Authors: Bill Moody
Tags: #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General
Looking for Chet Baker
Looking for Chet Baker
An Evan Horne Mystery
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2002, 2010 by Bill Moody
First Trade Paperback Edition 2010
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2010923844
ISBN-13 Print: 9781590585733 Trade Paperback
ISBN-13 eBook: 9781615952359
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
Poisoned Pen Press
6962 E. First Ave., Ste. 103
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
looks out from his hotel room
across the Amstel to the girl
cycling by the canal who lifts
her hand and waves and when
she smiles he is back in times
when every Hollywood producer
wanted to turn his life
into that bitter-sweet story
where he falls badly, but only
in love with Pier Angeli,
Carol Lynley, Natalie Wood;
that day he strolled into
the studio, fall of fifty-two,
and played those perfect lines
across the chords of “My Funny Valentine”
and now when he looks from his window
and her passing smile up to the blue
of a perfect sky he knows
this is one of those rare days
when he can truly fly.
Thanks first and foremost to Chet Baker for the legacy of so much great music he left to the world.
I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of musicians who were also friends of Chet. They gave generously of their time and remembrances. The late bassist Carson Smith; saxophonist Jack Montrose; pianist Russ Freeman; saxophonist Herb Geller; bassist Bob Badgely; trumpeter Graham Bruce; trumpeter, pianist, bassist, artist Terry Henry; and vocalist Marigold Hill, who played no small role in making available undiscovered recordings of Chet, done those many years ago in the basement of her waterlogged home in Villa Grande, California. Marigold remains a good friend, and as drummer Benny Barth says, “a beautiful girl for many years.”
Thanks also to Dick Conte of KCSM-FM in San Mateo, for sharing memories and interview tapes. Additional information that was extremely helpful was the film
Chet Baker: The Last Days
, produced by Dutch Television, and j. de Valk’s fine biography,
Chet Baker: His Life and Music.
To George Gibson and Michael Seidman at Walker & Company for their continued support of Evan Horne, and to Philip Spitzer for always being more than an agent.
And finally to Teresa, the best first reader any writer could have.
Chet Baker—or Jet Faker, as I often called him—and I met in the early 1950s. The musical rapport between us was immediate. We worked, recorded, and traveled together for nearly five years. In 1953 Chet, his first wife, Charlaine, and I rented a house together in the Hollywood Hills. It was there that I wrote many of the compositions we later recorded. In addition to being arranger, composer, and pianist with the quartet, I took care of all the details when we went on the road, so I came to know Chet very well.
Chet was often thoughtless where other people were concerned,
but he could play.
He loved cars and drove too fast,
but he could play.
He was a drug abuser for forty of his fifty-eight years, but
he could play
. All that is true.
It’s not true that Chet couldn’t read music, although he couldn’t read it well enough to do studio work. But it is true that he knew nothing about harmonic structure or chords, even simple ones. If you asked him what notes were in a certain chord, he couldn’t tell you. He was, however, a truly instinctive player with an incredible ear and great lyrical sense. If anyone has doubts about this, just listen to “Love Nest” or “Say When” from the CD
Quartet: Russ Freeman and Chet Baker.
It’s unfortunate that many critics and musicians were unaware of what they were listening to. Chet Baker was unique; there will never be another like him.
Bill Moody has done an outstanding job in capturing a very difficult subject. Not only is
Looking for Chet Baker
an enjoyable read, but Bill provides a further glimpse into the jazz life and the character of one of the music’s most remarkable musicians.
Las Vegas, 2001
“Know what I did when I heard, man? Just sat there for a few minutes staring at the TV, knew right then I wasn’t going to work the next day. No way. Fifteen seconds on the six o’clock news, and an old photo. American jazzman Chet Baker died in Amsterdam yesterday under mysterious circumstances. Yeah, right. You know he was high, nodded off, fell right out of the window of his hotel. Chet was gone.
“Well, right then I got out some of my best shit and I got high. You know, sort of a tribute to Chet. Dug out all those old sides too, man, cranked up the stereo and played ’em all. The quartet with Gerry Mulligan, the band with Russ Freeman, the New York sessions with Philly, Joe, Johnny Griffin—even the vocal shit, man, and I loved his later singing. You could tell how much he’d been through with that voice, man, like he wasn’t going to make it through the fucking tune but somehow he always did. Tear up your heart, man. Check out what he does on ‘Fair Weather,’ when he made that movie with Dexter Gordon. I’m tellin’ you, man, tear up your heart. Some of that European shit too, and there was a lot of it. In Italy with strings after he got out of jail. ’Course even I don’t have it all, nobody does. He recorded so much they’ll probably never find everything.
“Know what else I did, man? Got my trumpet out too. Dug through my closet, throwing shit everywhere looking for it, and I was so fucked up by then, but I found it. I put on ‘My Funny Valentine,’ and tried to play along with Chetty. No way, man, that’s gone for good, could hardly get a tone out of that old horn, but I could hear it in my head. Then I just cooled out and listened to Chet sing and play and scat, just like he played.
“I just sat there holding that trumpet, crying like a baby, wishing it was me who could play like that, but of course nobody could play like Chet Baker. He was the man!”
I remember all that—Tommy Ryan, crazed wannabe trumpeter, jazz fan gone computer programmer, raving on—when was it? five years ago?—as I study a signed, poster-size photo of Chet Baker on the wall opposite me. He’s looking somewhere off camera, like always, never in the lens, maybe nowhere, someplace none of us can go.
“Evan?” Colin Mansfield turns around to look over his shoulder, follow my gaze.
“Oh. Chet gave me that when he was at Ronnie Scott’s, not long before he died. There’s a video of that performance.” He studies me for a moment. “You’re not looking into that, are you? I mean, with your history and all.”
I shake my head. “Nothing to look into. He fell out of a hotel window, didn’t he?” It was ten, eleven years now.
“Well, there was some talk of suicide, even murder,” Mansfield says. I’d once met Chet’s longtime pianist, Russ Freeman, and we’d talked about it. That was after my accident, during the days when I was trying to figure out why some musicians just stop playing. Russ Freeman had been one of them. All those years with Chet and Shelly Manne, and Freeman had just up and quit playing. Lived in Las Vegas now, so I’d heard, arranging, composing.
“No way,” Freeman had said. “There was nothing about Chet that would make him even think about suicide.” Freeman had been adamant. Still, things happen to people.
As for murder, I’d heard those rumors too, and Chet was a junkie. Hard not to travel in bad circles, even if you’re a famous jazz musician who plays beautiful music. Drug dealers don’t care, not if you don’t pay, and there was the beating in San Francisco that, according to the story, cost Chet all his teeth and nearly ended his career. But suicide? No.
“I don’t think so,” I say to Mansfield.
“Hmmm, interesting, though,” Mansfield says. “One never knows. But I find it fascinating—you, I mean. A jazz musician detective. I say, would you mind? I have some questions, and I’m sure my listeners would be enthralled.”
I want to say, Please don’t go there. But I just shrug, maybe because I’ve never heard a jazz DJ use the word
but then this is England. “Hey, it’s your show.”
“We’re on in five, Colin.” I hear the engineer’s voice in my headphones. Mansfield and I both watch him do the silent countdown with his fingers.
“Good evening. I’m Colin Mansfield, and this is
BBC 3 Jazz Scene
. Tonight my guest is American pianist Evan Horne, who begins a one-week engagement at Ronnie Scott’s tomorrow night. Welcome to London, Evan. Good of you to join us.”
“Thanks for having me.” I watch Mansfield across the table from me, flanked by the requisite CD players and turntables. He looks nothing like my idea of a jazz DJ, but London was never my idea of a jazz town either. Everything is different here. Mansfield, in his tweed coat with leather elbow patches, looks more like an off-duty Oxford don. His voice is well-modulated Oxbridge English. He checks some notes in front of him and pushes up the headphones that keep slipping down around his forehead.
“I’d like to begin with a track from your first recording as a leader.” Mansfield smiles, catches my surprised look. “Yes, bit of luck on our part to find this. We managed to get a copy of
, and we’re going to hear ‘Just Friends’ on
BBC 3 Jazz Scene
Mansfield flicks off the air microphone, but I can still hear him talk through the headphones. “Have you been to Ronnie’s before?”
“Yes, once on a brief tour with Lonnie Cole.” Stan Getz had been the headliner.
“You’ll enjoy it, I’m sure,” Mansfield says. “Pete King has carried on well since we lost Ronnie. Another real tragedy.”
I remember reading about it. Heart attack or stroke, but some unusual circumstances. Mansfield nods his head to the music and holds up the album cover for me to see. I look at the photo of myself and see someone I almost don’t recognize, someone much younger, more relaxed than I feel at the moment.
For the next half hour, Mansfield plays music, and I answer his questions on my influences—Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett—and dodge as well as I can the ones about my away-from-the-bandstand experiences. My history, Mansfield called it. No, I didn’t solve Wardell Gray’s death in Las Vegas. Yes, I did confirm that a lost recording of Clifford Brown was bogus, and no, I didn’t stop a serial killer in Los Angeles.
“The FBI were the real heroes,” I say, giving my practiced answer.
“Still,” Mansfield says, “you played a significant role, I daresay.” He presses the button for another cut from my album but keeps the volume low. “We’ll conclude tonight’s show with what I believe is one of your favorite ballads, ‘My Foolish Heart.’ Chet Baker’s too,” Mansfield adds. I give him a look with that one.
“This is Colin Mansfield on
BBC 3 Jazz Scene
. We’ve been visiting with pianist Evan Horne. Stay tuned for the news at ten.”
The music comes up, and Mansfield hands me the album cover. “I wonder, would you mind?”
“Sure.” I sign it, thinking “My Foolish Heart” or “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” either could be my theme song, and both were favorites of Chet Baker. I hand the cover back to Mansfield. “Thanks for having me.”
“My pleasure. I’ll be sure to pop round to Ronnie’s one night and buy you a drink.”
“I look forward to it.” We shake hands, and I make my way out of the studio to the reception area. On the way out, a young girl at the desk with spiked red hair, black lipstick, and an angelic smile stops me.
“There was a call for you,” she says in a soft, light voice. She hands me a slip of paper.
“Thanks.” I glance at the name and number and crumple it up in my hand. “Can you call me a taxi, please?”
“Sure, luv.” Outside, I light a cigarette and bounce the crumpled paper in my hand for a moment, almost tossing it in the gutter. I should just say I didn’t get the message. But that’s not my style.
“Where to, guv?” the taxi driver asks me.
“I’m not sure.”