Vol 2 No.3
A Newsletter Dedicated To Chet Baker And His Music
MAURIZIO AND CHET
By Maurizio Po
They say that there are times when you hear a tune and your whole life changes of that there are records and artists that accompany the whole life of a person. Those tunes, those records, those artists, never cease to speak to us because they catch a mood we identify with. The more we grow, the more they grow on us until they become familiar enough to be really meaningful for a lifetime. They direct our taste and even in the full maturity of years, they linger in our souls like the sweet fragrant memory of a first love.
When I was 18 years old, the tune that changed my life musically s peaking was “Darn
That Dream.” It was, of course, the version of the original pianoless quartet, but it was not Mulligan that turned on my ears and grabbed me, but Chet Baker’s improvisation. With that first jazz record of mine, I started to like Chet’s music. Once I heard that solo, I couldn’t get his sound off my mind. It had a delicate breath and an inner, secret, spiritual strength that filtered the spirit of the blues into a ballad with subdued intensity, leaving me begging for more.
Then I bought my second LP, the World Pacific 1222 “Chet Baker Sings” and I fell under Chet’s magical spell. That’s the record I have more frequently listened to among the very many collected in the course of over 30 years. It was a sort of revelation. It had an emotional quality, a spontaneity I had never heard before, as well as an over-all, sad-glad atmosphere that crept slowly into my heart. That voice; those perfect solos; his penchant for melodic, only apparent simplicity; a singular technique to the service of expressiveness rather than an end in itself; the sound Chet got, intimate, soft, different; the way he accented and phrased those heartfelt, effortlessly blown, innocent notes, tinged with an extraordinary grace, in the middle and lower register; the way he wove beauty into the melodies: everything spoke to me of a gifted, multi-talented young artist who had personality and whose main qualities were a singular charm and striking originality, an unusual sensitivity in expressing emotions which came from his deep inside and which I shared. I felt the sincere voice of a true poet, who was able to play out his melodically inventive and gentle introversion. I admired a jazzman who laid his heart bare and made me feel the pure, natural caressing, tender voice of the soul that wished for a someone or longed for a something that had been yours or you had been familiar with, but that were nostalgically lost, yet your couldn’t help but indulging in remembering them; the voice of an individual experience turning into a universal one. Chet’s music became something special to me.
I looked for other records of his, but they were hard to find. Then after a few days, I read in a local newspaper that Chet was to play in the Teatro Comunale of my town on May 1, 1960 with the Amedeo Tomasi trio. That was the first time I got Chet ‘alive’ in concert. In the years to come I would get him eleven more times. That first concert surprised me a lot. I expected him to play the same music of the LP WP1222 with its bittersweet atmospheres. On the contrary, on stage I found a trumpeter who played also ‘hard’ with an emission of sound surprisingly powerful and impressive, still retaining the lyrical qualities I knew about when playing a ballad or singing a song. The impact on me was enormous because it added something new to the idea I had made of him as a musician: not only was he able to play out his introversion, he could also express tension, anxiety, joy of living, unbridled passion and impotent rage, feelings, all these most commonly experienced by teenagers. After that concert, the first crush on Chet’s music turned into a lifetime of love. I tried to reach him in the artist’s dressing room, but when I got there he had already left.
When Chet came back to my town in 1962 with a group featuring Rene Thomas and Bobby Jasper his misadventures had created a sort of legendary aura about him. He was always the fantastic, creative artist I had met two years before, still conveying that mood of ‘pleasure and pain’ which was to remain his trademark for his whole career. Even that second time, however, I was not able to reach him and speak to him.
In the spring of 1964 after playing all over Europe Chet left for the States so I had to expect another eleven years before getting him ‘alive’ again and meeting him personally.
The 1960s ended and the 1970s started in the utmost uncertainty for Chet. The incident happened to him at Sausalito, San Francisco, on August 7, 1966 while he was engaged at the Trident for eight weeks with the Joao Donato Trio and his personal problems inter-rupted his career. I was able to follow his steps and know about him until 1969. From then on I never read about him again.
Frank Tenot, in a reportage for the French “Jazz Magazine” of July/August 1968 on the West coast jazz scene wrote words that wrung my heart: “Chet wants to play at all costs but the results are often painful. Chet is lost for jazz.” I knew he was fighting his terrible personal battle against the ghost that haunted him for the whole of his career. By loving Chet the musician I couldn’t ignore the man – they were just one to me so I really suffered for him, care for him, but I was unable to do anything for him. I still remember leafing through the pages of Downbeat to look in vain for good news.
Five years later in 1973, Richard Williams in the pages of “Melody Maker” was the first to being the good news to Europe that Chet was back narrating in an article entitled
“The Man Who Came Back From Death,” what had happened to him. The good news filled my heart with joy but, to me, it was not a surprise: something inside me had always told myself that sooner or later he would turn up again because he had not fulfilled a ‘task’ he had pursued ever he first burst on the jazz scene some twenty years before.
In the summer of 1974 the Italian radio interviewed him in New York. I still remember the emotion I felt when, turning my transistor radio on the listen to a jazz program, I heard and recognized his voice. He spoke Italian and said he was hoping to be able to come back to Europe.
The following year on July 14, 1975, he appeared at the Pescara Jazz Festival in Italy. Two days later he was scheduled at the VI International Jazz Festival in La Sperzia. At the time I was on holiday at the seaside with my wife and the kids. I drove 150 miles to get him ’live’ again, but that long journey in a hot, sultry summer afternoon was worth it because the concert gave us back intact, Chet’s musical universe in all its outstanding beauty. After playing “Funk In Deep Freeze,” “Look For The Silver Lining,” “Tune Up,” “Just Friends” and a fabulous “My funny Valentine” Chet played the last tune, a fast blues, the title of which is still now unknown to me and left the theater while the rhythm section was still on stage. I was told the name of the hotel Chet was staying at but when I got there I found out that about ten journalists had already had the same idea in order to interview him. All of us were told that “Mr. Baker was extremely fatigues and had gone to bed.” The journalists left the hall of the hotel but I didn’t because I knew that Chet never went to bed soon after a concert and I hoped he would appear, but he didn’t. I waited about an hour but at 1:30 am I gave up, as I had to drive 150 miles to go back. During the journey I turned on my recorder and Chet’s marvelous performance accom-panied me all the way. When I arrived home it was daybreak but I was not tired: the music had been so exciting that I didn’t feel like going to bed.
Before meeting Chet face to face I had to wait 12 more days. It was on the stage of the Umbria Jazz at Citta della Pieve on July 28, 1975 after his performance with the Kenny Drew Trio. Chet did not play at the tope of his capabilities. He had been unable to find the right mood so when I reached him at last, I avoided commenting on the exhibition. I would have like to greet him like a brother you had not seen for long, telling him how meaningful his music was to me and how I had cared for him during the time of his long silence, but I was unable to tell him all these things surrounded as we were by too many fans who wanted to see him closely, tell him something, watch his trumpet, touch him, have an autograph or a photo taken at his side.
I finished to ask him a question that a lot of fans playing trumpet had probably already asked hundreds of times: what kind of mouthpiece he was using. He said it was a 10 ¾ C W Bach because his embouchure was still weak. Some years later I found he used a 6C Bach. We had some photographs taken but to my disappointment the photographer I gave my address to never sent them to me. What struck me most about our first brief meeting was his physical aspect. Lean and old, his face full of furrows had lost that look a la James Dean he was famous for. From his self-possessed attitude there seemed to exhale a tragic air of resignation. There was nothing in his apparently that might make someone think of the ‘star’ of the 50’s that had threatened Miles’ or Dizzy’s throne or equaled Nat King Cole on the polls.
After that first meeting I had the occasion to talk to him several more times. He was always extremely kind and willing to chat or answer my questions but I never found the way to tell him what I really wanted to. Once I came across him in a way that must not have happened very often to many of his fans. It was at the end of August 1976 and I was driving back home from the seaside with my family. I stopped at a petrol station along the motorway in Florence to fill up the tank. I was listening to the cassette I had recorded the year before in La Sperzia. While driving I often listen to Chet’s music to memorize his solos. I saw a Ford car with a Belgian plate in front of mine. Chet was at the wheel with Ruth Young at his side. I got out of the car, rushed to him and greeted him , shaking his hand. He looked relaxed and much better and not so lean as the year before. Ruth Young seemed a bit surprised but Chet didn’t at his being recognized like that. He felt like talking and said he was heading northward for some concerts, the first of which would be in Antwerp, Belgium. I took my twin sons out of my car to let them see Chet. They were just three years old. I handed Chet one of their photos and he wrote on the back: “To my biggest fan in Italy, Mauricio. Chet Baker ’76.” Chet looked at my sons tenderly and asked them their names. I immediately perceived that I didn’t love Chet Baker the jazz legend in front of me, but Chet the man, just a father unable to hide his emotion. He was a human being who couldn’t help thinking of his own family by seeing mine.
Meanwhile, the station assistants had filled up our tanks and as we kept on chatting the car drivers waiting in the long queue for their turn started to hoot at us. We shook hands again and he caressed my sons’ cheeks, telling them “Ciao” and my wife just had time to tell him that his music and his songs had helped me to conquer her – the record she was referring to was, by the way, the World Pacific 1222. Chet smiled and he responded in Italian, “That’s something I have already been told several times.” Then he waved goodbye to us before getting into his car.
It had all happened in the lapse of a few minutes and while I was driving along the motorway I wondered if I had been dreaming it or if it had really been true. But it had been true and I will never forget those brief moments. Apart from the unusual coincidence of the meeting, I have above all wanted to tell this episode because it gives us a different image of the Chet who many negative anecdotes that were reported to the media and tended to emphasize. Also the one-sided way he was portrayed by Bruce Weber in the film “Let’s Get Lost.” Where was Chet, the Man? Where was the incredible creative poet of the second half of the 70’s and of the 80’? He reinforced the stereotyped image of a ‘hopeless case’ but there were many positive aspects of Chet’s personality. There was a human, honest and gentle and warm and generous side to the man that the press had too often neglected and the film completely ignored.
As for my relationship with Chet, 1976 must be considered as the ‘Annus Mirabilis.’ I met him again twice in December, in Milandola and Sassuslo, two very small towns near Modena. I had the inside cover of the LP, “She Was Too Good To Me” autographed. While Chet was writing “Maurizio, I hope you like this one. Ringrasia. Chet Baker ’76,” he said that it was a record he was particularly pleased with. On the contrary, he turned up his nose at “Albert’s House,” which evidently he highly disliked. When I told him that it was an important record for me because it was released in the period of his long silence, he just signed “Ringrasia. Chet Baker ’76.” He also gave me his New York address, “1601, 3rd Avenue, New York City,” in case I should be able to organize some concerts. The address would be the one that Melissa, Chet’s daughter, referred to in the film “Let’s Get Lost” when she went to New York and entered Chet’s apartment while nobody was in. On those two occasions we also had some photos taken, the only ones I have with Chet at my side.
It was also a deep emotion for me when I got him ‘live’ at the “Giardins dei Ciphegi” at Cartiglione della Pescaia, in the summer of the same year. Accompanied only by Hal Galper and the percussionist Alex Serra, Chet played marvelously. Unfortunately I didn’t have my recorder with me but a man in the audience recorded the performance. I remember that he was sunburned, elegantly dressed and bald. Years late when I saw Paolo Piangiarelli in a photo on the back cover of the Philology album, “Little Girl Blue” I thought I had recognized him as the man who was recording the concert. I still remember that Chet played a memorable “Love Vibrations” and at my request “I Waited For You.” I also asked him to plan “Lament For The Living” form the LP “Boppin’,” but he seemed greatly surprised. “Boppin’”, he said. “I don’t remember ever recording an LP with that title.” I was quite at a loss because I had the record and it seemed impossible to me that he didn’t know about it. One year later, I read an article on Chet in the October 1977 issue of the Canadian magazine “Coda” and understood why he didn’t remember. Part of the article read as follows: “When Baker returned once again in 1964 he recorded several albums for Richard Carpenter, his manager at the time, with George Coleman. ‘I never got any money for any of those albums – not even a statement. When I found that out I took my two boys and my wife, got a car and drove from New York to Los Angeles. I had to get away from Carpenter any way I could. He didn’t pay the Union, he didn’t pay the car rentals, he didn’t pay shit. Then he took the tapes I recorded and sold them to Prestige without my knowledge or consent. I didn’t know he made a
deal until the albums were on the street.”
In the years to come I got Chet ‘live’ five more times: 1) at the Kiwi Disco at Piumasso, a village near Modena in November 1979; 2) at Teatro della Celebrasioni in Bologna on April 22, 1983; 3) at Circolo Felsineo in Bologna on March 21, 1984 (I recorded the first part of this concert); 4) at Teatro Santa Chiara in Modena on July 25, 1987; 5) at Teatro della Celebrasioni in Bologna on December 10, 1987 (I recorded the whole concert).
The last time I spoke to him, however, was in November 1979. On that occasion when I told him that I had almost all of his records he said, “I know you certainly can’t have the ten records I have made this year.” The year 1979 was in fact quite prolific. He seemed quite proud of the ones recorded in Denmark. When the Steeplechase LPs were commer-cially available I understood why.
With the passing of years Chet kept on pursuing his muse and although he had ups and downs he continued to grow as an artist and to progress creatively, demonstrating that neither age nor personal problems had diminished his extraordinary talent. Listening to him play, sing or scat, on a good night, was like following a story in a wonderful, secret language you had not heard of for a long time, yet was perfectly familiar. Like all great artists and poets, Chet had a simple story to tell and he told it over and over again, playing each concert as if it were the last challenge, always ‘concerned with being himself’ rather than new or different or avant-garde (K. Jarrett). He never tried to continually change and be modern. And I was in this being ‘always’ himself and in his growing and evolving that we can find out the secret of his artistic identity. Chet’s true art and poetry consisted in his being able to always reinterpret himself in a new way, merging his feelings and mysteries into the current times and being able to convey into music sensations, emotions and feelings which are timeless because rooted in the human soul. Most often he played the same tunes, but his improvisations were as creative and fresh as if he was coming to them for the first time. He had the gift of an infinite flow of worthwhile stories to tell. Harassed and bothered by his personal problems, he trans-formed them into living art and poetry. He continued undaunted night after night to create a limitless number of beautiful magic moments spreading out into the air or fixing on records, gems and diamonds that were death-defying gifts to us and to posterity.
Only those who were lucky enough to catch him ‘live’ on a good night could really grasp the meaning and the sense of the word charisma. On seeing him stand or, as of late, sit on a stool or a chair, “folded into a question mark” (M. Zwerin) to become one with his trumpet, it was possible to perceive the fascination of a magnetic personality, able to make his audiences fly with him in a aura of dream and reality. In the late years Chet played with a maturity and concept never equaled to me in his previous career. Once on stage most of the time the pains melted away and his eyes would shut the better to visualize and absorb from within the perfect sound he held in his mind, the hands would rise to being the mouthpiece up to his lips and the magic would begin again.
Despite the fact that he kept living dangerously in my naiveté as a fan I never thought for a moment that my hero and might die. His death in Amsterdam caught me by surprise and when the news on TV reached me I cried as if a part of me (a friend or a brother) had come to an end. From that fatal Friday 13th on I have often regretted never being able to confess to him that his music could touch me to such an extent as to make me cry through their absolute purity, natural grace and melodic charm. But I feel that from up there or wherever he may be that he smiles at me every time that happens. On summer starry night I often like thinking of him in the sky mesmerizing the angels with his trumpet and his angel voice.
When the earthly life of Henry Chesney Baker, errant angel with broken wings, came to its physical end, the world of jazz music along with the world of thousands of fans “grew a paler place.” At the height of his creative power he was, in his last years, “A living refutation of the idea that jazz music is a young man’s art only.” His talent still poured out fresh from him like water from a wellspring. He didn’t waste a note and he was able to evoke a variety of moods. I was always taken with his introspective way of playing ballads. He seemed to be talking to himself and opening up visions of a world where beauty, peace and truth reign. It was wonderful to hear and share his pensive and though-ful meditations through the warm and evocative sound of his low-register trumpet and his mastery on fast, low notes was breathtaking as well. No other trumpeter has ever been able to exhibit touches of imagination and inventiveness as Chet did.
He communicated real tenderness, a soulful sense of loss and nostalgia, an air of disconsolate calm, a bitter-sweet melancholy with that “vital spark always found in the best jazz.” He stated, developed and completed his musical ideas without the usual cliches so often used by other jazzmen: chords, triads, cycles of fifths and chromatics, patterns and written notes didn’t mean anything to him. He memorized everything and played everything perfectly from memory when a catalyst was provided through human feeling. His notes, tinged with a disquieting sweetness kept listeners mystified on seat edge. He still had the capacity to weave memories of our youth. He was still able to enchant people of different generations whenever he sang and played for the umpteenth time “My Funny Valentine” or any other material that he loved and reinterpreted each night, magic occasions for poignant explorations into the inner recesses of his soul and his dreams.
CHET BAKER AND THE TRUTH
Back when we started this Newsletter I wanted Carol Baker on the Advisory Board. At the time I felt it would lend authority to the Newsletter and give us a source of the true facts about Chet Baker. I really think the main reason I wanted her on the Board was to show Carol that many people really cared about Chet and his music. Sadly, except for an interview or two, we have never really asked her opinion or viewpoint on anything.
We have printed many articles and such about Chet Baker in the last 18 months not really knowing whether they were true or not – we mainly printed them because they were offered to us to reprint and we wanted the material to print. We felt they were worth our reader’s attention because the people who wrote them were names in their fields.
Gradually over the past few months I have begun to realize that one person’s truth is not the same as another’s. It seems we each see our own truth in any person and any situation. We have state many times that we only wanted to print the “truth” about Chet Baker. But, . . . what is the truth?
We in the United States want our heroes to have feet of clay. We build up idols only to try to tear them down. I don’t know if this is true with the rest of the world but our society is full of exposes and ‘yellow’ journalism, all offering the truth abut this person or that situation. Chet Baker was the ideal person to become an idol. He was an excellent trumpet player, he sang beautifully, he had good looks and he was young. The young girls loved him and the young guys wanted to be just like him. He was in great demand and his concerts were always sold out. We put him up on a pedestal, and the proceeded to know him off.
Today, four years after his death, it is almost impossible to read about Chet Baker without hearing that: 1) he was a drug addict; 2) he won on the music polls in his youth; 3) he had all of his teeth knocked out; 4) he missed jobs or played badly on jobs because he was high on drugs; 5) he was a member of Gerry Mulligan’s piano-less quartet, etc., etc., etc. “He could of had it all but he threw it away.”
It was reported one time that Chet was booed off the stage at the Montreal Jazz Festival because he was so high he could not play. Later it came out that the had been traveling for 24 hours with little or no sleep and was just too tired to play.
There has been much misinformation printed about Chet Baker. As Jeroen De Valk noted in his article “Memories Of A Lyrical Trumpet Player” (Vol I, #2), people are writing articles based on misinformation obtained from articles written by other people. One particular piece of information circulating right now that is disputed by Carol Baker is that Chet sent no money home and took no interest in his children’s education. This is also disputed by Artt Frank, a close friend of Chet’s. Letter written by Chet to Carol and to his mother in the 70s and 80s prove just the opposite: he was sending money to Carol and he took a very active interest in his children, their lives and their education.
Because Chet Baker had problems with the authorities over the years it has become common to include at least some of these problems in every article written about him and they are also mentioned in many of the liner notes for his albums. This is a shame because the real essence of Chet Baker the person comes out in his music, not in what has been written about his private life.
Webster’s Dictionary defines Genius as “. . .a person with exceptional mental and creative power.” Chet Baker was a genius because he had a creative sense that out-stripped his musical knowledge. He could sight-read music but did not have much formal training. To this day musicians (such as Russ Freeman) talk of Baker’s ability to play incredible lines without know what he was doing musically. But what he did worked.
We are all influenced by what music we listen to. Because of my love for the beauty in Chet’s music I seek it in other musicians’ work and this is one reason I am not attracted to the young “lions’ of today – they can play the bebop notes and have the bebop ideas but not many have that beauty of expression that Chet Baker had.
In my opinion this romanticism is what distinguished West Coast Jazz from East Coast Jazz and why some musicians are classified as West Coast musicians when they had very little to do on the West Coast: they concentrated on the beauty and romanticism of music.
What it all boils down to is that in the end each of us will have to make our own decision as to what is the “truth” about Chet Baker. Chet’s Choice will try to set the record straight when we can but ultimately you, his fan, will have to decide for yourself what is true and what is not.
Personally I will always be guided by the music. It takes a beautiful person to play the beautiful music that Chet Baker gave us. Larry
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