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Bruce Guthrie: Remembering Chet Baker


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There is a saying, 'as the twig is bent the tree is inclined to grow.' Chet was inclined to beautiful, poignant escapism via music at a very young age.
—Bruce Guthrie
I first met the Baker family at Chet's funeral back in 1988. I took my kids out of school and went with my partner, Fonje, to the Los Angeles Cemetery. I had heard about the funeral from our local jazz station and with a big sense of duty to Chet Baker's memory, headed north on the 405 freeway. I remember thinking, this is huge, everyone will be there, everyone in jazz. Having known virtually nothing about the family or all the attendant drama, one of the biggest emotional catastrophes I'd ever witnessed, unfolded there. But that story is for another day.

All About Jazz: Tell me about your first encounter with Chet Baker's music.

Bruce Guthrie: I was doing a performance at The National Press Club in Washington, DC. The pianist on the gig was a man named Tony Materesse. Tony had been in the US Marine Band, and then served as the official White House pianist for President John F. Kennedy. Beyond music he was a very interesting, intuitive, insightful person. Tony always wore these large dark glasses...black shirt, maroon jacket...gruff sing-songy voice...very cool guy (told me many interesting storys of his experience in the JFK White House) After the first set he asked me if I knew of Chet Baker. He had evidently seen him perform at the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore back in the day. I said I didn't know Chet Baker...he mentioned I sang in the cool jazz style Chet did.

So having returned home to Oklahoma and during that year's Christmas season I was doing a gig for a company party at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa. The bassist on the gig was a very cool and excellent player named Jack Hannah. Jack, from Muskogee, Okla., come to find out, had studied at the Navy Music school in DC, played in the One O'clock lab band at North Texas, played in the Navy 5th Fleet Admirals Band, and toured extensively with Mose Allison and played with many great players....Slim Gaillard...Chet...many. So after the gig, Jack...who I had never met before...mentioned to the pianist Carl Curtis...who had booked the gig... that I sounded like a musician from Oklahoma who had asked him to tour with him at one point...Chet Baker. Well now I was determined to listen to Chet Baker. The first song I heard was "Its Always You" from The Best of Chet Baker Sings(EMI, 1989) ...the poignancy of this music was disarming and metamorphic to me.

One morning in December of 2004 I woke up and just had this thought in my head that I was going to have a Chet Baker tribute concert somewhere in Oklahoma. Wasn't sure where. I started networking with people in the Oklahoma jazz scene. As it turned out, there was a little vineyard not far from Yale, Okla. (where Chet was born in 1929) in Drumright, Okla. The vineyard was called Tidal School. It was an old school built by John Rockefeller to be a school for his Tidal Oil company's workers' children...thus Tidal School Vineyard. The owners liked Chet and asked me to organize the first annual Chet Baker Jazz Festival...in July 2005. The first ever Chet Baker Jazz Tribute was held on July 5, 2005, we had about 900 people show up, the governor of Oklahoma proclaimed it Chet Baker Day. I almost had Leon Russell, another successful Oklahoma-born artist, performing, but he had to be somewhere else. But during the day's event comes walking in Chet's son, Paul, and Paul's sons Chad and Chet. Well, Paul looks exactly like his father...scary exactly, and having never met Paul, when I saw him walking in the theater in this place I thought, wow, Chet Baker has reincarnated and come to his own, first ever in his home state, tribute concert.

We've had an event every year since somewhere, and now have an annual Chet Baker Music Festival, in October, in Yale. 2020 will mark the 6th anniversary of the Yale, Oklahoma Chet Baker Jazz festival. We are going to finally place a couple of signs on Oklahoma State highway 51 (that runs through Yale) that proclaim "Yale, Oklahoma; Birthplace of Chet Baker."

AAJ: So how did you meet the family?

BG: As I mentioned, I met Paul, and his sons, at the first tribute concert we held in 2005. After that event Paul asked if I would help him manage the estate. I worked with him for 11 years. And through this work I met all of the Baker family (Carol, Melissa, Dean, step-son Chesney Aftab, Paul and his sons Chet and Chad).

AAJ: What was your impression of Carol and the children?

BG: Carol is very, very smart, as is Paul. They work hard to try to control the estate assets, to make sure they receive the proper benefits. I respect them both. Paul can be pretty impulsive in his zeal to deal with people. I've been on the receiving end of that "zeal...," it can be harsh, but I respect him because I know in his heart he's an all right guy willing to do fair business; although "fair" is sometimes a very lost concept in the music business world. Carol I can call a friend and someone with whom I've visited with very extensively...and still do a little business for...but she simply chooses to live her quiet life in England. I like them both and am happy to have worked with/for them.

AAJ: Have you read any of the books about Chet? Any that really get to the heart of Chet? What about Artt Frank's book?

BG:Sad thing to me is that what has been primary image promoted of Chet is that of a sort of laconic drifter of a musician/person. Yet, in reality...totally accepting the fact that he was an addict... he was a great artist who worked hard and a lot and, to my ears, created timeless beautiful music.

No book I've read even begins to reflect the reality described by Carol and Paul. The sad culmination of this comedy of literary/film commentary was Ethan Hawkes Born To Be Blue... a sychophantasy deluxe. James Gavins Deep In A Dream as Paul Baker described it is "400 pages of toilet paper"; and the ultimate distortion Lets Get Lost is such a sad blur of artistic reality.

So, the answer is certainly "no" to the fact that no effort yet comes close to capturing Chet as a man / musician. Sad truth is, when Hawke came out with his film, which the Baker family had no idea of, we were in negotiations with John Travolta, via William Morris Endeavor in Beverly Hills, to do a film about Chet in the '50s. Travolta had called and visited with Carol about his plan for the film. Carol seemed pleased with the conversation she had. The Thursday before we were to receive the first draft contract for the Travolta film there was an announcement in many newspapers around the country that Hawke was unveiling his film.

The Bakers were never approached by Hawke, or his people, and the film turned out to be what I, in my opinion, described previously. Most unfortunately the Baker family never saw any money for movie options or name, likeness image rights from that film. And movie option rights are a very valuable asset for any estate.

AAJ: Are you familiar with the many theories about Chet's demise?

BG: I saw several films about Chet's demise each of which had a different theory. It's a weird subject isn't it? From theories of a drug deal gone bad to him trying to climb up to his hotel room window, or falling out of the same as in a drug-daze.

Carol told me that Chet had called her about six months before his death saying he planned to buy a house in the south of France and he wanted his family to join him there. She said he sounded good and was upbeat. I personally think he was murdered, the back-story is pure speculation on my behalf, but based on what I learned from firsthand sources...including the Baker family... who knew what they were talking about. I believe it had to do with some "master" recordings Chet had. I know the BBC's documentary studio Eagle Rock was at one point working on a film about Chet's death. It would have been interesting to see their research.

AAJ: Do you think that many artists who die mysteriously are prone to this morbid but perhaps true speculation?

BG: I'm thinking of Jim Morrison, Curt Kobain, John Belushi, Bill Evans... To even try to understand the life/death of such creative people entails the effort to totally change the paradigm we see life through. Sensitivities/dependencies/lifestyles seem to be so different in these folks. It kind of gets back to your question about "mainstream" writing about Chet. The family told me they never saw him "use." Of course they knew it was happening. But even fellow musicians...beyond the what I call "sycophantasies" conjured up about him with spikes in his arms wondering about... said he delivered professional work whatever the perceived physical state he was in.

I mean, read the 2007 Wall Street Journal article by Terry Teachout about the recording of Concierto de Aranjuez with Jim Hall, Roland Hanna, Ron Carter, Steve Gadd, Paul Desmond...and Chet. Teachout calls it a jazz masterpiece. Chet, so it was written looked pretty strung-out when he walked into the studio... but his work was absolutely beautiful, fantastic. Or consider that he won numerous Downbeat/Metronome magazine awards during the 1950's, one being "Best Trumpet" in 1953. It's a big award at an iconic time in jazz. And, in my view, his work even became better when he returned to performing in 1974 after having been physically attacked in San Francisco in 1968. To put a fine point on it, in my mind, some people "use" to tune-out. I think many, many, many great artists "use" to tune-in, into their inner world frequencies and when the need gets too strong and the creative frequency too thin...they check-out. Its kind of the "candle that burns twice as bright burns twice as fast" sort of thing too....

AAJ: I understand that Carol is living in England now. Paul runs the estate for the most part right? Who came up with the idea of a Chet Baker Foundation?

BG: As I stated previously, Paul and I came up with the idea... Artt Frank helped a lot. He recruited heavies like Hugh Hefner and Dave Brubeck (before they died), Sharon Stone and Jeff Goldblum, Astrud Gilberto and Quincy Jones and many others to be on the foundations "honorary board." The foundation has yet to be developed to its full potential, though. Paul runs the estate now. As I said previously, I respect Paul. He has had to deal with the business circus as both Chet's son, and as business manager of his father's assets. Seems a tough row to hoe as the anger and frustration I experienced at times working on the estate was intense, and I had no familial connection. I can't imagine the emotions he has to deal with. Carol is British. She chooses to keep to herself. I really have enjoyed the numerous conversations I have had with her overs the years. Chet Baker was her husband, just as Bill Evans was your husband. It seems easy to kind of relegate that reality into the background of a famous artist's life. But to be the subject of that kind of love attachment is above and beyond the connection of an artist legacy.

AAJ: Talking about the mythologizing of say Chet and Bill too, do you think in their cases there is a certain romanticism which prevents most people from seeing the overall picture of these artists?

BG: Sometimes I feel that discussions about the music and the man can be a total disconnect. In Bill's case, I rarely hear anything about him that resembles the person I knew. Bruce Spiegel (who produced the doc film Time Remembered) had the nerve to say that I had nothing "good" to say about Bill. Spiegel expected to find the biggest fan club in me and found a straight-talking person who had to suffer a great loss and whose children came second or third to the bad choices Bill made.

AAJ: Did Carol ever mention anything like this to you? Sometimes when I read what other jazz widows say or write, I feel like the stories are often surprisingly interchangeable in sentiment. Like Chan Parker and her daughter Kim.

BG: So true...I mean I could go in many directions with this question. But please let me give you just two examples of what your question evokes. The horrible Let's Get Lost film is sadly thought of as an accurate sort of captured characterization of Chet. Its so easy to see in that film...if you know Chet's true nature at all, and the background as to how that film was cobbled together in nefarious ways...to see that Weber is constantly goading Chet to be the, once ultra-handsome, washed-up/sad-sack tragic icon. Its an embarrassing attempt (Just as was Ethan Hawke/Budreau Born To Be Blue film) to self-indulgently morph Chet into this weakling image that they carried around in their really one-dimensional/flat artistic interpretations of him. I coined the phrase "sycophantasies" to express what I think of these sad attempts to cast Chet Baker in these works. Born To Be Blue was just sad. Let's Get Lost was deliberate...both are laughable, in my somewhat knowledgeable, vis-a-vis Chet Baker, mind.

You know, Nenette, what I hear and see when I listen to Chet? And I do not make apologies of his addictions, but then that's not my place in any person's life. What I think of is Dust Bowl/Depression era Oklahoma ( 1929..the year Chet was born) and the brutal reality that existed then and how people really used music as a means to whisk their minds away...if only for moments...from the unbelievable circumstance they were living. Chet's mother, Vera, long said that he developed his ear for music by standing on a chair listening to the radio. I think that's how he developed his heart for music as well.

There is a saying, "as the twig is bent the tree is inclined to grow." Chet was inclined to beautiful, poignant escapism via music at a very young age. Escapism via music...and substances...are weirdly similar in my mind. He, Bill (I can only conjecture), Van Gogh, Beethoven, Cobain, Morrison...so many artists have long tread that razor's edge. Yes, some have ridden the artistic/addict tiger of life and wound up inside the beast...but, wow, what tortured/earned beauty they left in their wake. Bottom line, I absolutely believe its good to be a part of furthering art in our society. Especially music. Its one of the few things humans have invented that really is universal and generally always positively experienced. I'm glad to work on furthering Chet Bakers artistic legacy.

Photo: Chet Baker Estate, Paris 1964

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