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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?



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