The Chet Set
by Mike Zwerin
PARIS - Underrated,
unreliable, his own worst enemy; underfed, strung out, with a weak upper
register, all emotion, Chet Baker was a kind of Dostoevsky of jazz.
He once told me that he was underrated because the world was not ready
for an Oakie trumpet player who lived in Los Angeles - he was born in Oklahoma
from hillbilly stock. He added that it might be because he made it sound
too easy. He compared himself to Willie Mays effortlessly catching an impossible
fly ball in center field.
But the hard truth is that he is not appreciated by today's African
American Young Lions because they are not ready to listen objectively to
someone who had, at the beginning of his career with Gerry Mulligan, been
pushed as a great white hope.
In reality, Chet's choice of notes and where and how he placed them
was color-blind and Coastless. When he played a blue note, it was bloody
blue. He could construct melodies as lucid as Lester Young. In fact, he
was more influenced by Pres than Miles, to whom he was often (unfavorably)
compared. I once asked him if that bothered him, and he smiled enigmatically
and said: "I'm a Miles Davis fan."
In the mid-80s, a few years before his death, his good nights were better
than ever. They were in fact career peaks. Since he spent most of the 80s
in Europe, many Americans are not aware of his most mature virtuousity.
Young Chet looked like James Dean, old Chet resembled an ageing Indian
spent two years in an Italian jail in the 60s and later was forced to learn
to play the trumpet all over again after his teeth were knocked out in
a fight over a dope deal in New York. Excess, anguish, pain and dentured
funk combined with surprising resourcefulness for such a wisp of a guy
added up to some kind of spooky affirmation of life.
Chet Baker was Summertime, but the livin' twarn't easy.
Buyer Beware! The odds are against the unschooled or unlucky. Chet made
far too many records, he always needed cash to support his heroin habit.
(When he died in 1988, he was called "the last of the bebop junkies.")
He didn't care how tired or unprepared he was or about the quality of the
other musicians in the studio as long as it was cash on the barrelhead.
As little as two grand would do it.
Here are a few albums you can count on.
15 minutes in the early 60s, the best jazz musicians in the world were
Belgian. "Chet Baker, The Italian Sessions" (Bluebird) was recorded
in 1962 in Rome with Belgians Bobby Jaspar on tenor, Rene Thomas, guitar,
and Benoit Quersin, bass. (RIP) This is not a Belgian joke.
"Chet's Choice" (Criss Cross, a Danish label) with contemporary
Belgians Philip Catherine, guitar, and Jean-Louis Rassinfosse, bass, includes
a stunning "Love For Sale." There was no drummer. Chet once said
"it takes a helluva drummer to be better than no drummer at all."
"Blues For A Reason" (also Criss Cross) features the Lenny
Tristano-associated tenor saxophone hero Warne Marsh - plus Cecil McBee
and Eddie Gladen. There are some sensitive intricate collective improvisations
with both Catherine and Marsh; reminiscent of Marsh and Lee Konitz with
Tristano, and young Chet with Gerry Mulligan.
The hard-swinging "Once Upan A Summertime" (Artists House)
with Gregory Herbert, Harold Danko, Ron Carter and Mel Lewis will get you
where you want to go. "Memories, Chet Baker in Tokyo" (Belaphon)
features Harold Danko, piano, and the fine Dutchmen Hein Van Der Geyn,
bass, and John Engels, who, like Mel Lewis, is an example of a drummer
better than no drummer at all.
Chet did not get more media attention, or more visible and lucrative
work, or more customers when he did work because his fragility was so terribly
raw. People were afraid it might be contagious. And there was the practical
question - would he show up in the first place?
French liked him, which is one reason to like the French. He was often
on the cover of Jazz Magazine and Jazz Hot and he played the New Morning
in Paris often. Or at least it was often until one snowy February night
when he fell off his chair zonked in the middle of "My Funny Valentine."
A piano player who worked with him a lot told me that Chet often left
for the next engagement in the wrong direction. That is, he would drive
to Paris from Brussels by way of Amsterdam. All roads led to Amsterdam.
He had a dealer in Amsterdam. He drove a Mercedes, he was earning something
like $200,000 a year in the mid- eighties when, on a good night, Chet's
trumpet could be about as good as jazz ever gets.
If there had been no unexpected personal problems on the way, he would
arrive maybe 45 minutes late. Sometimes the pay was not what it was supposed
to be, or when. But, the pianist said, "there were so many magic moments,
they made everything else worthwhile."
The tune we're playing is not "There's No Business Like Show Business,"
folks. It's more like "Everything Happens To Me."
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