Vol 5 No.2
A Newsletter Dedicated To Chet Baker And His Music
Q & A WITH LARRY BUNKER
August 24, 1994
By Elizabeth Little
Larry Bunker, drummer with the Gerry Mulligan pianoless quartet which made Chet Baker famous in the early ‘50s was described by Leonard Feather in his first Encyclopedia of Jazz as, “One of the most gifted musicians on the West Coast jazz scene.”
Today Larry is still in the music business, and very enthusiastic about his studio work. An Articulate, observant man with an innate curiosity, he has a fund of knowledge about music and the movie business which he generously shares. When speaking his voice has a self-confident, hypnotic quality that envelops the listener; it also conveys that Larry lives in the present and never ponders the road not taken.
Betty Little: Have you lived most of your life in Los Angeles?
Larry Bunker: Yep. Except in the service and some sporadic traveling…I was in the service at Fort Ord, California, which is between Monterey and Salinas. I married and after the service lived up there and played the piano. They had plenty of drummers, but no piano players. I came back to L A in 1951 and fell into the job with Howard Rumsey at the Lighthouse for about six months.
BL: How did you get interested in music?
LB: It just kinda happened when I was about seven years old. It was the beginning of the big band era, that was really the popular music of the day. What was on the radio was what I heard: Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Jimmy Lunchford, those kind of bands that really triggered my interest. I said that sounds kind of neat, and somehow I gravitated toward the drums. It just went on from there.
BL: Did you plan drums when you were in school?
LB: There was a little school orchestra when I was in grammar school and I played in an orchestra in junior high. I played the drums there and I played a little sax. It was all written music. In the high school I went to, there were no jazz studies at that time. There was a school orchestra and it was so bad I changed my major from music to science just to get the hell through school. I went on my own playing the drums, practicing and fooling around on the piano. I fooled with the sax for a couple of years. Then I didn’t.
BL: Did you play with Charlie Parker?
LB: Only for about five minutes. I’d gone to see him at a ballroom over on the east side of town in L A. It was the old Five Four Ballroom on 54th and Central Avenue, an upstairs place. Ostensibly it was a dance, but everybody was there just to listen. Some of the guys playing with him were people I knew: Lawrence Marable playing drums, and I don’t remember the others. They wanted to play some tune and the piano player didn’t know it. Lawrence saw me in the audience and called me up on the bandstand. “It’s like, “You know this tune, don’t you?” I said, “Sure.” I didn’t play any solos, just played rhythm section comping. They played that tune for five or six or seven minutes then I got up, went down in the audience and the regular piano player came back.
BL: Do you do mostly studio work now?
LB: Yes, that started happening by the middle ‘50s. There was a lot of jazz recording going on in Los Angeles and I was involved in that, and I was also working as a vibraphone player. I started to get calls for movie scores, the very infant, early television scoring and commercial record dates. By the late ‘50s I was making my living as a studio player – both drums and vibraphone. It was pretty evenly divided for a long time. I am virtually completely out of the jazz field now.
I never did like to go on the road, and I didn’t do that much. When I did it was essentially as a drummer. I toured all over the east with a band with Maynard Ferguson in 1957 for six months, which was about as long as I could afford. I had a couple of opportunities to go to Europe about that time but it was with people I didn’t particularly want to play with so I said “never mind.”
I spent from ’63 to ’65 on and off with Bill Evans. I was essentially on the road with him in both Europe and America. After I did that I said, “I’ve pretty much played my last jazz.”
The last time I went on tour was in ’85 in Europe on the George Wein tour with Shorty Rogers and his West Coast Giants – Bud Shank, Bob Cooper…Shelley Manne would have been the drummer, but he’d passed away the year before. I’d played with Shorty and done some recording with him in the ‘50s as well as with Coop and Bill Perkins. I also worked clubs with Bud Shank. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s Bud decided he didn’t want to be a studio musician so he moved out of Los Angeles and became a jazz nomad. Books himself over different cities and countries and picks up a rhythm section wherever he goes. I’ve been essentially out of the jazz field since the mid ‘60s.
BL: Tell us about your studio work.
LB: It used to be an even mix of motion pictures, television films, some live TV, records and jingles – commercials for advertising potato chips, cars, computers. The record business has changed so radically that I do very few records any more, just because there are so few done by studio musicians. It’s mostly all done by self-contained bands that go in and spend months making an album.
The last noteworthy thing I did was the “Unforgettable” album with Natalie Cole. Going into the studio with the whole orchestra playing all at the same time, and the singer is there singing the songs like it used to be done is a thing of the past. You have to get two or three songs in the can in three hours. That’s the way it was done when I worked with Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Billy Eckstine. That was the old days of making records. There’s very little of that done anymore.
The jingles are being done by guys with computer terminals, works stations and synthesizers; so it’s pretty much left for some movies and television. I always worked as a utility percussionist in those situations. In the last ten to fifteen years I’ve played tympani more and more. I love doing that.
Next week I have four days of work to do on a film, I don’t know what it is, with John Barry and I’ll play tympani and drums. Summer time work has been very slow and all of a sudden in a one week period I’m called in for two major films. The other is Jerry Goldsmith whom I’ve played with for thirty years, and I’ve played tympani for him. I’ve had to turn down four days work with him because it conflicted with the John Barry film, but I will do one day of that which will be on Friday.
BL: Have you worked with Marvin Hamlish?
LB: Yes, I worked with him on several movies. “The Swimmer” I think was his first. Can’t remember the title off hand. But I worked on the one with Mary Tyler Moore and Robert Redford – “Ordinary People.”
BL: What is the process of recording for films?
(Larry gave a fascinating description of the work involved in composing recordings and putting the music together for a film. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough space to print all of the details; however, the process demonstrates why neither the conductor nor the writer has control over a film. It is a collaborative undertaking which involves numerous people in the decision making.)
BL: I had no idea film making was so complicated.
LB: The process of motion picture film making is mind-bogglingly complex. I have only scratched the surface. I have always been fascinated by it. I used to walk up and down the hallways in recording studios and see all this stuff going on in these rooms, and I wondered: “What are these people doing?” I would just stick my nose in and ask questions: they were usually more than happy to answer.
BL: As a musician working on a film, do you records things in stops and starts?
LB: Yeah, sure. We may go in and have a call for ten o’clock in the morning. There will be music on the stand and they use a standard kind of numbering system: M 3 1 means M for music, 3 for reel 3 and 1 is the first music cue in reel 3. Each reel is 10 minutes long. We’ll start with M 3 1, play, rehearse, and record; the engineer is getting the sound balance. We correct any wrong notes, then we listen to the playback. During the playback you look on the screen and see a fist fight, but in relation to what? You don’t know what you are seeing.
Seldom do you go through a score consecutively. You jump around because different scenes require different music. It depends on what the orchestration is. The guy may write music for a ninety piece orchestra, but you’re not using ninety pieces all the time. Some of the cues may be small intimate things. Some of them may use strings with no woodwinds. Some may use woodwinds with no strings. As you go through a project that takes three or four days to complete, there will be times when various people are finished. They are dismissed because they are through with the music that requires the most number of people. They call this a “breakdown.’
The final thing may end up being the piano player. He’s the last guy to be there because he has to stay and play something that is called ‘source music’ because the romantic couple went into the restaurant and there is a piano player playing in the cocktail lounge in the background. That music has to be recorded – they just can’t take it from a record.
The film is edited and in a final visual form when the director and producer meet to decide on the audio components in the dubbing sessions. Following these sessions, which can take days, the music editor has to put the music together so the final print of the picture has everything in its proper place and matches every second of the final finished film.
BL: Isn’t this the antithesis of jazz where improvisation is the thing?
BL: I gather that you really like this?
LB: Yeah, I like having a nice home, making a comfortable living, sleeping in my own bed at night and being with my wife and family. A lot of the time jazz is a much more expressive thing, but I don’t feel a need to be all that expressive. I did that. Had a ball doing it, but I’ve gone on to other things. When I was a kid I had no interest in classical music. I had to reach the age I am now to fall in love with it. Now I listen almost exclusively to classical music.
BL: Do you have any favorite composers?
LB: Just the major one hundred. Everybody from Stravinsky to Bartok and the British composers – Walton, Benjamin Brittan, Elgar, Strauss, Wagner, Sibelius, Ravel. It’s Strauss who just kills me, and Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
BL: Could we talk about the early ‘50s and your work with Chet?
LB: Yeah, I played with him daily. I was not the original drummer in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Chico Hamilton was. They did an album or two and this whole media craze happened. There were lines outside this little club where they were working with Lena Horne. It was the ‘50s and she was very active, not that much in films, but in clubs and concerts. Chico had a family to look after and he needed to go back with Lena and make some money. I knew Gerry casually and I had played with him a little bit when he invited me to take Chico’s place and play with the quartet at the Haig for seven or eight months. I was playing with Chet every night.
Chet was to me an absolutely amazing player. There was not a night that passed that he didn’t bring me up out of the chair. How did he think of that, where did that come from?
Because his solos every night on the same material were consistently different and incredibly inventive.
I never got to know him personally that well. I didn’t hang out with him and I didn’t particularly like him. We all know the kind of human being he was – he was a beautiful juvenile delinquent, like the character of James Dean before “East of Eden.” He was really Peck’s bad boy. There was nothing to really tie me to him either intellectually or emotionally. I wasn’t interested in what he was interested in. Never hung out with him socially. Never got together. Our only connection was in the music. Then he went his own way. New he was suddenly the new hot guy, he was recording under his own name, formed the Chet Baker Quartet, went on the road and up to New York.
Everybody was making noises like he was going to be the successor to Miles. That’s apples and oranges comparing him to Miles. That’s two different animals. So that was pretty much the end of any association we had. Long stretches of time went by when I didn’t hear about him and didn’t have any occasion to think of him.
One night in the ‘60s I was playing in a club in Los Angeles with a marvelous pianist, Jimmy Rowles, whom I have known forever, and Chet came in. He looked dreadful and asked if he could sit in. Jimmy kind of demurred and Chet insisted. This may be apocryphal, but it seemed like he had his horn in a paper bag. He got up on the bandstand and just was absolutely awful. He couldn’t begin to play, couldn’t put four notes together. He’d let six or eight bars go by while he was figuring out what he wanted to play.
BL: Was this after the infamous fight when he lost his teeth?
LB: I don’t know. It was sometime in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. I shook my head. It really made me pissed off because of the God-given gift that he had and to have squandered it like that was inexcusable. What a person does with his life is his business. He’s a grown man and he can do what he wants, but I knew how brilliant he could have been and I knew how brilliant he was.
I tend to be excessive. All I would have to do is try heroin once and it would be over, so rather than even know what it was like, I have remained ignorant of that. Hampton Haws and I went to junior high school together. He had some good years but it finally got him.
The last time I saw Chet was in 1985 when I was on the George Wein Festival Tour in France. I forget what town it was but when you’re on tour like that you’re in a different country every day and you’re on an airplane not a bus, but you’re still doing one-nighters. There was an ancient amphitheater in this town. Chet went on before we did and he played his set with only a guitar player. Chet came out and had to sit down in a chair. They put the microphone toward the trumpet and he blew towards the floor. All I heard was just a shadow of what he had been. Of course he had lost his teeth by then. He looked like he was seventy five. He was a month younger than me, so he would have been about fifty four. I may have seen him back stage – I don’t even remember if we spoke. No real personal relationship with Chet and no desire to. I don’t think he did either.
Wasn’t there some talk about doing a film of his life?
BL: Bruce Weber did a documentary . It was nominated for an Academy Award. There was very little trumpet playing; it was depressing. Frank Strazzeri played the piano and functioned as the musical director although he said he didn’t get screen credit other than playing . About two years ago Frank Bakshi, the guy who did “Felix the Cat” talked to Carol, Chet’s widow about doing a dramatization of Chet’s life. Before that I think Dennis Cole was shopping a script around.
LB: Quite a few years ago someone contacted me about being in a movie. I said no. I wasn’t interested in mythologizing him and glorifying him – his talent notwithstanding . I saw him and his behavior when he was in his early twenties. If he hadn’t bee able to play the trumpet he would have ended up in jail. Well, he did end up in jail.
I’m not a stick in the mud – I’ve had my wildness, my flaming youth period which thankfully flamed out so I’m not any holier-than-thou. Just observe the Golden Rule – he didn’t seem to be interested in that. His behavior was just inexcusable to women who fawned over him. Charlene, his first wife, he’d do numbers on her in front of the others. She seemed like a nice lady. He’d do it just because he could get away with it. I understand God-given talent and I understand he gave it away. I didn’t want to be involved in anything to mythologize him and hold him up as some kind of hero because he wasn’t.
Larry Bunker is a work in progress. Growing, changing, seeking new experiences, new horizons in his music. Chet Baker was a musician who found his musical voice early and never stopped refining and burnishing his style. Two artists pursuing their muse by different routes. We are luck that their paths crossed for seven months in 1953. They played music that is innovative and fresh forty one years later. In fact, it sounds as though it might have been recorded today.
THE SUMMER OF 1960 Maurizio Po
Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer, says that at every single moment in our lives, we are but the sum of all our past and present memories, which may stay dormant or crop up, intertwine and come back to life from the inner recesses of our consciousness. What triggers off our compulsion to open up the gates of reminiscences, bringing us back to the enchanted scenario of happy childhood with warm family relationships or echoes of voices, situations, sounds and perfumes of youth or adulthood, may be anything that strikes our sight, smell, test or hearing.
Among the most recurrent memories, the sweetest ones are those evoked by music, the most abstract of arts which, arousing emotions, allows musicians as well as listeners to recreate reality.
For us the jazzman, who, more than any other, had the magic gift for stirring our memories and had the urgency and the spiritual necessity to project an imaginary world to set us against years lived at a rare level of tension, is – needless to say – Chet Baker, the artist whose life and work seem so inseparable to make us think that Oscar Wilde’s motto - “Live! Be always reaching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing,” should have been conceived and written for him.
Now, what brought this all about was, we were listening to – spellbound as usual – “Live From the Moonlight,” the double CD that Paolo Piangiarelli (God bless him) recorded ‘live’ from the Philology label and that Chet Baker, Michel Graillier and Massimo made memorable at the MOONLIGHT CLUB IN Macerata, Italy, on November 24, 1985, on one of those night in which Chet, at his best, played with his partners like an angel from one end to the other of over one hundred and fifty four minutes work, soaring to that dimension where no barriers were interposed between instruments and emotions.
On that night Chet lingered on the edge of the sublime and almost touched the absolute, building up his own artistic reality and giving shape to that musical universe that night after night acted as a counterbalance to an existence marked by the violent clash of dreams with a much more brutal reality and often saddened by the contrast between the sweet stirring smell of success and the harsh ordeal of deceiving wished that made him face the dark abyss of anguish, suffering and desolation.
The tune we were listening to was Estate (Summer): the piano introduction, the melody, whispered with that unbelievable low register and those betray notes unfolding their delicacy like soft petals of flowers covered with morning drops of dew: the solo weaving chorus after chorus into the night air and into our mind: the purity of the tone, extracting – to use Paola’s words- “… the quintessence of beauty in music;” the introspection and the unquenchable flair for melodic invention: those sequences of warm, extraordinarily fluid notes, feather-light, but with a sure sense of direction and strength, notes selected from unexpected places, bearing the stamp of inevitability to take one’s breath away….. the vain and hopeless attempt to describe music!!
All words become commonplace and none get near to catch the emotional power that Chet Baker achieved by playing his music; the sad-glad feeling of that trumpet must be heard to be believed. It is much easier to convey the over-all effect of music on us. As we said, it was night – one of those summer nights with stars shining bright like rare diamonds in a dark sky. On the wings of the notes of Estate, tittle by little, the magic had happened. All that tenderness had unraveled the long thread in the rooms of our memories, as if a necklace of past experiences had been disentangled, bringing us back to a memorable year of our life: 1960, the year of our epiphany in jazz with the discovery and the revelation of Chet Baker’s music and the summer holiday spent at the seaside on the Adriatic coast in Riccione, Italy: the light-headedness of eighteen years of age; a mind teeming with hopes and the longing to share happiness; the sea and the summer haze; the loveliness if Ingrid Rose: her smile, the chime in her voice, the innocence in her eyes; the settling of the sun lying on the sandy beach; the walks hand-in-hand under dark starry skies; the scent and the fragrance of the sea breeze; the wind in her hair; the silences and the looks more expressive than the words; the sadness of the farewell…..
Bewitched by Chet’s music, the extraordinary vividness of those fragments of the summer of 1960 had been mentally and emotionally recreated and they had been as poignant, as fresh, as true, as mobile and as light as those soulful notes coming from Chet's heart. The music had faded into the darkness, but it had reached our heart in its beauty as those pure, suffused, innocent, unforgettable, sad-glad moments of that long past summer. Carried along by the evocative power of Chet’s Estate we had one of those experiences that only great music can give. A little miracle had happened: Chet’s poetry had produced it, making us relive, on an ordinary day in your ordinary life, an unrepeatable moment of our youth.
After waves of emotions had faded away, we were wondering for the umpteenth time what makes Chet’s playing so special to us and were trying to analyze whey we have always been so taken with his work since first hearing it thirty-five years ago. Was it the touch of innocence we heard that built up that ideal world where there was no trace or place for cruelty, dishonesty, vulgarity arrogance, egoism and cynicism? Was it the way he coloured notes: confessions, creatures that existed, that had the gravitation of the soul, the beating of the heart, the light and the breathing of life? Was it the way he stretched and compressed time, making silences as eloquent as notes?
We do not know. What we do know is that, at times, his trumpet was so gentle and his voice so touching that even the frightful monsters that haunted him lost their obscure mysterious strength because all that tenderness had caressed, soothed and momentarily tamed them. What we do know is that in every tune and solo we recognized him as if he had always played an endless tune with an endless solo, yet each time it seemed he was starting again from the very beginning to cross the doors of the unknown and investigate it to savour the pleasure of discovering that ‘there’ at the end of a solo there was still something new and unsaid to express that was expecting him.
What we do know is that the end of each solo or concert was not the real end of his creative inventions: it was a sort of ‘pause’ to give a little rest to his fervent imagination and the start again with a new story of his which was our story because Chet transformed his ideal world into ours and proposed it to us with wonderful suggestion and limpid poetry. What we do know is that like truly great artists, like the Greek tragic writers, like Shakespeare, like Picasso, like Morass, like Bird, Chet Baker was old and modern, ancient and contemporary: there was always in the music something that concerned us, something that had accompanied men forever because it communicated, it inspired, it evoked and conveyed the deepest and most genuine truths. What we do know is that Chet carried us far away along uncharted galaxies and during that fight each of his solos was like a sparkling shooting star which sank deeply into the chasm of our unconscious and gave an answer to our questions and doubts.
What we do finally know is that probably the secret of his art was as old as man, but difficult to discover in the technocratic age that we live in. Today the occasional artist still manages to find it. That secret is just one word that must be uttered without adjectives. That word explains art and human beings and, sometimes a whole life is not enough to learn it. Chet knew it very well – that word is called SIMPLICITY.