Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Good Morning Blues#2: With Chet in the Mornings

I began this rather cold morning with a butter sandwich, Chet Baker Quartet, a cup of tea, and an inescapable mournful empathy for pianist Dick Twardzik. Before begining the day's task, which is writing a 1800-word piece on cities and movies for 24 Monthly, I ran into this very atmospheric Köln concert of Chet Baker Quartet. Butter and tea were finished after the first tune, and I left alone with Chet's interpretation of Imagination.

The Köln gig was a part of 1955 European tour of the newly formed Chet Baker Quartet. Chet's recording career had started just three years before and now he was a big name in jazz. Musically, he became widely known thanks to the discs he had made with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan as part of a provocative and unusual pianoless quartet (trumpet, baritone sax, bass and drums). Half an hour later, I went for a second cup of tea and found this interview with Chet, from Jazz Podium magazine, 1978. Interviewer is Gudrun Endress:

When did all of these troubles start, in the '60s or in the '50s?
  • No, in 1957. I was 27 years old. And all the musicians that I thought were the greatest musicians were into that, you know. And I never messed with it for a long lime. All the time I was with Gerry Mulligan, I was clean, but people thought I was doing something.
I always thought it happened alter the death of Dick Twardzik.
  • It did. That's when it happened, in 1957, when I went back to New York after he died. That 's when I started it and I kept that pretty strong for about 13 years and then a judge in Califonia was very kind to me. He could have given me five years like poor Art Pepper, who got sent twice to San Quentin or some crazy place like that, but the judge sent me to a sort of guidance-center where they test you, psychological and every way possible, to decide what to do with you. And when I went back to court with the results of the testing, he let me go. He put me back on the street again.
Is that the only way that you can cure yourself?
  • That's the only way. And I did. I got on the methadone program. I was on it 7 years. I started out at 8 milligrams, and little by little I had to take the dosage down and down until I came to Europe with just enough for two months and I made it last for four and a half months. And I just tapered out to nothing and stopped.
That means you are thinking a lot about why you use this. Is it because you can't bear the environment around you, all the bullshit?
  • Yes, the people I had to deal with were a drag, the stuff that I got was never any good. You know, you put all of that energy into the wrong direction. So I decided almost too late to cut it loose. Just to see if I could make it again after everything. Kind of a challenge in a way, because after so much bad publicity it's hard to get people to believe you.
But the bad publicity is publicity, don't forget that.
  • Yes, I know, but everybody reads that and you'd be surprised how many people believe it - what they read. Not people like you, people with some sophistication.
But all these people who are judges or judge these persons, they are maybe drinking a lot of schnapps or beer everyday and they don' t think about that.
  • Oh, but that 's all right. Drugs are something out of the norm, that is really to be feared, I guess. And there are a lot of people, friends of mine, that didn't make it, who couldn't handle it and it killed them. So it comes to a point where you really have to say, do you want to live or do you want to die and then you make that choice and that's it.
And what's the reason why you want to live, to play music?
  • That's about the only thing I'm good for, I guess.
Chet looking at Dick Twardzik

But who was Dick Twardzik? Born in Danvers, Boston, on April 3D, 1931, the gifted Twardzik studied classical music before discovering jazz. He began playing clubs in 1946 and by 1954 he was clearly one of the most promising young musicians in Boston. In 1955, when pianist Russ Freeman decided not to travel to Europe with Chet's quartet, the trumpeter found in Dick Twardzik a natural choice. But just like Chet and Littman, Dick was addicted to heroin. Freeman remembered many years later: "Chet was addicted , his drummer was addicted, and there is always a division between musicians who are clean and those who are using. Addicts hang with other addicts."

Chet and Dick's musical relationship would be one of the most interesting albeit tragic experiences in the history of jazz. Beginning the tour in Holland in September 1955, the Chet Baker Quartet played many concerts in Europe and on October 9 they performed at the Köln Börsensaal , in Germany. That tour was his first and his last, because he died from a heroin overdose in his Paris hotel room on October 2 1, 1955. He was only 24 years old.

Now let's go back to another cold day, 55 years ago, in October 9, 1955, only twelve days before Dick Twardzik's death. The setting is Köln Börsensaal. I have it on a CD called The Lost 1955 Concert (RLP Records 88618). The tune is Imagination, with Chet Baker (trumpet), Dick Twardzik (piano), Jimmy Bond (bass), Peter Littman (drums).


  1. That's a very interesting post, Ehsan, and you know what?

    I'm listening to "my" version of this very CD right now:

    The lengthy announcement of self-publicist Gigi Campi omitted, and all musical tracks speed-/pitch-corrected.

    It was a great concert in the still quite damaged city of Cologne. By the way: The Octobers are mostly golden here, and so it wasn't necessarily a cold day ;)

    Wow! "Yellow Tango"! That's a hell of a composition. What a shame ... so much talent, such a wonderful energy, and enthusiasm perceptible when you hear this young group play ... wasted, gone, dead!

    Anyway, we have their music, and we still can get inspired by them, by their honesty, and their deepness.

  2. Dear Brew, about the weather (!), sometimes I think I overdramatize things. Well, that's my nature!
    I also preferred to have "your version" of CD, because it really needed that 'cleaning.'

    This coincidence probably shows that we are receiving same signals from our beloved cats.
    thanks Brew.

  3. No need to apologize, Ehsan, aren't we all drama queens from time to time, hehehe!

    Man, he was boppin' so hard then, good young Chet! -- By the way, I've played the recording *after* reading your article, and sending the link to it to a very good friend of mine who wrote a book about Chet:ügeln-Hommage/dp/3548358985

    It's been revised some years ago, since the author, Mr. Levin, has moved back to Berlin.