Interviews

Carol Baker, Chet Baker’s widow

Carol Baker

former wife of Chet Baker is interviewed

_________

 

JJM: I’ve just finished reading the new book “As Though I Had Wings”. It’s a beautiful book, can you tell us about the manuscript it’s based on? When was it written and how was it discovered?

CB: Chet started writing that while he was traveling, some of it was written when he was home in moments here and there, in quiet times and he was carrying that around for quite a while. Then while he was in Europe, 1980 I think it was, he met an actor/screenplay writer by the name of Tom Baker. I think Chet met him in Nice. Tom got interested in it and wanted to do a screenplay around it so they got together and he typed up Chet’s notes. I met him after that, he came and met me back in NY and we had a friendship going and Tom was typing things back from just as Chet had written them, in the longhand and he had put that also in the form of a treatment for a screenplay. That was where it was the last time I saw it before it came to Oklahoma. After the time I came to Oklahoma, about a month, six weeks later, I called up Tom and found out that he had died. So I imagine that the manuscript that he had there with him that he was typing may have been collected up and Chet was in Europe at the time. So from what I understand and person I talked then, his parents came in from out of state and I guess, took care of the arrangements. And I don’t know, there were people coming and going in that apartment, he sort of shared this loft with several other people, you know it was one of those types of people where people came and went. Anybody could have gathered it up or the parents may have gathered it up. How it got to Spin magazine uh, I talked to Leif McNeil called me, and said that he had this manuscript that had been sent to him and he was going to send it to me to verify that this is what Chet had written. And it it was Chet’s manuscript, I mean it had the original type written paper plus copies and photocopies of the handwriting. It’s Chet’s work. So anyway, they wanted to print an excerpt from it and I suppose they had to find out who legally it belonged to get permission. So it came to me that way. But you know when Chet came down here several times, he kept saying “I don’t know what happened to my book”, he had a book that he was writing, it just disappeared. Of course Tom died when he was overseas so I think he (Chet) overlooked the fact that it might have been picked up by Tom’s relatives or anybody else there. Anyway, it disappeared, it never turned up, and I don’t think that Chet just wanted to start that all over and he never did. So I was really happy when I got that call and they had come into possession of it because there it was, as Chet had left it.

JJM: So it had been missing for ten years or so?

CB: Yes, I mean the last time I saw Chet, he came to Oklahoma two or three times a year, but the first years like 1982, when he first came down here (I came in 1982), he made mention of it. In fact two or three visits and then he just stopped mentioning it because I guess he just considered it was gone. So, you know, it had been gone what, from when I spoke to him in 82, because that’s when Tom died around July I believe, Chet came down around the end of the year and stayed through Christmas, and he mentioned that he couldn’t find it, he didn’t know what had happened to it. So it just disappeared.

JJM: So Chet had intended this to be an autobiography?

CB: He was just making notes, I think Chet was writing down notes, trying to get as much down as he could remember and I don’t know if he was thinking of going back and sort of embellishing on that when he got done or what. I think he just felt the need to just write some things down, I don’t think he really had anything in mind at the time, it was just something he started to do. And then of course, running into Tom and Tom wanting to do this encouraged him and they began to work together. And then, as I say, Chet was overseas, I was in Oklahoma and suddenly, here’s Tom dead, you know, it was drugs, I didn’t even know he was doing drugs, he kept up a very good front and, you know, he never mentioned that he didn’t do that stuff and I never asked questions. I sort of suspicioned, but anyway, he was a very, very nice guy, good hearted and his heart was in the right place but, you know, of course then he died. So it disappeared and it wasn’t until Lief McNeil contacted me in what, 1990? and asked me about it and I said yes, you know, Chet missed it and he said well we have something, it was sent to us. I’m not even sure who sent it to him or how it came into their possession. But it was Chet’s work…I was really happy to know it was in existence and,you know, the screenplay was there, written by Tom Baker, the whole bit and that’s how it came back to me…very strange. I held onto it and then four years ago I got a very good attorney and of course, everything I had that might be of interest I turned it over to him. Of course, lawyers now also bring you business and he knows people and I guess he was talking to someone at St. Martins Press and they were interested and out came the manuscript and went over to St. Martins Press and we thought it’d be a good idea, I did, if some of the pages were actually in Chet’s writing. Every word is what Chet wrote, every word.

JJM: Yes, a very nice touch was having excerpts of the original manuscript graphically reproduced in the book.

CB: I thought it would make it look more genuine, it’s the only genuine thing on market if you really want to know. Because it was written by Chet. There are lots of books out there and all these friends that we didn’t know we had and I know he didn’t know he had and they’re all experts on the man. They’ve all got their ten cents worth to put in but, actually, most of them didn’t even really know Chet. You know they might have met him and said hello in a club or “sat in” but you don’t know somebody from that. I mean nobody spent time at our house and if they would have know Chet, they would have come to our house.

JJM: Well, it’s very easy to jump on a bandwagon….

CB: Oh sure, and there’s no one to deny what you said or call you a liar.

JJM: I get the feeling that you’re proceeding very carefully, you seem to be….

CB: Oh, I’ve been taken advantage of, they’re good in this business, aren’t they. They can seem so real and so genuine, want to do this and that, and they pump you for information and they’re gone. Then something horrendous comes out and it’s like my god, if I’d have known they were going to do that I wouldn’t even have answered the phone.

JJM: Well, the book’s a welcome addition, there seems to be a dearth of material about Chet.

CB: Well, you know, it is. This was actually written Chet himself, everything else is what somebody else has written. To me, this is the most valuable of all, if your really a Chet fan, you’d have to have this.

CB: There are a lot of things he hasn’t touched on, he couldn’t think of everything. There’s a lot more and it reminds me too when I read something about something else so that there’s a lot to fill in and, you know, get into more detail over, he sort of touched on things.

JJM: Right, this book made me hungry for more information.

CB: He couldn’t put it all down when he was writing but I have no doubt that had somebody…if Tom hadn’t died or someone else had picked it up it would have probably have turned into a book where he (Chet) could have filled in spaces.

JJM: Carol, I had also heard something about a movie that was in the works, are you participating in this or…

CB: I have no idea, no they don’t tell us anything (laughter). That’s what I mean.  Probably a movie will come out and we’d find out about it when it was advertised on TV.

JJM: In the back of my mind I heard mention of the concept on a radio program……..

CB: I know that they play his music in LA Confidential, there’s been a lot of talk about that but I haven’t seen the movie yet but my lawyer has and people have said it’s a good movie. It’s been nominated for nine Academy Awards or something hasn’t it? Apparently two of Chet’s songs are played in it so everybody that goes to see it calls saying “hey, they’re playing Chet’s music” That’s the only movie I’m aware of at the moment. There’s a lot of talk about doing a movie, a lot of interest but nothing has been worked out.

JJM: Tell us a little bit about the title of the book, As Though I Had Wings

CB: I didn’t entitle it that, St. Martin’s Press came up with that. I don’t know why they choose that but I guess it’s as good as anything.

JJM: It implies a bit of wanderlust to me

CB: Well there was a bit of wanderlust in Chet, you know, he was the proverbial wandering minstrel. And that’s something you had to accept if you were in his life, that he was going to be coming and going, that’s what he did for a living, that’s what he loved to do, it came first.

JJM: Was there also a search or a longing associated with that, that motivated him?

CB: Oh, wanting to master the horn, didn’t feel he’d mastered anything yet, very self critical, always trying to do better, frustrated because he wasn’t able to attain what he wanted to attain. I mean, how many musicians are thoroughly satisfied with any performance? They think they could have done it better or should have done it this way or that way. In 1977/1978 he had been going to Europe a lot, he be going away for two or three months, back a month or two and then gone, it was getting longer and longer because he was popular in Europe and he could work there all the time. Of course with me here and the kids in school, you can’t follow a musician around with a bunch of kids, it’s impossible, they’ve got to go to school. I think he would have like to stopped that but he said to me several times, he said, you know you think you don’t see a lot of me now but you know honey, I figure I’ve got maybe about ten years left in me. I want to spend the next ten years playing as much and as often as I can, which meant he was going to travel. And he felt that he had, and he did, he had ten years left and he was dead. However he died, he was dead. And it was really strange, he felt he had ten years left and he wanted to play as much and as often as he could. And that’s exactly what he did.

JJM: I was curious also about how much you feel his environment played a role in his lifestyle choice. I mean he obviously loved cars, was notorious for arriving and leaving unannounced, and….

CB: He was an excellent driver and right from the get go when I first met him in Europe, he liked to, of course in later years he didn’t have such nice cars but, back then he was making the money in Europe. They’d take a few pictures and put you in the magazine or you’ve been busted for something and your big news and everybody wants to hire you then and book you into their clubs so the money is following. He was into the Alpha Romeo “Julietta Sprint”, he had one of those when I met him and then he traded that in for a new model, “The Especiale” and he was an excellent driver. He would drive faster than most speed limits but I was young but of course when you’re young you don’t see the danger in speed. But I did feel, I’ve always felt very secure riding with him, I felt safe. Because he was a good driver and if he wasn’t, I wouldn’t have felt safe. Mind you, there were people he would give a lift to once in a while that would get out and say “I’ll never ride with you again”.

JJM: I think he mentioned that in the memoirs too, some people refused to ride with him and….

CB: It happened a lot. They’d say, how can you ride with him and I’d look at them like what do you mean, he’s a good driver, what are you afraid of?” And he was, and sometimes in the off season if we were up in Milan area, he’d go out to the track, was it Monza, when nobody was there and go around that. He used to say if I hadn’t have been a musician, he said, I would have liked to have been a race car driver.

JJM: Chet was often described as the “James Dean of Jazz”, inspiring, charismatic, photogenic,…did this reputation motivate Chet? Did he feel as though he had to live up to this billing?

CB: No, he used to chuckle about it. Chet was Chet. You know, people compared him, when we were in Italy Jack Palance was there and if so he looked like a Jack Palance and things like that and he used to chuckle. No, Chet was very quiet, actually, quite a shy person. It was very difficult. Unless Chet had a big interest in you and pursued you, he was very quiet. I know he pursued me, but I never saw him do that anywhere else not even with people. It’s like when he was learning to play all over again when he went into a club we would go in, he didn’t want anyone to see him and sit in the back and, I guess, hope that somebody would and invite him to play but he didn’t want to like put himself up front. So it was kind of like that, he was kind of bashful.

JJM: So you don’t think that he felt any pressure to live up to his public ideal?

CB: Well he did feel a pressure when it came to the playing. You know how, especially in Europe and in the early years when I met him, almost every time someone would come into the club they would request certain things like from his singing albums or whatever. I mean, “My Funny Valentine”, there were nights when he’d have that request three or four times to sing that, that would get old you know. He would say, people don’t realize how much of a pressure it is, people would come in and expect to hear you play that or sing that particular song, just the way they heard it on the record that they have. Of course when your in Europe, you don’t take your own musicians over there, you can usually pick up a good band in Europe but, you know, it doesn’t always sound the same. That got old and it was a pressure. Of course everybody’s not on on every night and there are nights when maybe you don’t even feel like going to play but you know you’ve got to. He’d usually get motivated after he was there but that depends on your audience too. If the club is full of people loving everything you do and everything’s swinging, it’s a great night and business is good. But not all clubs are like that, some clubs don’t even advertise…they won’t even know Chet’s there unless they walk in off the street. You don’t know how may times that’s happened. Or there’s just a board outside with Chet Baker. Unless somebody was walking by or word got around by word of mouth, they wouldn’t know he was there. You know that happens a lot. But, you know, that’s the club life.

JJM:  Europeans seem to accept American jazz artists more readily than the American public….

CB:  they were more appreciative and you’ll find that unlike most young people here they have a knowledge of the arts of some classical and jazz.  It seems to me that when I was there, there were more young people in the audience that were interested in it.  Fans of Chet that had been listening to his music for years they would come and they would bring their children to concerts.  Their children had grown up listening to Chet’s records so for them it was a real event when dad took them to a concert and then introduced them to Chet.  And that was really great to see…that happened a lot in Europe.  You don’t get that so much here but then we never did so many concerts here.  Chet didn’t work an awful lot in this country.  There’s not enough to keep you going is what he said.  There isn’t or there wasn’t then.  Not enough clubs you can work at to make a decent living here.  You can always work in Europe, there’s always somewhere to work.  It might get tough from time but there’s always somewhere to work because you have so many countries to choose from.

JJM:  How was that transition for you?  You were English, lived your life in Europe and then all of a sudden found yourself in Oklahoma….

CB:  Well, I loved it at first…it was different for me.  You have everything here, I mean whenever I hear someone complain here I say you should never complain.  I grew up during the second world war so the first four or five years of my life were bomb shelters.  We didn’t have anything and what you don’t have, you don’t miss.  I think you grow up with a different outlook on life when you come from those sort of beginnings.  I’ve never expected a lot and I’ve always been sort of frugal and sensible.  That was the way I was raised.  Of course here’s Chet who was so easy going and if he’s only got ten dollars in his pocket and here’s some poor guy who looks like he needs ten dollars, he’ll give it to him.  I’ll say Chet, that’s our last money.  He’d say oh, don’t worry, I’ll go see so and so over at such and such a club tomorrow and he’ll probably hire me for a week.  And he would, he’d go in and do that. There are times that he has done that.  That’s when we were first back here in the sixties.  Jazz wasn’t going quite so great back then.  Other music was in vogue and lot of clubs had closed down so it was difficult to find steady work.

JJM:  Was that pressure to perform and improve his art responsible for any of the personal demons in Chet’s life?

CB:  I guess it did, drugs were rampant in the music business and no matter how much you might want to get away from it and how many times you quit, there’s always someone waiting there with something for that weak moment when maybe things aren’t going too right and they’ve got something to ease the pain.  It’s a weak spot and before you know it…I’d always get angry and he’d say oh it’s just a one time thing, it’s not going to happen again.  And of course in the beginning, not knowing anything at all about that, I believed it.  But over the years, experience told me we were in for another ride.  And, you know, we always were. But most of the time Chet had doctors that prescribed for him so it wasn’t like we had to hit the streets and do that thing.  Had he not gone into the music business, I don’t know what else he might have done but perhaps drugs would not have been a part of his life.

JJM:  Didn’t Chet have an opportunities as an actor?

CB:  When he did “Hell’s Horizon” with John Ireland, he had never done anything before, it was just a two week gig for him.  He was actually offered a seven year contract and he turned it down.  He told me this when I first met him I looked at him and said are you crazy, there are people out there that would kill for a seven year contract, why didn’t you want to do it?  Oh honey, he said, making movies is the most boring business there is.  I had two weeks of that standing around.  He said, I couldn’t do that for a living, it would drive me crazy.

JJM:  Wasn’t he subsequently offered a part in “All The Young Cannibals”?

CB:  We found that after the fact, we didn’t know about it.  That was something we would read years later.  No one had contacted him.  We were in Italy at the time.  The first we heard of it was after the fact, after he had been busted in Italy and someone mentioned it to us.  No one ever approached him about it to my knowledge.  He could have been a great actor.  I honestly believe that if he’d been in the hands of the right management, the right people, he could have done maybe bigger and better things.  But he had a tendency, he had a magnet on his back to attract all the wrong people that sounded like the right people.  You know what I mean.