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The Chet Set

by Mike Zwerin

Young Chet by William ClaxtonPARIS - 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 chief.

ChetHe 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.

Chet at the pianoFor 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?

Chet at the micThe 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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