, a Baker sound-alike, is brief and very funny. (Sheldon asked Weber not to tell Chet how much he was being paid for appearing in the film so that our hero wouldn’t hit on him for a loan.) Chet’s idea of humor is a Harry James impersonation - which he does very well - and then you realized that had he been born a generation earlier he would very likely have led a big band and lived in Las Vegas (Betty Grable and all). His continuing relevance is handled visually by the young people surrounding him (singer Chris Isaak, a young Baker look-alike, for example). His friend Rugh Young contradicts Chet’s version of the story of how five black guys knocked his teeth out in San Francisco in the 60’s. She implies it wouldn’t have taken five guys and he probably provoked it anyway. When she mentions that he gave her a signed paper with the rights to his story, Weber says he has the same paper. She looks shocked and then smiles, not really surprised: “I guess we have something in common”.
During the 80’s, at the height of his art, he spent most of his time in Europe and Japan. (He barely placed on American polls and was ignored by the public.) He was never too far from Amsterdam, where a sympathetic doctor furnished him with a prescription for methadone. His Dutch agent once estimated that Chet was earning $200,000 a year at the end, most of which went up his nose or into his arm.
Weber plays the heroin down. The man was sick, though he was busted often and spent more than a year in jail in Lucca, where he learned to sing in Italian. The smack is in the background until Weber tells Chet he realized how hard these past few days must have been for him, since he ran out. But he has good news. They arranged to get methadone from the Amsterdam doctor and everything will be all right now. Weber has been called innocent for assuming that such a drug fan would not have scored to fill the gap, or could have functioned at all without doing so. Trying hard to keep his eyelids up, Chet tells him as much. The fact that Weber chose not to cut the exchange took a certain amount of personal courage and journalistic instinct.
It ends with an excerpt from an Italian movie with Chet under a tree singing to a girl in his arms. Around them, young couples dance, hug, kiss and cavort in a forest and we are reminded of how much lovemaking has been accompanied by Chet Baker records. And how much love he is still creating.