Vol 3 No.4
A Newsletter Dedicated To Chet Baker And His Music
CONVERSATION WITH FRANK STRAZZERI
April 17 & 24, 1993
Frank Strazzeri, keyboardist, composer, arranger, producer and band leader played with Chet whenever Chet was on the West Coast and needed a piano player. Their relationship began in the mid-fifties and continued until Chet’s death in 1988.
"About thirty five years ago Chet and I were playing different gigs in Las Vegas, we had never met. Chet came to my door unannounced. I invited him in because I recognized him. He came into the living room and all the while I was wondering, ‘What do you want?’ He was real cool and we chatted until he must have realized he had the wrong house and left. I think he was looking for a fix, but I wasn’t into drugs. After that we played lots of gigs in the Los Angeles area."
THE NEW YORKER
The New York accent is still intact and wry flashes of humor crackle through our conversation. Wispy gray hair frames an alert face. The soft brown eyes shine through spectacles missing nothing. One can imagine the security created by having a friend take charge of picking the music, insuring the proper studio set-up, and creating a comfortable atmosphere where he, Chet, could just come in and play.
A native of Rochester, New York, Frank studied at the Eastman School of Music for seven years. Asked if he majored in jazz, the question drew a loud groan. "They didn’t even have a jazz program when I was there. Jazz was something you did not do. When my professor got a hint I was playing jazz outside, he’d get all over me: ‘Stop playing Bach with a jazz feeling,’ They have a jazz department now, but not when I was there. I trained in classical piano." Jazz is Frank’s love. He is recording steadily today, and in demand for gigs in the Los Angeles area.
RECENT GIGS AND RECORDINGS
Frank and his group, WoodWinds West, were just beginning a three day gig at Maxwell’s in Huntington Beach when I called. The group: Frank on piano, Bill Perkins on soprano and alto saxophone as well as flute and alto flute, Bob Cooper on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Jack Nimitz on baritone and bass saxophones, Dave Stone on bass, and Paul Kreibach on drums. They have released a CD called WoodWinds West which is on the Jazz Mark II label. Frank and Bill Perkins have done several other albums together: Warm Moods and Alone Together. Frank is writing and arranging all or most all of the music on his new releases. Frank’s trio record, I Remember You, released by Fresh Sounds is a tribute to Chet and all the tunes they used to play together.
Frank just learned that a gig he and Chet did in 1966 or 1967 at The Melody Room is going to be released. "If they put out the songs I suggested, it will be a good CD." There are no other details at this time.
KEYBOARDIST TO THE STARS
Frank has played in a variety of venues: pop, rhythm and blues, country and jazz. He was musical coordinator for Johnny Cash’s TV series originating from the Grand Ole Opry. While playing with Les Brown, he toured with the Bob Hope Show and worked with Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn and Peggy Lee
"I played Hammond Organ for Elvis Presley on ALOHA FROM HAWAII, the first telecast heard ‘round the world." Frank laughs, "Lots of people wonder about Elvis and are surprised that I played with him, but he was a nice guy. Of all the stars, he was probably the nicest. When I first met him I said to him, I hear you’re into Karate.’ We rapped all night, and the next morning I found $300 under my door. I talked with him again and the same thing happened, $300 under the door.
CHET AND ELVIS
When asked if he saw any similarity between Chet and Elvis. Frank thought a while then replied, "Yeah, they were both from the street, and both country boys. Chet was an Oklahoma native, strong in his convictions. He wouldn’t take guff from anyone. They were both natural talents, went into music without professional training. Chet’s Mom told me that Chet learned to play by listening to Harry James and others on the radio. That’s how he developed his ear; he played by ear. He heard the music; he really could listen. When we worked together, if he didn’t know the song I’d play it one time and he had it down. Just one time and he had it. Chet was a quick study.
"Chet liked to play practical jokes like Elvis. On nights when Chet wasn’t feeling good, he’d ask me to play horn; he’d play piano so he could sit down. People would come by the bandstand and I could overhear them saying, " I didn’t know Chet looked like that; I didn’t know that he played the baritone horn.’ Check would get a big kick out of stuff like that."
LET’S GET LOST
In 1987 when Bruce Weber planned the film Let’s Get Lost, Frank was asked to do the music. Bruce’s remark to me was, "’Chet specifically asked for you.’" When Chet called to discuss the picture, he said, "’It’s about time people heard you play.’" This was an emotional moment for Frank who describes Chet as "a generous musician; he never tried to hog the spotlight. I think my sense of humor used to break him up quite a bit. He lived on the sad side of life, you know, the doom and gloom kind of thing. So I’d crack jokes and make him smile.’"
Frank’s assessment of the movie, Let’s Get Lost : "It was something of a disappointment. If Chet had lived it might have had a different point of view, probably would have been more about the music and less about his personal life."
Musically Frank called all the shots on the picture because Chet delegated these duties to him. "I picked all the music. The old songs I knew Chet liked and one new one, Moon and Sand. I composed and arranged the incidental music. The director said I would be listed as musical coordinator, which I was, but for some unknown reason it didn’t happen."
Frank was asked to speak at Chet’s graveside service in Inglewood. "I didn’t know they wanted me to say anything until I got there so I just started rapping: In all the years I have known Chet the think I remember most is his honesty. He really lived the life of a jazz musician. He discarded all the essential things we value - house, car, money in the bank - he took his trumpet and went out to play."
Frank, is one of the few original musicians playing today to carry on the tradition of Chet Baker, But Powell, Charlie Parker, et. al. With the new generation of critics such as Ted Gioia author of West Coast Jazz, placing the Cook School in historical perspective and giving the respect it deserves, Frank Strazzeri is in demand. He sums it up Chet Baker style, "Now, I’m history."