© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Musician Magazine was in circulation from about 1976 to 1999 and, given the time frame, it published fewer features on Jazz relative to the musical interests of the general public.
It’s a shame, because judging from the following conversation between Chet Baker and Jerome Reece, the quality of the articles and interviews they did issue about Jazz were first rate.
Baker didn’t give a lot of interviews - another disappointment - because this one has a lot to commend it.
It is certainly revelatory regarding Chet’s take on his time with Charlie Parker [Bird] and Gerry Mulligan, the conditions that were prevalent when he first became a Jazz musician in the late 1940s/early 1950s, when and why he got into drugs, his life style, his lack of earnings from his recordings, his influences on trumpet, his relationship with Mulligan subsequent to their time together in the 1952-53 quartet, the subject of a reunion tour with Mulligan and why it never happened, his thoughts about the autobiographies of Art Pepper and Charlie Mingus, why he quit playing from 1969-73, how Dizzy Gillespie helped him get back into playing again, why he spends so much time in Europe, his thoughts about his current recordings and electronic instruments, on the effect on the audience of making playing the trumpet look effortless/too easy, the necessity of playing every night, on academic learning and Jazz, especially improvisation, on why he composes so rarely, his views on Don Cherry, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Kenny Dorham and Lee Morgan, heroin usage then and now, smoking and what it does to his voice and where his career goes from here.
Another night , another club:
For Chet Baker it is the same story as yesterday, as tomorrow, as twenty-five years ago. A set, a break, another set, sweat. Science fiction lighting adds to the haziness of time and period; everywhere, in the inevitable mirrors and even in the floor, one can contemplate one's image, without a microphone the sounds flowing from his trumpet would be but a murmur barely more perceptible than his voice — a voice so much softer than the profoundly marked face that only opens enough to let it filter out.
It is hard to believe that he was once called the James Dean of jazz. Chet Baker's face, which bears an eerie resemblance to Antonin Artaud's in the last part of his life, is now but a fascinating mask sculpted by the trials of life and creation.
Without his glasses he seems even farther away, lost in an opaque fog. Chet sees little, but enough to instinctively piece together the listening forms and shadows. Enough in any case to guess, night after night, the other side of the spectacle: the bartender shaking a cocktail, the waitress moving back and forth in front of the stage, the noisy silhouettes leaning on tables.
Even when he's not playing, Chet grips his trumpet like a weapon; he continually licks the embouchure and his elastic face invents new wrinkles. And if he gets up to sing, his hand keeps looking for imaginary pistons on the microphone. Mysteriously, time and tobacco have only polished his voice, with its imperceptible falsetto that plays every register of feeling. Virtuoso instrumentalist and tightrope singer, Chet has arrived at an extraordinary osmosis of two forms of musical expression, comparable to the great blues singers/harmonica players.
Chet Baker has been a star in Europe for almost thirty years. He has spent the major portion of his career there, beginning with his first, triumphant visit to Paris in 1955. He'd grown up in California; his father had played banjo and guitar in various swing bands. A few cursory lessons in junior high school comprised the whole of Chet's formal musical training; later, as a member of an army band, he learned to sight-read by picking up marches by ear and then transposing what he'd heard to the printed sheets before him. Discharged in 1948, he flunked his theory classes at El Camino College in L.A., then reenlisted to join the Presidio army-band station in San Francisco, and not coincidentally, join the nightly jam sessions at Bop City with the likes of Dexter Gordon, Paul Desmond, and Hampton Hawes. By 1952 he was playing West Coast dates with Charlie Parker. The following year he joined the Gerry Mulligan quartet, where the chemistry between Mulligan's probing baritone and Baker's light, lilting trumpet thrust both toward international prominence. By 1953, the year he began recording under his own name, Baker had already won the Down Beat poll as the best trumpet player in jazz. He was twenty-four years old.
With its lyrical West Coast sound, the Mulligan-Baker quartet dominated jazz in the early and mid-fifties. Baker's fresh, openly romantic style hasn't really changed much over the years, but his subsequent experiences have given his sound an edge that's intensely melancholic and bitter-sweet. His problems began almost before he had a chance to savor success—first a gum disease that threatened to destroy his health and career, then a lengthy bout with heroin that effectively accomplished the same end. Arrests and prison stretches in Europe commenced with a drug bust in Italy in 1959; in 1968, in San Francisco, Baker suffered a mugging that ultimately resulted in the loss of his teeth. He stopped playing for two years, began a slow recovery from his addiction through methadone, and culminated his comeback with a reunion concert with Mulligan and several club dates around New York City in 1974-75. Then he migrated back to Europe. But, as with Miles Davis, whose muted blue tone Baker's own has long resembled, fate's scars have only deepened the inexpressible beauty of his art. lf, as it has been said, Miles sounds like a man walking on eggshells, Chet sounds like Goethe's Werther singing to himself on the edge of a precipice. Along with a handful of others, he remains one of the last great jazz musicians in an ever-shrinking world where few recall what that "jazz" ever meant — though perhaps (ironically) Baker's exquisite solo on Elvis Costello's "Shipbuilding" might broaden the chance of his discovery by another generation of fans.
It's four A.M. The magical intimacy inside the club has dissipated with the last encore. Covered with sweat, Chet timidly holds his trumpet case like a junior executive with a briefcase. l ask him, stupidly enough, how he can stand all these nights in claustrophobic, smokey basements. He smiles slightly: "Lots of practice." For years he has refused interviews — this time, and who knows why — he says yes.
Several days later we meet at the country home of one of his musicians. Chet sits up on his bed, then for hours lies there with his eyes closed, sucking on candy after candy and cigarette after cigarette. At the end he gets up and, with a malicious smile, shows me his trumpet, telling me it's a student model. The music is in him, no matter what object. As I ready to leave he puts a Walkman over my ears. He smiles, always a rare moment, and gives me the cassette as a good-bye present.
MUSICIAN: You call yourself a loner. Have you ever tried to settle down?
BAKER: A couple times. Once in 1974 in upstate New York, with my wife and children. But when the people in the neighborhood found out who I was — through some-thing about me on the local TV station — they started bothering my children, breaking my windows. Calling me "drug addict" in the street. The civilized world we live in is a lot of crap. l tried again a little later on Long Island and that didn't work either. People think l'm some kind of scum, so I just gave up the whole idea. Yeah, we moved out. My kids are grown up now. l don't have to worry about them. None of them are musicians.
MUSICIAN: Are you happy about that?
BAKER: Yeah, I'm happy about that. Yes I am. The odd against a talented musician being successful are so great....
MUSICIAN: And how do you feel about your music now.
BAKER: It's just my way of improvising and of bouncing off what the other musicians are playing. I respond very much to what is going on around me, since I play a hundred percent by ear. The conditions I grew up in don't exist anymore. I think I'm part of a dying breed. Yeah, it's kind of sad in a way, but that's progress, I guess.
MUSICIAN: The end of a certain jazz.
BAKER A certain kind of jazz, a very personal kind of jazz. There aren't too many groups anymore like the trio I have, especially without drums. It makes it more like a chamber trio. I'd prefer to play completely acoustic. The louder the music is, it seems the more people talk. But in many places people do listen. In some clubs in Paris you can hear a pin drop.
MUSICIAN: Speaking of progress, don't you think conditions are better now than for, say, Charlie Parker in the 1940s?
BAKER: I think Charlie Parker had a very happy life. He had tremendous success, was loved and adored by so many people. He was the king, the same as the king of a country. Playing with Bird was the very greatest experience I ever had. But I was too young and too stupid to get as much out of it as I should have. I did get to spend a lot of time with Bird — on the stand and off. I would drive him around, go to the beach ... we got to be good friends. He certainly told me to stay away from drugs, and he kept certain people away from me who would have tried to give me things. I was twenty-two at the time, and I didn't start taking drugs until I was twenty-seven. Although people seem to think that I started much earlier.
MUSICIAN: It's hard to believe you. You were playing with users like Gerry Mulligan, Dick Twardzick, Art Pepper...
BAKER: I know, but I was totally elean. As clean as a whistle. Dick's overdose [while on tour with Baker in 1955] totally destroyed me. Destroyed me. Dick's parents felt it was my fault, even though I was completely unaware of this situation.
MUSICIAN: So why did you start at twenty-seven?
BAKER: Because I had to find out about it. I'd been fascinated for a long time, but I'd managed to fight it off. Then I started, in the States. I had gotten married a second time, which was a great mistake. She was a wonderful person, but...
MUSICIAN: And you were less popular than you had been in the early fifties....
BAKER: That could have been a reason, too ... could have been. It's not because of the "jazz world." It depends on the person. Some musicians were afraid to try drugs because they had a certain success and didn't want to jeopardize it. I'm not like that. I've been up and down so many times.... I have no property, no bank account, no money, and I probably will die broke — which is fine because that's the way I came into the world. I don't get any money from all those records I made. Just the advance. I've been cheated out of my record royalties by almost every company. I have no idea how many records I sell.
MUSICIAN: So, for you, do drugs have anything to do with the way a musician plays?
BAKER: No, I could have played just as well without it. I don't think it hurt it, but I don't think it did it any good. It gets in the way when you're strung out and have to play sick on the stand. I don't need drugs for inspiration. The music comes from inside, and is pushed out by outside influences from the musicians I'm playing with. I love to play, and I think it's the only reason I was put here on this earth.
MUSICIAN: You say that in a religious sense.
BAKER: Yes. But I don't believe there is a God. It's a beautiful story, but ... I was put here through thousands of years of people having children and it finally got to me. And my father was a good musician, he had a good ear, good time.
MUSICIAN: So you really feel you were put here to be a jazz musician?
BAKER: Yeah, I really do. If I'd played another kind of music, I would have been more successful and wouldn't be playing anymore. I'd be retired by now.
MUSICIAN: And it all started when your father gave you a trumpet, at thirteen.
BAKER: Well, my father wanted me to play trombone, since he liked Jack Teagarden very much. But I was too small physically to be able to play it. I was rather small for my age. So my father got me a trumpet.
MUSICIAN In California?
BAKER: Yeah, we'd moved from Oklahoma. I'd been playing about six months when a rock hit me in the left front tooth, chipping it. And I played that way for about twenty-five years. That, of course, made me invent my own technique of playing the trumpet, having that tooth missing.
MUSICIAN: It's assumed — erroneously, I think — that you were influenced by Miles Davis. You were both growing up at the same time, and none of the trumpet players were playing in the style you both developed. It was Roy Eldridge and then Dizzy Gillespie.
BAKER: It's a style that I evolved myself. Yes. Yes.
MUSICIAN: But who were you listening to in your youth?
BAKER: I listened to a lot of saxophone players. Quite a bit of Lester Young. Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon. Wardell and Dexter lived in California. The trumpet players I knew were very young, like myself. Jack Sheldon, Pete and Conte Candoli. Also Art Farmer. We were influencing each other, and influenced by the saxophone players in L.A. at the time: Art Pepper, Lennie Niehaus, Joe Maini, Bill Perkins, Richie Kamuca.
MUSICIAN: Were you listening to singers?
BAKER: Not really. I admired Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, and Steve Lawrence also.
MUSICIAN : You made your first record as a singer in 1954 for World Pacific [Chet Baker Sings]. Had you been singing since childhood?
BAKER: Yes. My mother made me enter talent contests as a singer in the L.A. area. I'd compete against girl accordion players, tap dancers, etc. I never won, but I came in second once. I'd sing songs like "That Old Black Magic" and "I Had the Craziest Dream." It was a lot of fun, and good experience. In 1954 Dick Bock, the owner of World Pacific, suggested that I make a record as a singer. He'd heard me sing a few times in clubs — I'd sing maybe a tune a set. I never sang when I was with Gerry Mulligan. Only on our recording of "My Funny Valentine," in the studio in 1953, People really loved it or they hated it.
MUSICIAN. Another question about your childhood. Is it true that you smoked marijuana with your parents when you were growing up?
BAKER: No. And I don't know how that story got invented and circulated. My father would smoke with other musicians a few times a week at the house, but I was very young at the time. I never smoked with my family. What a ridiculous story — my mother was very strict and she was against all that.
MUSICIAN: And now since we've come to that period in your life, the early Fifties, the inevitable question about Gerry Mulligan ...
BAKER: Playing again with Gerry is out of the question. He just doesn't want to have anything to do with me. He's so pissed off. Because I've been able to make it on my own, without him. He can't hack that. I was supposed to be his trumpet player for life, I guess. And at ridiculous wages. Which is why I left him in the first place. He wouldn't give me a raise, and I'd just been voted the best trumpet player in the world.
MUSICIAN: You did make that CTI live reunion album together in 1974....
BAKER: We did that just for old times' sake. You can imagine how many people come up to him and ask him when he and I will play together again. It just drives him out of his mind. It's so stupid, because even if we only got together for only one year, for a world tour, it could be fantastic economically. But he won't do it.
MUSICIAN: In 1965 you made that nice Plays Billie Holiday album. Did you listen to a lot of Billie Holiday, especially her last years?
BAKER. I never listened to anyone a lot.
MUSICIAN: That fascinated me in Art Pepper's book [Straight Life], and in Charles Mingus's book, too [Beneath the Underdog); they hardly ever talk about music or other musicians.
BAKER: I found Art Pepper's book kind of disgusting. All that shit about how good-looking he was, his peeping into bathroom windows ... masturbating. Art was really a loner, but not in the same way I am. It was very difficult to get to know him. People like Pepper and Mingus were a little too preoccupied with their genitals. I realized at a very tender age that there just isn't time or opportunity enough to screw every beautiful woman in the world. It's better to just be cool — if that is possible — and to be selective and wait for the opportunity. I can't really comment on Art because I never really knew him, never got high with him, not even once. I was always rather disappointed with Art's playing when we recorded in the 1950s. He wasn't completing any ideas — things were broken up into fragments. There were no long lines. But I never got to hear him live. I heard that in the 1970s his playing was twice as good as it had ever been.
MUSICIAN: What did you do between 1969 and 1973 when you quit playing?
BAKER: I had my other front tooth knocked out in 1969. My teeth were in bad shape anyway from all the drugs; I had so much pain that I decided to have them all pulled out. I got a denture, and when I tried to play again I couldn't even get a sound out of the trumpet. So I quit playing. I worked in a gas station sixteen hours a day for almost two years. Then I tried again, looking for a new embouchure. It took me two years. By the summer of 1973 I felt I was ready to try to go back to work. So I was driving to New York and stopped in a club in Denver to hear Dizzy Gillespie. I told him what I was doing and he called a club in New York from his hotel and I was hired for a two-week gig in New York. And that's how I started playing again. Then I went to Europe, and found the audiences very receptive. And now I find myself working in Europe seventy-five percent of the time.
MUSICIAN: Why do you spend so much time in Europe?
BAKER: It's very difficult to work regularly in the States. In New York if you work in a club you can't play in a club in New York before or after for a least a month — it's in the contract. So you have to travel. It's a lot easier to travel in Europe. And the level of comprehension is much higher than in the States. The average listener in the States has the mentality of a twelve-year-old.
MUSICIAN: You've made a lot of records over the years. Are you happy with them, or were a lot of them for the money?
BAKER: I always need the money. I'm fairly happy with the results. I would say seventy percent of the records are worthwhile musically. Of the recent ones, Broken Wing (Inner City] is very nice. Two a Day (Steeplechase) is nice. I've recorded a lot recently, mostly live club dates. In 1982 I did one in New York, which I like a lot, I wish it would come out, but the producer — a guy in the garment industry — is having problems. There's Kenny Barron, James Newton, Charlie Haden, Howard Johnson, and Ben Riley.
MUSICIAN: You recently recorded with Elvis Costello ("Shipbuilding," on Punch the Clock for Columbia), ffow'd that come about?
BAKER: I'd never heard of him. I was working in London and he contacted me. He is a very nice man. He is the only person not from the jazz world who has contacted me so far for a record date.
MUSICIAN: He added some nice little electronic touches to your solo. Does working more with electronics interest you?
BAKER: Not really. It would be fun to try to do it. But most jazz record companies don't seem to be interested in that. They want me to keep it ... simple. For my public.
MUSICIAN: You've always loved Miles. What do you think of his electronic playing, as of 1969?
BAKER. I think Miles enjoys doing things that upset people. I prefer his playing of twenty years ago, but I find what he's doing now just as valid.
MUSICIAN: Do you hear many young trumpet players you like? Musicians influenced by you?
BAKER: Yes, I think my style of trumpet playing is coming back a little. After all, how fast can you play? It's much more musical and certainly more — in my way of thinking anyway — difficult to play in a style where you play less notes and leave more open spaces and choose the notes you play very carefully. Playing a beautiful ballad is very difficult.
MUSICIAN: More difficult than playing a fast bebop tune?
BAKER: Well, of course, some of the bop tunes are very complicated, and if you try to play them at bright tempos, you triple the difficulty, and you get to the point where it's so difficult that it's no fun anymore — just a lot of hard work. And most people listening can't follow you anyway.
MUSICIAN: Your music is often so pretty that people may not realize just how complex it really is.
BAKER: I've been thinking about that a lot. It does look like it's a little too easy. I'm just sitting in a chair with my legs crossed. That's part of the problem. I'll have to make it look a lot more difficult somehow. But, you know, I've been playing for forty years. Why does it have to look so difficult? It's difficult to do, anyway. But this, of course, is a problem because people can't relate to that; if it doesn't look hard, then it must be easy to do. And if it's easy, then it can't be much.
MUSICIAN: There's a definite singing quality to your trumpet playing. Do you hear the notes that way in your head?
BAKER: Oh yeah. All the time. Anything I play on the horn I can sing. I think of every note I play. Once in a while I'll play something that's rather cliche-ish, because there are only a certain number of ways to get through a chord progression of a standard unless you really want to take it out.
MUSICIAN: How do you keep your lip in such good shape?
BAKER: Oh, the main thing is to play every night. I can play about two to three hours a night before I get tired. I don't practice at all, so even if there's one night in the week I don't play, the next night I notice it in my playing at first. I have to play every night.
MUSICIAN: You play so much, aren't you sick of playing?
BAKER Right now I enjoy playing. It means a lot that I have musicians with me that I have good vibrations with. It makes me feel like giving everything I have. It's not always that way — sometimes I find myself in cities with musicians that I don't like and I really don't want to play.
MUSICIAN: When are you going to stop?
BAKER: Within five years. And if I ever teach I'd like to get kids not to depend so much on the music on the paper. Look at Berklee, that's a good example of the problem. There are shortcuts you can show kids that could give them a different insight into music that would save them a lot of time. To make them understand that improvising is a complete separate art in itself, outside the mechanics of the knowledge of chords, etc.
MUSICIAN: You don't compose much. Your piece, "Blue Gilles," on the Broken Wing album is beautiful.
BAKER: It's hard for me to compose. By the time I notate it, I've already thought of five other ways it could be. By the end I'm frustrated with the way it sounds — it could always be better. The way it could have been. Since I play by ear I do it all in my head, but someday I hope to have a place and piano. Then maybe it would be easier to get things done. I'd like to write a few things before I give up for good.
MUSICIAN: Could we talk a bit about other trumpet players? Don Cherry, for instance.
BAKER: I knew him from way back at jam sessions in California in the mid-fifties. I liked Don's playing with Ornette later, but it's not my taste at all.
MUSICIAN: Clifford Brown?
BAKER: [a big smile] Now, that was a sweet man. There was no race problem with him at all. I had the chance to hear him live. Trumpet playing would be different today if he were still alive. He was another man who was put here to play trumpet.
MUSICIAN: Booker Little?
BAKER: [another big smile] Oh yeah! I liked him very much. And Blue Mitchell and Kenny Dorham.
MUSICIAN: You used to run around with Lee Morgan.
BAKER: I didn't like him as a person, so it was hard for me to care about his playing. Morgan and I used to go up to Harlem together to cop and to get high, and if you turned your back for a second, he'd shoot up all the stuff. If I don't like someone, I won't be able to like his music.
MUSICIAN: Yeah, but even Charlie Parker had a rough reputation....
BAKER: He never did anything bad to me. Though I do know that he would borrow instruments from people and then pawn them. It's a terrible thing to do. But I don't think that Bird would ever have done anything like that to me. I used to go up to Harlem a lot. At one point I knew everybody. I could go alone anytime at night and walk down the street and everybody would say, "Hey" ... you know. But not now, all those people are gone.
MUSICIAN: So, do you think heroin is as present in jazz now as it was before?
BAKER: No, I think it's pretty much a part of the past. One reason is that it becomes so expensive so quickly. And if you're depending on jazz to make money — hah — you can't earn enough money. And if you like cocaine to make speedballs, then you need to earn twice that to mix the two together. And you need to find all that money every day. Drugs were much cheaper in the fifties, and the quality was much better. You could buy really good heroin for three dollars. It's so expensive now, no one can afford it. Which is good, I guess.
MUSICIAN: Speaking of drugs, you smoke way too much tobacco. You don't do anything for your voice and yet it sounds great. Every time I hear you sing your voice is different.
BAKER. I do smoke too much, but I don't know why my voice changes the way it does. I just have to learn each night how to get around my voice. I have noticed in the past few weeks that the people who come to hear me react especially well to the numbers in the set when I sing.
MUSICIAN. Art Pepper told me a year before his death that every time he played he was playing as if it were the last time.
BAKER Yeah, I play every set as though it could be my last set, too. It's been like that for several years now. Because I don't have a lot of time left and I want to show the musicians playing with me — more than anybody else - that I'm giving it all I have. I don't want anyone holding back.”
Chet Baker died on May 13, 1988, about 5 years after this interview.