Vol 2 No.1
A Newsletter Dedicated To Chet Baker And His Music
WEST COAST JAZZ – Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 Ted Gioia, Oxford University Press 416 pages with notes and index.
If you like jazz you’ll like this book. If you like West Coast Jazz, you should have this book. If you are a Chet Baker fan you need this book.
Ted Gioia, besides being a subscriber to CHET’S CHOICE (first things first), is a professional musician with two recordings to his credit, is the founder of Stanford University’s Jazz Studies program, is a teacher of jazz history and performance, has produced a series of young West Coast musician recordings and is an author. His first
book, “The Imperfect Art,” won ASCAP’s Deems Taylor Award.
When I first saw this book with it’s picture on the dust cover (the only one, alas), I knew it was my kind of book. The picture is of the original Lighthouse All-Stars on the beach near the old Lighthouse Restaurant. One of this series of pictures by William Claxton was on the cover of the first 12” Contemporary LP All-Stars album back in the 1950s. William Claxton and the present All-Stars reprised their roles on the same beach for the cover of their 1989 Contemporary album of the 40th anniversary concert of the All-Stars.
One of the chapters in the book documents the formation of the Lighthouse All-Stars, their personnel over the years and their place in West Coast and contemporary jazz.
I have always believed that West Coast jazz was a viable jazz form and Ted Gioia makes an excellent case for this belief. He covers jazz on the West Coast from the early 1900s up through the early black night clubs on Central Avenue in the 1940s to the “death” of jazz in the late 1960s with the proliferation of rock and roll recordings.
A partial list of musicians covered in this book includes: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Cal Tjader, Hampton haws, Sonny Criss, Teddy Edwards, Stan Kenton, Terry Gibbs, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton, Lighthouse All-Stars, Bud Shank, Jimmy Guiffre, Shorty Rogers, Shelley Manne, Art Pepper, Charles Mingus, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. Many other musicians such as Russ Freeman, Bob Cooper, Bill Perkins, the Candoli brothers, the Williamson brothers, and Jack Sheldon are also covered.
The chapter on Chet Baker titled “Chet Baker and the pianoless quartet is almost 30 pages long and documents Chet’s early years and his rise to fame and through the mid 60s. The Chapter also covers Gerry Mulligan and Chico Hamilton and their emergence through the pianoless quartet.
Gioia also covers the West Coast jazz clubs: the Club Alabam, the Downbeat, Billy Berg’s, the Blackhawk, the Lighthouse, the Haig and many others. He points out that the West Coast musicians who gained fame in jazz mainly had to migrate to the East Coast to attract the critics, most of whom still refuse to recognize the West Coast influence. And he notes that many excellent jazz musicians were doomed to obscurity because they elected to stay on the West Coast.
All in all I feel this is the best jazz book I have ever read. I found myself playing tracks from albums of the particular musicians being covered which seemed to give me a better idea of what Ted was saying.
The book is available now from Oxford University Press, 200 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016 at $24.95 or you can order it thorough your local bookstore. The computer number is ISNB 0-19-506310-4. (Ed note: these prices and addresses are from the 1990s so don’t take them for gospel)
MOMENTS by Thomas Conrad April 1990
Downbeat’s International Critics Poll is the most prestigious of its type on earth and Jazz International’s Critics Poll is one of the most obscure. The Grammy Awards are better known than either. But whether you look for winners in categories like “Record Label of the Year” and “Reissue of the Year” – wherever excellence in the art of pre-
serving jazz is honored – you will see the name of famous labels like Blue Note, Black Saint/Soul Note, Riverside and Verve.
You also will see the name of one not-so-famous label – Mosaic. In Downbeat’s 1988 poll, for example, Mosaic albums took first, second and seventh in balloting for “Reissue of the Year,” and Mosaic was voted second only to Black Saint/Soul Note as the most important label in jazz. Yet you could search the jazz bins from Sam Goody’s in New York to Tower Records in San Francisco and not uncover one Mosaic record or CD. As Butch Cassidy said (or was it the Sundance Kid), “Who are those guys?”
Mosaic’s majordomos are Charlie Lourie and Michael Cuscuna, two record business veterans whose affiliations with large corporations left their personal dreams unfilled. Like so many visions that lead to the birth of small companies, Lourie and Cuscuna perceived a void, and moved to fill it – hatching their project, Mosaic, out of Lourie’s
Stamford, CT, home in 1983.
They knew that there were great jazz artists whose work cried out for proper documen-tation. Their plan was to make some of it available on a format commensurate with its value: limited edition boxed sets (individually numbered), exhaustively researched and annotated, accompanied by booklets filled with rare photographs and original essays on the musicians. Their reissues would be generous with historical memorabilia and encyclopedic with discographical information. Most import of all, they would provide the best sonic quality recoverable from the original master tapes.
Lacking the resources to work with the major American record distributors, Lourie and Cuscuna decided early on to make their company a mail order label. Since Mosaic wouldn’t be competing with bigger record labels at the retail level, the new company was allowed access to the raw material they required: just a few precious master tapes stashed away in vaults.
When Mosaic released its first three boxed sets, word reached the international jazz community in a hurry. A compilation of the blue Note records of Albert Ammons and Mead Lux Lewis (MR3/MD2-103) was flawlessly executed (though it mainly appealed to boogie woogie archivists). A collection of seminal recordings by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker from 1952 and 1953 (MR5/MD#-102) unearthed a wealth of previously unissued material. But the one that turned heads was The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk (MR4-101). (“Complete” appears in the title of every Mosaic product, since its releases contain all of an artist’s work on a given label and/or within a specified time window.)
Some of Monk’s work for Blue Note had never seen the light of day; the rest had been issued in scattershot fashion. At last it was organized chronologically, accompanied by a fully researched booklet with beautiful photographs and a first biography of Monk’s early years. Serious aficionados may have known that almost all of Monk’s classic compo-sitions were written during his blue Note period (1947-52). But almost no one except Lourie and Cuscuna remembered that he made his most incandescent recording of them during this time. The Mosaic project shed new light on the career of a singular American artist.
As the Mosaic catalog grew, so did the cult. A simple list of some of the titles says it all. The Complete Blue Note and Pacific Jazz Recordings of Clifford Brown (MR5-104). The complete Candid Recordings of Charles Mingus (MR4/MD3-111). The Complete Bud Powell Blue Note Records , 1949-1958 (MR5-116). These albums rescued material – some of it priceless – from poor pressings and artificial stereo. They also rescued it from oblivion (all of the label’s releases contain previously unissued music) and from
Tangled publication histories (the material from a recording session was often released over several albums; some cuts appeared only on anthologies). Mosaic assembled it in pristine form and in chronological order.
There was just one little problem with this beautiful story. Mosaic albums were released exclusively on vinyl. Jazz collectors who had fully converted to the compact disc format read the announcement of each new Mosaic release in helpless torment – those gorgeous boxed sets contained LPs. It was a little like harboring a passionate desire for someone known to have an incurable social disease.
In mid-1989, the breakthrough finally happened. Lourie and Cuscuna began to issue some of the existing Mosaic catalog on compact disc. Since they kept their original promise of limiting each release to a run of 7500, and they counted CD sets in the grand total, any titles that had nearly sold out did not appear on disc. In some cases, CD rights to the material was not obtainable.
The bottom is that 13 of the label’s 28 titles are now available in the digital format, and all future titles will be released on CD (if rights can be secured) as well as LP.
Among the first arrivals were two sets of Chet Baker recordings, from the early ‘50s. They were, coincidentally, timely. Baker, one of the legendary “bad boys” of jazz, died in May 1988 in a fall from a second story hotel window in Amsterdam. Traces of heroin were found in his system. Despite his self-destructive history, Baker recorded prolifically until a few days before his death. His delicate, minimalist trumpet and soft, coaxing singing voice are unmistakable to anyone who has seriously followed jazz over the past 20 years.
Mosaic’s Baker boxes, The Complete Pacific Jazz Studio Recordings of the Chet Baker Quartet with Russ Freeman and The Complete Pacific Jazz Live Recordings of the Chet Baker Quartet with Russ Freeman, are three-discs sets, and they document the work of Baker who had been all but forgotten – 25 years old, fresh out of the army, confident, on top of his game. He was getting a lot of attention at this time because of his contributions to Gerry Mulligan’s groundbreaking pianoless quartet – and also because he had (as Will
Thornbury says in his liner notes) “the face of that quiet young many you know is mess-ing with you daughter; the kind the movies cast as the kid Marine.”
The standard wisdom on Chet Baker is that he was a soulfully evocative but technically limited trumpet player and a mildly interesting idiosyncratic singer. These two collec-tions totally refute such an evaluation. Pianist Russ Freeman’s descriptions of Baker’s playing is much more relevant: “When he was right, he was as good as anyone . . . and that includes Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and all . . . There would be certain nights
When it was absolutely staggering.” Freeman claims that Baker at his best was never captured on tape, but these two sets contain moments that, at the very least, suggest what
It was like when Baker found the magic. “Love Nest,” from the last session on the studio set (November 1956), is an astonishing example of greased lightning bebop trumpet. Freeman’s “Bea’s Flat,” from 1953, has such an intricate blues line that it could be used to engender humility in trumpet students. Baker sails through it.
The live recordings, from three California concerts that took place within a five-month period in 1954, have some of the time-warp eeriness that old jazz concert tapes some-times evoke. Jazz is an art improvised at the moment, and we are allowed to eavesdrop – through the haze of tape hiss – on a moment that is now 45 years old. When Baker casts the ethereal spell of “My funny Valentine,” he suspends those mournful opening notes over an audience now long forgotten. No one alive remembers exactly where or when the third concert was held.
The Pacific Jazz master tapes at Mosaic’s disposal added extraneous ticks and drop-outs and abrupt splices to a base of clouded, vague monophonic sound. No masters exist for four cuts on the studio set, and dubs had to be made from records. The digital transfers of Ron McMaster and Malcolm Addey bypass the aberrations added to some of the LP pressings (echo, juiced equalization, extra musicians overdubbed years later), and restore most of the material to listenability.
The cumulative effect of these six CDs is a gradually dawning realization that the young Chet Baker was one of the most original and gifted trumpeters – both technically and imaginatively – to ever play jazz. The severely dated sound of the collections, though, will cause many contemporary listeners to approach them as relics.
There are fewer sonic obstacles in the way of The Complete Recordings of the Paul Desmond Quarter with Jim Hall. It comes to us through a soft aural mist, but the stereo audio – recorded between 1959 and 1965 – is several hundred percent better than the Baker sessions taped only a few years earlier. Gathered into one place, on four CDs, is the total recorded output of a magical musical marriage: the languorous, flowing elegance of Desmond’s alto saxophone set off against the warm, intuitive intelligence of Hall’s guitar.
They made five albums together – the first for Warner Bros., the rest for RCA Victor. They’re all here, plus 12 previously unissued tracks, annotated, documented, illustrated, and remastered with typical Mosaic fanaticism. During the six years covered by this collection, both players were sidemen in other groups: Desmond with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Hall with Sonny Rollins and Art Farmer. (The drummer on all these sessions,
Connie Kay, had a regular job too – with the Modern Jazz Quartet.) When Desmond
And Hall played together, something special happened, something about a groove of sublime relaxation in which invention feels as effortless as dreaming.
On the first disc, we move from the unutterably hip, offhand detachment of “East of the Sun” to the wistful resignation of “For All We Know.” “Greensleeves” doesn’t need anything but its own melody and Hall unaccompanied – timeless and resonant. Then Desmond floats in on that sensuous piping, fragile as breath but more beautiful, a sound that speaks to the spirit beneath our anxiety.
Over the course of four discs, prettiness alone could not sustain interest – especially considering the unvarying instrumentation – if it were not infused with musical intell-igence. In the subdued Desmond/Hall universe, there is room for insistent samba rhythms (“Theme from Black Orpheus”), exquisitely suspended counterpoint (“Poor Butterfly”) , subtle harmonic tension (“Angel Eyes”), and even the actual blues (“Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West”). You can lose yourself in this music and life seems aglow with gentle promise.
So you ask – were the Mosaic CDs worth the wait? Was the dismantling of the Berlin Wall worth the wait? Mosaic sets are limited editions. When they are gone, they’re gone forever.
(Catalogs can be obtained from Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902.)
(Since this article was written we have found out that the Mulligan (102) set has been sold out and the Chet Baker live recording set is in danger of being sold out. It might not last out the year. Ed)
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CONVERSATION WITH HERSH HAMEL
(Interview 4 September 1991)
On Sunday August 18, 1991, The Jazz Photographer’s Association of Southern California held a benefit in San Pedro, CA. A sneak preview of the new film, CHET BAKER: The Last Days was the center piece with a raffle of Chet Baker LPs/CDs as well as a Jazz photo exhibit and sale. The L. A. Jazz Scene reports, “. . . . bassist Hersh Hamel, guitarist Bruce Buckingham, and drummer Dave Berzinsky provided the music which set the mood so well for the event.” They played tunes associated with Baker. After the film, William Claxton, Hamel and Russ Freeman presented a panel discussion of Baker and his music.
If you saw the film “Let’s Get Lost” Hamel is heard speaking as a group of dogs frolic on the beach. The visuals are a mystery to him. “I don’t know what I was saying that had to do with dogs, maybe it was because Chet and I grew up together near a California beach.” He was bass player with Chet prior to Chet’s second stint in the Army and there-after. The Baker family lived on a hill overlooking Hermosa Beach and Hamel visited there often. He remembers Chet’s mother as a very pretty black-haired woman who was most hospitable. Chet’s dad was a taxi driver who often played his guitar in the evenings. Hersh thinks, “Chet’s wrinkled appearance as he aged was not due entirely to smack. It was genetic; his dad had similar characteristics and he must have been in his 40’s.
HELL’S HORIZON, a B-movie in which Chet appeared, had just been on cable. Chet’s missing front tooth is a standout in one scene. I asked about this. Hamel replied, “Yeah, he got it knocked out when he was a kid and he learned to play without it. When he lost his teeth in the fight it was a tragedy, but he at least got a full set when he got dentures.”
There were so many paradoxes in the life of a remarkable young man who described himself as “a redneck jazz musician.” Hamel thinks Chet had more Oklahoma roots than Los Angeles. His finely chiseled good looks remind one of a Greek god. Then the open mouth reveals a blank space which conjures up images of the blacked-out tooth sported by the circus clowns or a depression era farmer unable to afford dental work. The gorgeous golden boy with the horn should not be snaggle-toothed.
How many fans did not even knowledge/remember what they saw? We recall the sensuous, reflective William Claxton still photographs which captured the “real” Chet. So skillful was Chet in hiding the gap that it was visible only on rare occasions. Both times I recall are in the “quickie” movies he made. When revealed, it is so fleeting an incongruous that one tends to discount what has just been seen. Chet Baker was full of surprises. The only thing consistent about him was the music, the beauty and raw vulnerability which he poured into his horn.
The Downbeat article of 5 May 1954 has bob Martin quoting Chet as saying, ‘Maybe I’ll play for another five years and then I want to go sailing and write music.’ The headline reads, “Gum Ailment Threatens Baker’s Five Year Plan.” Chet describes his concerns; “I have an entirely different embouchure because of my teeth and gums. I play the horn as if I was pulling it away instead of pressing it . . . I may not be able to play my horn if my mouth continues to give me trouble. Then I’ll just sail and write.”
We’ve heard numerous car stories. Hamel has some boat stories. “Chet was energetic, athletic and determined. We rented a boat a sailboat, none of us had ever sailed before. We didn’t even know to put the tiller down. When we brought it back, we ran up against some rocks. We just scratched it a bit, and the guy was going to make us pay for it, but Chet talked him out of it. Later some guy bet Chet he couldn’t sail to Catalina. Chet was such a fast learner and do determined that he took the bet and won.”
Hamel reminisces about his vibrant young friend. “Chet was always active, always wanting to do something. We had lots of foot races to see who could run the fastest. Chet was very friendly, social and had lots of friends in his younger days. Later, he was different, always thinking about scoring.
The sun and fun days with the young Chet, the withdrawn, obsessed man, and the wonderful music which Chet continued to play and sing throughout his life, are memories which Hamel will always remember.
Hamel and his group are available for gigs both in the U S and Europe. He now sings in addition to playing bass. Hamel explains that he has music from the Chet Baker Quarter with Russ Freeman and also from the Gerry Mulligan Quartet that can be played with tenor sax and trumpet or just with his trio.
Hamel emphasizes: “We do music that is reminiscent of Chet. Nobody can play and sing like Chet.”
NOTE FROM THE EUROPEAN EDITOR
A Flugelhorn and Chet, Miles and Lady Blue
Herbert Joos is a German flugelhorn player, arranger and composer. He is very well know and successful across Europe, playing with his or formations and as a regular member of the Vienna Art Orchestra. He is also, by professional training, a very successful graphic artist. He trained in this early in his life, to have a “real basis” for living.
Thorbjorn Sjogren and I each wrote briefly abut Herbert’s book: CHET BAKER- AN ILLUSTRATED PORTRAIT. Meanwhile, Herbert has done another one: MILES –
AN ILLUSTRATED PORTRAIT. In 1993, he plans to produce a similar book on “Lady Blue, Billie Holiday.
Last year, I had already ordered the Chet Baker book when Herbert called to tell me that he had managed to get a free copy sent to me for the Newsletter. So I finally had two copies, one for me and one for the Newsletter archives, i.e. Larry (Bert).
I met Herbert during my vacation in August 1991, in Stuttgart, Germany. Gudrun Endress, co-editor of the German Jazz Podium, picked me and my wife Ann up at our Hotel and we went to Herbert’s flat. He had mentioned on the phone that his place is on tope of the Stuttgart IRS-office. The three of us squeezed ourselves into the tiny elevator. The elevator space concept must be “body after deductibles.” Leaving the elevator, we saw a door opposite with a sign NO TAXES HERE, but that was not Herbert’s door. Another flight up and we met the man in his place.
The Naima CD played. Herbert, a very comforting, friendly and low key person, had us immediately arranged around his bar. The room is full of artifacts, book shelves, record shelves and, and . . . .
We got into talking at his bar and later over dinner back close to the hotel, outdoors. Herbert on Chet: “He was one of the real great musical giants. His music is still grossly undervalued. Were he not a junkie, the tabloid press hardly would have noticed him. His music was never spectacular, but came from his musical heart, and this is hardly a topic for headlines. If you had a young guy today, able to read notes only in a limited way, and playing like Chet, no way. There are a few trumpet players, also from Chet’s generation, influenced by him. But trumpeters today have other idols. Wynton Marsalis and his whole breed have the prime spot.” Herbert thinks that Chet’s music is not, as often said, sad or simple the horn sound. Chet’s phrasing is quite modern, progressive and very often “free,” in Herbert’s opinion – and Chet is a master of the long tones.
Now to the book: It came out in 1990 from the Bonz Veriag in Germany. It contains 29 drawings of the man, mostly based on photos, with a bio and a poem accompanying the pictures. The book is bound with screws so you can take out every drawing. The texts are in German and English by Thorbjorn. The size of the book is 20” x 17”, weight approximately 10 pounds. The book and the drawings are a piece of art. Herbert: “It really goes under your skin when you sit for hours over every wrinkle of this face, and each pore.” While drawing Herbert played Chet’s music, just to draw himself deeper into the being of Chet. He felt like he was enclosed in a cloud. The price of the book is around $250.
While I was with Herbert I also saw most of the drawings for his Miles book. The book has about the same format and weight as the Chet book. It contains 37 drawings in five-color print. It was published by the Phono Books Veriag and the price is about $400. Also included is a biography in English and German Volker Kriegel. Again you can by way of a “screw binding” take out every drawing and they are pieces of art. On MILES
Herbert does not say that this music changed his life but: “Miles has made music with beauty one can dream of. Music which always changed and always brought new surprises. His music made me feel spellbound. And that is also important I music for me. No matter what style, there must be an atmosphere catching me. There is only good and bad music.” Herbert thinks of Davis as the on-going innovator. He gets angry read-ing about Miles having not mastered the technique of the trumpet. Miles, he feels, was in absolutely peak form, especially in ‘live’ cuts.
The same can be said about Chet: “Then he plays so excellently that he hardly can be outdone. Ok, one could blow at a higher register but this is not important in the end. They (Chet/Miles) blew the horn with such intensity and expression that once can’t think of more.”
Well, so far the flugelhorn and trumpet and Herbert Joos. His next drawing book will be LADY BLUE. This is a topic I am not so into. I have the b/w video from the US, where she, Lester and other perform majestically. But . . . who knows??
MY FAVORITE SONGS Review by Thomas Conrad
Who knows whether he had premonitions of his approaching end. Probably not, since it’s likely that he was pushed from that hotel window in Amsterdam. But we, the audience, know that Chet Baker will be dead two weeks after this date. Perhaps we choose to hear the finality, the summing up, in his achingly slow, deeply felt version of “My Funny Valentine,” the song identified with Baker since his days with Gerry Mulligan’s quartet in 1952.
It was a special occasion, and not just because it was his “last authorized concert recording.” Baker rarely played with large groups, and here he appears with two. Radio Hamburg’s two orchestras – an 18-piece big band, and a 43-piece symphony orchestra – take turns backing him. Engineers Manfred Kietzke and Bjorn Brigsue have met quite successfully the challenges of recording two such groups and a soloist on stage simul-taneously. Through several high-positioned room mikes and close miking on individual instruments, the concert hall is brought to convincing, ambient life without losing the sonic spotlight on Baker. His trumpet is soft focused and breathy, but that’s how he played in his 58th year after a difficult life.
He has neither range nor speed by this late date. He lags behind the tempo in the middle register and his tone sometimes quavers. He risks embarrassment when he sings because he can’t stay on key anymore and his dental problems make certain sibilants impossible. But no jazz musician has ever transcended technical limitations to convey such emotion.
Baker could touch you; he reached you in a deep, vulnerable place few artists could even approach. Perhaps it was because he wore his own vulnerability, his own loss, on his sleeve. Listen to “I Fall In Love Too Easily” and hear the nakedness with which it’s possible to express the sensation of loss.
Call it sentimental, call it anything you want – but call this one a 10 for Chet Baker