Artt Frank: Talking Chet Baker

Nicholas F. Mondello BY

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In Chet Baker: The Missing Years—A Memoir (BooksEndependent,LLC), drummer/composer Artt Frank delivers an in-the-room intimate, yet no-holds-barred tale of his professional and personal relationship with the mythologized jazz trumpeter. Drawn from deep admiration for and loyal friendship with Baker, as well as his 14 years performing with him, Frank has painted a distinctive, poignant and dramatically heartfelt portrait of the Chet Baker persona.

All About Jazz: Thanks for taking time to speak with us about the book and your experiences with Chet.

Artt Frank: You're welcome, Nick.

AAJ: This is a very different book than what's been published to date.

AF: A lot of what's been written about Chet in his biographies and other places is malicious or untrue lies. I wanted to show the real Chet Baker, the person; the good things he did that were swept under the rug by the focus on his drug problems and conflicts. I knew him and his family on a very close personal and professional level for a long time. I wanted to tell the truth about Chet Baker.

AAJ: Let's go back to your first encounters with Chet.

AF: Well, I first heard Chet's playing on the radio when I was in the Navy on a ship returning from Korea. My immediate reactions were such that I prayed that I've got to meet this guy. I had played drums in Maine.

AAJ: And actually meeting him in person?

AF: In 1954 he was playing in Boston at Storyville. I met him there and told him how much I admired him. He had just won both the DownBeat and Metronome polls as the best jazz trumpet player. I approached him after quite a few people had spoken to him and, with a white lie, introduced myself asking if he "remembered me." He said no. But, a short time later asked me to join him outside the club where we talked a bit and he told me he would love to drive race cars and win at LeMans.

AAJ: You wouldn't see him again for many years.

AF: Yes, for like 13-14 years. I was then living in Los Angeles, having moved there from Maine. I was gigging and doing some acting and whatever I needed to do to support my family. By chance, after my gig that night with Richard "Groove" Holmes, I drove passed a jazz club, Donte's whose marquee mentioned that Chet was performing there. There were like four couples in the club. Chet really couldn't play—he could hardly make a sound. He had been savagely beaten outside a club some months earlier, lost four front teeth, suffered severe trigeminal jaw damage and wore a poorly-made denture all of which rendered his trumpet-playing excruciatingly painful. I felt terrible for him. I approached him and he told me he remembered our Storyville/"LeMans" conversation from years before. We talked. He said it was his last night there as the club wasn't doing any business. That's how we re-connected. I invited him and Carol over my house the next night for dinner which they did do—and the rest is history.

AAJ: Why do you think Chet took to you?

AF: Chet saw in me that I was truly sincere in my affection for him and his music and that I was not going to take advantage of him, as a lot of people did. He told me after a week of our re-connecting and many times after that that I "was the brother never had." I always felt that brotherly affection for him, as well. I honestly believe God appointed me to help Chet. And, if I hadn't met him again and helped him in those dark days, I don't think he would have ever made it back from those years.

AAJ: What was it about Chet personally that drew you to him?

AF: In addition to his playing, he was painfully honest. If you asked him a question, he'd tell you the truth, man. No BS. That's what I loved about Chet Baker. The books don't really focus on the great player and singer he was, the good person he was, and the good husband and father he was. He was also good to his mother, Vera, too. That's why I wrote the book. I wanted to bring those memories about him out.

AAJ: Tell us an anecdote from the book about Chet's generosity you witnessed.

AF: Sure. Chet was a good man. Once, Chet, Lisa and I were in New York going to the Vanguard to see Zoot Sims. And there were these men huddled around a barrel fire and one guy didn't have a coat. Chet turned to the guy and said: "Try this on, man." The man did and said it fit perfectly. Chet told the man to keep it. He'd literally give you the coat off his back. He loved the homeless and the downtrodden and that came out in his playing. God Bless Chet Baker.

AAJ: You discovered Chet's drug issues first-hand and quite early in your friendship with him. What was your reaction?

AF: When we were both in Los Angeles a few days after my chance seeing him and hearing him play again at Donte's, Chet called me and asked me to take him on an errand. We went into Watts and parked outside a barber shop. I knew something was up because there was a guy in the barber's chair and he wasn't actually getting a haircut. Chet went in the back with one guy. Well, when he came back out I was shocked at his appearance. He looked and walked completely differently than he did moments before. I was deeply concerned for him. He was like limp. He got in the car and fell asleep. I realized then that he was on drugs. We turned the corner, he awakened and I asked him "if we get pulled over, would I be in trouble?" "No, man," he said. "I'd never let that happen to you." I detail this episode in the book and it's a very vivid memory.

AAJ: Did you ever feel that Chet when he was overcome with drug dependency took advantage of your friendship?

AF: Never. Absolutely not. In all the many years I knew him and played with him, not once did I ever feel or get that sense. All I knew was that I was with the great Chet Baker and he befriended and trusted me. I played with everybody—Charlie Parker at 17 at the Royal Roost in New York with Miles Davis and Tadd Dameron. But, I was with the great Chet Baker and so grateful to God. Never, ever.

AAJ: Bird said "You can't play it unless you lived it." Do you think that's why he "took" to Chet?

AF: Bird dug Chet's lyricism, swing and sense of time. I know he warned Chet and others about falling into the drug use trap.

AAJ: From a musical standpoint why do you think you and Chet were simpatico?

AF: Simple. We're both gifted by God. Like Chet, I played completely by ear. I never had a lesson—nothing. It was all about the music and the feeling. Early on, when Chet came to my house and played, I played "brushes" for him using matchbook covers on a telephone book. That blew him away. The first night we played together, the first tune we did was "Fair Weather." Chet turned to me and said: "I leave a lot of spaces, man. Just fill in the spaces, Artt." In other words, he wanted me to keep time and play sub-text to him—not on top on him. He called me a "rainbow drummer," because I played all the hues of the rhythmic rainbow behind Chet. I never got in his way. Rhythmically, Chet played behind the beat and loved that I could play both there and behind that. He played in a "Stop-and-Go" style. There was always a communication—a communion—in our playing together. You know, a lot of great jazz trumpet players play a lot of notes, but, Chet said: "You can't hide behind a ballad." That is so true. I've played with great trumpet players—Miles, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan—everybody. They were great, great players, but, playing with Chet was a spiritual thing we had together. We were both always "in the moment and in the music."

AAJ: I know you are a very spiritual man. And, you've told me that Chet, though he didn't believe in organized religion was a deeply spiritual.

AF: Yes, he was. We spoke frequently about things like that. He knew I was spiritual and I told him that we were placed on this Earth by God to express him through our music. The spirit of God was using us. I'll tell you a spiritual anecdote relating to Chet. When we lived in Trumbull, Connecticut, I created a "Via Dolorosa," a Way of the Cross, behind my house, complete with a replica of the stone walls of Jerusalem. When Chet visited and saw it, he was taken by its serenity and peacefulness. After he died, Carol came from Oklahoma to visit me and Lisa. We took her down to the cross behind a running stream in the woods. When she saw the stone walk and walls, she couldn't believe it. They looked just like the place she said she'd had a dreamed of—stone wall in Jerusalem. In this vivid dream, Chet came out from behind the stone wall in a glowing white T-shirt. He said that he couldn't be with her now, but would be one day. She was very moved by my sanctuary and felt it was a spiritual sign of some kind.

AAJ: You write that Herb Alpert was quite kind to Chet.

AF: Yes, he was. Herb was and is a generous man. In the time before Chet's beating. Herb was the only person who helped get Chet a record done. No one else would or did. Herb was at the Melody Room the night we opened there. Herb had got Chet a horn for the gig, since Chet had pawned his. On a break, Chet went over to Herb's table and introduced me as "This is Artt, the brother I never had." Herb was so gracious and admiring of Chet. And, he subsequently asked Chet to "teach him to improvise." Chet told him. "I can't, Man. Improvisation is governed by one's imagination or lack thereof." I'll never forget that quote. I urged Chet to reconsider and he did. The next day we went down to A&M Records and Chet gave Herb a half-hour improvisation lesson. I remember that Brasil '66 was in the studio that day. I'm grateful for Herb for helping Chet. You can hear "Chet" in Herb's hit record, Rise.

AAJ: Chris Botti's playing and presentation is very Chet-like.

AF: Yes, it is. As a matter of fact, I've met Chris when he performed in Tucson and I discussed that with him. There's a lot of Chet in Chris's playing—his sound and sensitivity. He has that pathos and poignancy in his playing, just like Chet. Chris was so gracious to meet and speak with me. Later during the show, Chris spoke to the audience, referencing the fact that he was heavily influenced by both Miles and, more so, Chet. He asked the crowd: "Can you imagine what it was like to play with Chet?" He then kindly pointed me out in the audience and then he started to play some of "My Funny Valentine." He got a mic from pianist, Billy Childs, brought it over to me and I sang "My Funny Valentine" in Chet's style. Man, Chet was speaking and singing through me. Chris was playing a beautiful harmonic line underneath my voice. It was really moving. The tune ended and we got a long standing ovation. Incidentally, I sent Chris a copy of my memoir about Chet.

AAJ: How long has this book been in the works?

AF: I started in 2007. As you know, Chet died in 1988. I was sick of reading and hearing so many bad things about Chet. Lisa, my wife suggested my writing my memories of playing and being with Chet. So I did. I wrote and wrote and wrote. It took me almost two years of writing to get what I wanted—all the good memories I had of Chet. The stuff they never write about.

AAJ: You referenced a follow-up book. What's that all about?

AF: It covers my friendship with Chet in those later years and up to his passing and after it. There's a lot more focus on the music we made. It's already completed and at the publisher's. The publisher said it's targeted for Valentine's Day. How's that for timing?

AAJ: Artt, on behalf of All About Jazz, thank you and best of luck with this and the second book.

AF: Thanks, Nick. God bless Chet Baker and God bless you.

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