Vol 4 No.3
A Newsletter Dedicated To Chet Baker And His Music
Vol IV No 3
Q & A WITH TED GIOIA
August 2, 1994
Betty Little: Your credentials as an academician, jazz historian, composer, record producer, singer and jazz pianist are impressive.
THE IMPERFECT ART, Reflections on Jazz and the Modern Culture, your first book, won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, and was completed before you were thirty. Was this first done as a Master’s thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation? Please tell up the book’s history.
Ted Gioia: This book was a personal project, an obsession almost. I began writing it when I was twenty three years old, and the inspiration for it was a bit unusual. When I was twenty one, I had the rare opportunity to go to Oxford University on a scholarship. While I was there I spent my days studying philosophy, and my nights playing jazz. I approached both tasks in an all-consuming manner and , before long, I saw - or thought I saw – links between the two. I began to feel that jazz in general – and improvisation in particular – might serve as a key to unlocking some problems in aesthetic philosophy. Conversely, I thought that the discipline of philosophy might shed some light on the essence of jazz.
I remember vividly beginning to write THE IMPERFECT ART on the day after I completed my Oxford exams. I continued to work on the book in private for some five years. Then, I was very fortunate to garner the support of Sheldon Mayer, a senior editor at Oxford University Press, who responded to my unsolicited manuscript. In my naivete, I had simple sent it in – without an agent, without a phone call – and I was completely unknown at the time. He took me under his wing, so to speak, and made it possible for a very unusual book by an unknown writer to see the light of day. He also encouraged me to write WEST COAST JAZZ.
BL: In THE IMPERFECT ART, you discuss Paul Desmond’s work and classify him as a neoclassicist. Would you also classify Chet Baker as a neoclassicist?
TG: Definitely. Chet’s playing exemplifies the qualities I see in neoclassicism – restraint, continuity, sensitivity to form, the channeling of intense emotions into a cool focal point. The irony with Chet is that his life lacked most of these qualities. It was only in his music that he was angelic.
BL: Following his release from the Italian prison, Chet’s music became more lyrical. One of our readers, Jim Butler, wrote to tell us that he thought CHET’S CHOICE would have been very affirming to Chet. Jim recalls, “The look in his eyes when he talked about the feeling of being ‘totally forgotten’ while he was in jail was not something you could forget.…”
Is there any evidence that the experience of Chet’s being incarcerated contributed to the shift in work?
TG: That’s an interesting question. There are a number of instances of jazz musicians achieving a higher level in their playing after their incarceration. It is almost as if the enforced reflection – and perhaps the opportunity to cleanse their systems of drugs – allows them to become truer to themselves. But in this particular case, I would also suggest that being confined in Italy for such a long period may have also played a role. Chet spoke Italian constantly in this setting and it is a very lyrical language. And the whole musical culture of Italy is pervaded by a sense of melody and a commitment to emotional authenticity. If I recall correctly, Chet actually started singing songs in Italian around that time.
BL: When asked why he didn’t play with Stan Getz anymore Chet reportedly said, ‘I got tired of calling him Mr. Getz.’ They certainly made beautiful music together. Can you shed any light on their relationship?
TG: True, Stan could be testy, but there are two sides to this story. During much of the time that he live in Northern California, I had the rare opportunity to spend time with Stan Getz on almost a daily basis. I did talk to him about Chet – but I can relate, of course, only Stan’s side of the story – Chet, though, made some public comments that have been written up. On that final tour – the one that produced such great music – Chet was apparently smuggling drugs across borders. He was even doing it in the Middle East, I believe, into countries where punishment is swift and severe for drug offenders. Stan apparently felt that Chet was jeopardizing the whole touring party by taking these risks, and used his influence to have Chet removed from the gig. After that there were, as you could imagine, hard feelings on both sides. It doesn’t detract, however, from the quality of the music they made together – which was, I feel, quite stunning.
BL: The events as described in your book, WEST COAST JAZZ, seem to be happening now rather than 30 or 40 years ago. Although scholarly, the book has a literary tone not often seen in historical works. It’s a real page turner.
Metaphors illuminate what could have been a dull recounting of events. For example, when Criss and Haws heard Parker and Gillespie play at Billy Berg’s in 1945 you wrote,
“…this evening out proved to be a turning point in their lives. Billy Berg’s provided both their Pauline experience – it was their road to Damascus by way of Vine Street. ‘I was molded on the spot,’ said Haws.
You transport the reader back to the 1952 audition when Bird chose Chet to play with him: “Beyond the swinging doors of the Tiffany club on 8th Street, it is quite dark. The sound of a large crowd of people comes as a surprise in a setting that is usually well populated only at night.”
How did you develop into such a superb writer?
TG: I’m flattered by the question. Definitely, I work hard on writing, but I am not quite sure that I achieve the standards to which I aspire. Each writing project requires a different approach. In WEST COAST JAZZ I wanted a novelistic approach which captured the ambiance of California in the post-war years. But even though it would read like a novel, I wanted it to be absolutely correct from a factual point of view. The challenge was tracking down the details that would give the story life without distorting or exaggerating reality.
What did the club look like? What was the bartender’s name? What was across the street? Those were my obsessions. I even drew maps of Central Avenue in the 1940s using old newspapers and Yellow Pages to fill in the gaps. You refer to the passage about Chet Baker’s audition at the Tiffany Club. I remember my glee when I learned about the wall paper design used inside that nightclub. It was one more detail that I could use to bring the story into focus. Then, of course, came the challenge of weaving these details into a story.
BL: In the introduction to WEST COAST JAZZ, you state, “My approach is different. I start with the music itself, the musicians them selves, the geography and the social situation the clubs and the culture.”
With your work in progress, THE HISTROY OF JAZZ, what approach do you plan?
TG: I’m almost half way through writing THE HISTORY OF JAZZ for Oxford University Press. It too requires a different type of writing. But there will be some similarities with WEST COAST JAZZ. First, any history of jazz has to take account of the social situation and broader cultural currents, but – and this is an important ‘but’ – you can’t lose sight of the music and musicians. I have read a number of the social histories of jazz and popular music that are fashionable these days, but they just don’t cut it. I won’t name names, but so many of these books give you all the sociological verbiage, but never tell you what the good records were or who took the hot solos. That’s not an acceptable way of writing the history of this music. I love jazz too much to let that happen. Then again, some of the older jazz histories have the opposite problem. They are all hero worship and fan adulation and never come to grips with what is really happening in the history of the music. I am determined to avoid both extremes and write a book that is broad and rich, well written, yet very jazzy. Easy to say, hard to do. Readers will be able to judge for themselves, but not until 1997 when THE HISTORY OF JAZZ is published.
BL: The writing of WEST COAST JAZZ must have required years of preparation. In your research did you have any surprises or moments of truth? If so, what were they?
TG: The book was a labor of love. There were many great moments and experiences. If I had to cite two particular pleasures, they would be, first, the joy of listening to all the records, and two, the opportunity to meet the musicians who made them. I had always admired these musicians and finally I had an excuse to get to know them.
BL: Chet fans were delighted to find a chapter in WEST COAST JAZZ devoted to him and the pianoless quartet. However, we are used to seeing this era of his described as: The Gerry Mulligan Pianoless Quartet with Chet Baker.
Why did you label the quartet as you did?
TG: You’re right. My Choice was unconventional, but I stand by it. I simply felt that Chet had been under Gerry’s shadow for too long. I believe that Chet Baker was one of the greatest soloists of his day – of any day, really – and to continue to view him as Gerry Mulligan’s sideman was to miss the point.
BL: Many jazz fans and critics describe Chet as a clone of Miles. Do you see any justification for this label?
TG: I’ve heard the same comparisons but they are a little ridiculous, aren’t they? Both Miles and Chet played in a cool style but their sounds, their conceptions were totally different. It would be as if you and I said that Coletrane and Rollins played the same just because they both play in a hot style.
But the cavalier judgements are made because some jazz writers are more interested in ideology than in really hearing the music. There is a camp in the jazz world that wants to denigrate people like Chet. It’s the same with those who dismiss Stan Getz because he sounds ‘just like’ Lester Young. He does? They must be listening to different Getz recordings that the ones I have. They attack Desmond because he didn’t sound like Bird. Of course, astute jazz fans will understand the political motivations of these attacks.
BL: Apparently the Central Avenue musicians and other West Coast players did not work together often. Rumor has it that either Howard McGee or Art Farmer was to play with Bird when he came to Los Angeles in 1952 but somehow Chet got the gig.
Whether the rumors are tried or not, did you find any evidence of animosity in the musical community because of Bird’s choice?
TG: Not really. You mention Art Farmer, well, I accompanied Art and helped him when he gave a master class at Stanford University, and I heard him praise Chet explicitly. His comment was to the effect that Chet had only a limited range on the trumpet but what Chet did with that range was amazing.
In fact my sense is that Chet got more respect from the black players than he did from the white critics. Then again, anyone of any color should have been able to see that Chet had paid serious dues. If you wanted to attack the rich white West Coast players who got fat and lazy playing studio music – well, you wouldn’t put Chet in that category.
BL: Bruce Weber, producer of the Baker film LET’S GET LOST tells of the moment when he became a Chet fan. How and when did you conclude that, “…Baker stands as one of the finest soloists jazz has ever produce…”? Because Chet receives so little in THE IMPERFECT ART, did you reach this assessment while writing WEST COAST JAZZ?
TG: I have admired Chet’s work as long as I can remember. Probably the most striking event was when I first heard Chet’s initial album as a vocalist for Pacific Jazz - not just the singing but the trumpet playing on that album as well. ‘I Fall In Love Too Easily’, ‘But Not For Me’, ‘Time After Time,’ - what gems. Richard Bock also noted that album as perhaps Chet’s best work. But even before that Chet was an inspiration. I first saw him perform when I was still a student and had many of his albums. Researching WEST COAST JAZZ just allowed me to listen more and more deeply to his music.
BL: All of our research indicates the infamous beating in San Francisco occurred in 1966. Items appeared in Melody Maker and Downbeat in 1966. Additional confirmation comes from Carol Baker who states she was in the hospital in 1966 for the birth of their youngest child, Missy, when it occurred.
Chet gave interviews saying the beating occurred in 1968 so I suppose that that date will persist. However, it is not accurate. Since WEST COAST JAZZ covers only the years 1945-1960 will you address this issue in your new book?
TG: The earlier date is, of course, the correct one. I should note that my WEST COAST JAZZ simply sketched one period in these artists’ careers. Some of them – a Chet Baker, a Dexter Gordon, or an Art Pepper – made extraordinary music in the 1970s and 1980s. Doing justice to these later years is a major task for another researcher.
BL: Let’s pretend you are taking a Downbeat blindfold test. What characteristics would you listen for in order to identify Chet’s playing and singing?
TG: I hate taking tests. But with a stylist as distinctive as Chet Baker makes it a lot easier to pass the Blindfold Test. The most salient characteristics are the clear tone, the lack of distortions, slurs, honks, the sense of proportion and balance, and the inspired sense of melody. It is interesting to note that these are the same whether Chet is singing or playing the trumpet.
BL: Chet’s music sounds incredibly fresh today. His collection, MY FUNNY VALENTINE made the jazz charts in 1994. How do you think his music will sound in 50 years?
TG: After people forget the passing fads and fashions in music – and there are so many of them these days – they go back to the basics: musicality, melody, structure, harmonic inspiration, authenticity and style. Chet is one of only a handful of artists from that period – Nat Cole is another that comes to mind – to exhibit these qualities so fully. That type of music is timeless. Can the ‘five minutes of fame’ bands playing at the Knitting Factory make the same claim? Time will tell.
BL: We have enjoyed your recordings – THE END OF THE OPEN ROAD, Ted Gioia Trio; and TANGO COOL, Ted Gioia and Mark Lewis. The emotion and the lyricism in your work reminds us of Chet. ‘Spring Song for Chet’ is lovely, as are all the ballads. ‘The Open Road’ with its driving beat and bluesy notes make one want to get up and go. We understand you are now in the studio with your third recording.
Would you comment on your recordings and compositions?
TG: One hears that the lyrical tradition in music is dying. Is that possible? I suspect that it will ultimately come back, but in any event I am committed to it. Lyricism, integrity – those are what I am aiming for. If that’s unfashionable, well, then I’m happy to be unfashionable. Currently I’m working on an album of lyrical art songs with jazz overtones. And I will be featuring Mark Lewis again, who I feel is one of the most lyrical and emotionally committed saxophonists of his generation. The project is titled, THE CITY IS A CHINESE VASE, and the recording will be completed over the next several months.* * * *
(EdNote: As to the reference to Chet smuggling drugs across borders we know of no instance when he did this for any reason other than his own use. To our knowledge Chet only bought drugs, he never sold them.)