Interviews

Bill Moody, author of Looking for Chet Baker

Bill Moody

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Bill Moody’s background as a musician and his talents as a writer have made the Evan Horne Mysteries a favorite of jazz aficionados and crime-fiction fans alike. Investigating the death of Chet Baker, a major cult figure in the world of music, brings out the best in both the author and his pianist sleuth, Evan Horne. Looking for Chet Baker is his fifth Evan Horne mystery.

Moody, a professional drummer and noted critic, lives in northern California, where he teaches creative writing at Sonoma State University. His musical path has led to gigs with the likes of Earl Hines, Maynard Ferguson, Lou Rawls and Jon Hendricks. Music has taken him all over the world, and provided notable life experiences – perhaps even a mystery here and there – after spending three years in Europe and twenty in Las Vegas.

Moody discusses his fascination with unsolved mysteries, his experience as an American expatriate, the Las Vegas scene, and the mystery surrounding the death of trumpeter Chet Baker.
Interviewed by Paul Hallaman

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JJM You are the creator of the Evan Horne Mysteries, the most recent of which is Looking for Chet Baker, the fifth book in the series. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got fascinated by the story of Chet Baker?

BM I have always been familiar with his music, and always liked it from the days of his quartet with Gerry Mulligan. Over the years, being active in jazz, I heard all of the various stories and mythology about him. I always had it in the back of my mind to write something about him. I ended up on this gig in Las Vegas with two musicians who had worked with him extensively – Carson Smith, who was the original bass player with the Mulligan/Baker Quartet, and Jack Montrose, the saxophonist and arranger. We spent time talking during the breaks, and stories were told about Chet. The more I heard, the more intrigued I was about getting first hand information from people who knew him well. I subsequently met Russ Freeman, who was Chet’s pianist for five or six years. He was very helpful in relating more information about Chet. When I moved to northern California, I ended up on two different bands with people who had known Chet very well, because he spent a lot of time in the Bay area, and I continued to get more and more information. It just seemed like it was all meant to be, because I kept running into these people, either meeting or playing with them. I began to seriously think about using it as a vehicle for Even Horne, because his death, of course, was one of these never resolved things. That is how it really got started.

JJM The fascination with the unsolved mysteries is one that begins with the very first Evan Horne book, and continues with this one.

BM Yes. That is where Evan Horne is a lot like me. I am fascinated by unsolved mysteries. It is hard to accept that these various events happen and take place. Nobody knows what happened and they have never been resolved. As a writer, it is a fascinating thing for me to investigate.

JJM Your book, The Death of a Tenor Man, was the story of the great saxophonist Wardell Gray.

BM That story is all tied up with the Moulin Rouge Casino in Las Vegas, which was the first interracial hotel/casino. It opened to great fanfare in 1955, and got all kinds of publicity, including being on the cover of Life. The band for the show was put together by Benny Carter, and Wardell Gray was part of that band. On the second night of that opening, he was found out in the desert, dead, by a passerby. It was recorded as an unsolved death, and nothing more was ever done about it. Until this day, nobody really knows what happened. That was fascinating to me, especially because I was living in Las Vegas at the time. The Moulin Rouge is still there, although it was only open for six months. The building is still there, and the bar is open, but as an entertainment place, it was only open for six months.

JJM Evan Horne’s investigation allowed you to reopen open a cold case…

BM Yes, that is actually what it was – a cold case. Investigating the past tends to stir up things in the present. That is where the fictional part comes in. People didn’t want certain things to come out from that period because they have some effect on the present day. I am kind of mixing fact and fiction, real people and fictional characters, which I do in all the books.

JJM I want to ask you about your interest in the jazz expatriates. In fact, you have been there. You told me in an earlier conversation that you spent three years in Europe. Can you talk a little about that?

BM I was working in a group in Boston with a Czech bass player, who was on scholarship to Berklee Music College. He was on leave from a big band in Czechoslovakia, based about 100 miles north of Prague. He said that his bandleader always wanted an American drummer with the band and asked if I would like to come over and play at the Prague Jazz Festival and do some recording. I had never been to Europe, so I went. I ended up staying there for a year. They were really wonderful people and treated me very well. While I was there, I started running into these American musicians who were living in Europe. They were musicians who sort of disappeared from the scene here, and you didn’t hear anything about them. It turned out they were living in Europe and doing very well. In some cases, they were being treated like celebrities. I became fascinated with the expatriate musicians. I got to meet and play with some of them, and began compiling interviews. I began discovering why they had come to Europe and why they stayed there, and understand their feelings about going back to the states. That got me very interested, and I kind of wove that part of it into the Looking for Chet Baker book.

JJM I know you have dealt with jazz expatriates in your book The Jazz Exiles, which is a non-fiction, scholarly book. Who were some of the people you interviewed for that?

BM They were people like trumpeter Art Farmer, the pianist and songwriter Bob Dorough, singer Jon Hendricks, the saxophonist Bud Freeman, who was part of the original Austin High gang in Chicago with Dave Tough and that group. He was living in England for several years. Mark Murphy, the singer, lived in England for 10 or 12 years. There were many others I didn’t get to talk to, but heard about through other people or did research on, people like Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin. In particular in the 60’s, there was almost an exodus to Europe by American jazz musicians. Some of them stayed for short periods. Phil Woods, for example, stayed for five years and came back. Others stayed for the rest of their careers, like the great bop drummer Kenny Clarke, and saxophonist Don Byas. It was a very wide cross section of American musicians that stayed over there.

JJM Sidney Bechet went over there in the early 1950’s at age 51, and the stream became a river, until some of the crème de la crème of American jazz were living and doing very well overseas.

BM Actually, Bechet first went over there in 1919 as a soloist with Will Marion Cook’s orchestra. He was reviewed by critics who never heard anything resembling what Sidney was playing. He did eventually go back in the 50’s and stay. There is a street named after him, even a statue of him. When he got married there was a big parade in Cannes. He was a major celebrity in France, like a pop star was here, and he never came back.

JJM You weave this deep interest and expertise of expatriates in Looking for Chet Baker via the character Fletcher Paige. I was impressed with all Paige’s reasons for leaving and staying and playing. Can you tell us a little about how that is a reflection of African-American expatriates?

BM Fletcher is a fictional character, but he is a kind of composite of Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster and Johnny Griffin. Some of the things he says are things these musicians told me when I interviewed them for Jazz Exiles. I remember particularly Art Farmer, who lived in Vienna from 1968 until he died a couple years ago, who said that he never experienced a single racial incident there. He said sometimes people would look at him, but in a way one looks at a new model car. There wasn’t any negative aspect to it. Johnny Griffin said that even when he lived in New York and worked at Carnegie Hall, he often got disrespectful treatment from some of the stagehands, even though he was there as one of the featured soloists. He found that when he went to Europe, audiences there didn’t have that attitude. The racial thing was gone, and they were able to be treated as true jazz artists, and pursue careers and make a good living and be treated with the kind of respect that symphony players would be given in this country. So, I tried to compile a lot of that information into Fletcher’s remarks when he is interviewed in the book.

JJM He is a very articulate character…

BM  Like Mark Murphy told me, you don’t realize how much of an American you are until you live in another country. So, in addition to working in another country, playing American music, you are also living in a foreign country. The result is that you become a bit more politically aware, and you see things from a distance and end up with a different perspective.

JJM What did you like about living abroad, and what did you miss about the States when you were there?

BM It was certainly interesting to be able to travel around to various countries, and see completely different cultures in a very short trip. It is like going from one state to another in this country. The way that music is cherished and the way I was treated as a musician. Europeans generally look upon jazz as an art form, and the players are artists. So, you are treated accordingly, whether you are famous or not. The interplay with European musicians was interesting too. I met and played with many European musicians, and I found that very interesting, as well as the general differences in the cultures. What I missed about the States, and some of these other musicians told me too, were chili, popcorn and pro football, but I think almost all of those things are available now.

JJM You spent over 20 years as a musician in Las Vegas…how did the scene change there?

BM I arrived in Las Vegas in the mid-1970’s. There were still an awful lot of big band musicians who got off the band bus from Basie, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, etc., and were tired of the road. They found they could make a pretty good living in Las Vegas, with all the strip hotel bands. There were occasionally some very unusual people playing. Saxophonist James Moody played in the Hilton house band for about five years. Red Rodney, the trumpeter, played in the Flamingo Hilton band for a while. Carl Fontana, who was one of the top five trombonists in jazz history, is still in Vegas. So, there were many jazz musicians there. A few years ago at the University of Nevada, they had a Woody Herman/Stan Kenton weekend reunion kind of thing, and there were enough former sidemen from both of those bands to put together two complete bands. They had all been with Woody or Kenton at one time. There were an awful lot of good musicians there.

JJM After 20 years, has the scene changed quite a bit?

BM Yes, it has changed a lot. It has become very corporate and the hotel chains are running everything, so a lot of the live music is gone. Some of the big production shows, like the Casino de Paris and the Follies are all on tape now. Where there used to be an 18-piece band playing for the shows, it is all prerecorded. A lot of the lounges have closed to add more slot machines and poker rooms. There is only a fraction of the live music that used to be there.

JJM It is interesting because Las Vegas makes the pitch that there is more to do than just gaming, but experiencing live music, especially jazz, isn’t necessarily one of those things. What was your favorite Vegas show?

BM I tried to avoid the Strip as much as possible, since I was working. Some of the production shows had excellent bands. The drawback to that is that you play the same show the same way every night. For the dancers, the music has to be pretty precise. Some of those productions were very pretty. You can imagine, as a tourist, flying into Las Vegas, going to one of those showrooms, seeing a big production show with a big band. That was pretty exciting entertainment that you were not going to find in Iowa or Nebraska or someplace like that.

JJM I would like to ask you about your previous Evan Horne novel, Bird Lives. This ties in a little bit with changes in music and changes in popular tastes. The premise of the book is that there is a serial killer who targets…who?

BM She targets smooth jazz musicians, like Kenny G and that ilk. That is the premise I started with. What if there was a serial killer and he or she was killing off smooth jazz musicians? Why would somebody target smooth jazz musicians? A lot of musicians would say because of musical tastes, of course, but I had to come up with something beyond that, and I did. That was the original premise. The killer was leaving jazz type clues at the crime scene, and the FBI couldn’t make anything of it, but Evan Horne, with his connection with his policeman friend in Santa Monica, the detective Cooper, gets involved because he is able to decipher the clues. For instance, in one crime scene there is a tape playing of a Charlie Parker tune, “Now’s the Time,” and “Bird Lives” is written on the mirror. Of course, they don’t have any idea what that means. Evan Horne knows exactly what it means. Then they start backtracking on the date of these murders, and learn they occur on some kind of significant date in jazz history. They realize it is somebody who is very well versed in jazz and playing with the police by leaving these clues, almost daring them to figure them out. So, Evan becomes a sort of go between the FBI and the killer, eventually.

JJM I must confess that I was conflicted in reading that book about, shall we say, whether or not the killer should be caught? Or caught right away, anyway…I am probably not alone in that…

BM I took a copy of Death of a Tenorman to James Moody. He asked me what the next one was about. I explained the premise to him, about a serial killer killing off smooth jazz musicians. He thought about it for a minute and then asked if there was any reason the killer had to be caught? So, I think that was at least the fleeting thought among a number of musicians.

JJM Writing Looking for Chet Baker enabled you to look at the facts of Chet Baker’s death in 1988 in Amsterdam, which was never completely resolved. During the course of your research, did you uncover any clues? What were the most surprising things you found?

BM I knew the stories about that when he died; he jumped, fell, or was pushed out of the window. So, I went to Amsterdam. I wanted to see the hotel, the window, everything. Since it was a second story hotel room, the suicide theory is pretty much ruled out. Russ Freeman told me that suicide was the last thing Chet Baker would have done – he just wasn’t the type for it. The investigating detective said there were fibers of his clothes on the windowsill, and his trumpet was on the floor. He was fond of sitting on the window and playing and looking out over the canal. He did that not only in Amsterdam, but in other places too. Another theory is that there was a drainpipe running up the side of the building, right near that room. The theory is that he lost his key, came back and tried to shimmy up this drainpipe and fell off and died that way. But, I don’t put too much stock in that theory either. The other one is that he was killed by drug dealers he owed money to. That is possible because he was certainly involved with drug dealers. Whether he is Chet Baker or not, he was a customer and the dealer wanted to get paid. There were instances where he did owe money, for example in San Francisco, where he was allegedly beaten up by drug dealers. From what I saw, I tend to think that he just was sitting in the window while being pretty loaded, and just nodded out and slipped off the window and fell. It was late at night, and the window he fell from is on the back side of the hotel over a very narrow little alleyway that is sort of a short cut from the main street back to the old quarter part of Amsterdam. So, that time of night, there wouldn’t have been very much traffic there. He lay there for quite some time before he was discovered. If it had been during the day, maybe he would have been saved. Who knows? I didn’t find anything to really sway me from the theory that I think he simply fell. A lot of musicians think that as well.

JJM Baker biographer Jeroen de Valk, also interviewed by Jerry Jazz Musician, talked a lot about an interview he did with Baker in 1987. He made some attempts to retrace what he did during his last days. Was that kind of research helpful to you?

BM Actually it was. His book was helpful, as was a film done by Dutch television called “Chet Baker: The Final Days.”

JJM That shows up in the book.

BM Yes, it is in the book. They piece together what they think may have happened. It was a strange circumstance. He had a concert to play on May 12, a Thursday. He came to Amsterdam and it was a holiday, so the hotels where he usually stayed were full. Consequently, he just picked the first one that had a room, and it happened to be this particular hotel. The concert promoters knew how Chet was, that he was always late, and that sometimes he didn’t show up until way after the gig was supposed to start. So, they weren’t that concerned about it until it got to be close to the concert time. They called the hotels where he normally stayed. Of course, they couldn’t find him. They didn’t know where he was, or even if he was in Amsterdam. Then, they got a call from the police after they discovered the body and identified him as Chet Baker. It was actually Friday the 13th when he died. It was a strange set of circumstances.

JJM Earlier today, I was listening to Chet Baker and theme music to the James Dean Story, with Bud Shank and Russ Freeman. In Looking for Chet Baker, you write as Evan Horne, “We look for a hero who dies young dramatically.” That certainly fits for James Dean, but as you say no so for Baker. Yet, Baker has a tremendous fascination for a lot of people. What do you attribute that to? He didn’t exactly go out in a blaze of glory in a ’55 Porsche…

BM I don’t know. There has always been this mystique about him, and his off stage life was as dramatic as his playing life was. He served a long jail term in Italy, was in and out of trouble with the law in this country and others, yet he continued to make all this great music. It was not just a straight-ahead musician playing, there was all this stuff surrounding him. Of course, when he was very young, he was compared to James Dean and he was even up for some movie roles, which he screwed up by not showing up for. One movie that I know about was a movie that Robert Wagner ended up getting the part, a film called All the Fine Young Cannibals. That was supposed to be Chet’s role. That could have been the launch pad for a movie career. But, I think given his involvement with drugs, it would have been a constant struggle between Chet and the Hollywood establishment trying to keep him straight. Unlike James Dean, he stayed around for another 40 years, and died a strange kind of sad death, falling out the window of a hotel.

JJM He shared Dean’s penchant for super fast cars.

BM Yes, he drove like a maniac, so much so that Russ Freeman said he wouldn’t even ride in the car with him. He said he couldn’t even look out the windshield, he would look to the side. In one ride in Hollywood, he said he told Chet to stop the car and let him out – he wanted to take a cab to the hotel instead. With the way he drove and the amount of drugs he was involved with, it’s amazing he lived as long as he did.

JJM As you say, it’s ironic to fall out a window when considering every time he got behind the wheel of a car he was rolling the dice.

BM Exactly. Instead, sitting on a windowsill, he ends up dying. He often had an Alfa-Romeo in Europe, which was his favorite car. He was frequently losing the car, and losing the keys. But, whenever he could, he was driving as fast as he could to the next gig.

JJM Was it easier to live “outside the law” for Baker and other expatriates in Europe than in America?

BM Yes. It wasn’t legal, but the attitude about drug addiction was much more regressive. Drugs were more readily available in places like Amsterdam. It has been cleaned up, but he had a much more difficult time in the States. His contemporary, Art Pepper, is an example of someone who didn’t get the breaks in the States, because he spent a lot of time in prison here. He was in San Quentin a long time. Chet dodged that bullet by staying in Europe as long as he did. The Europeans, I think, treated jazz musicians as artists, much more so than they were in the States. Stan Getz stayed in Scandinavia a long time before he came back.  When the musicians did come back, they seemed to take their cue from Europe. Since they were successful in Europe, it became easier for them to find success in America too.

JJM You could put together a jazz expatriate all-star group that would be a fantastic collection of musicians. One of my favorites was Brew Moore.

BM Brew Moore is someone that has been suggested to me to have Evan Horne look into. He apparently fell down the stairs and broke his neck and died. Apparently his thing was alcohol. I talked to musicians who were just amazed he could stand up, let alone play.

JJM Is there anything I haven’t touched on that you would like to share?

BM My purpose in these books is to write an entertaining story, but to try to weave in as much about jazz as I can. It is kind of a fine line to walk. There are going to be people who read these books who are not big jazz fans. I try to follow a couple of authors I admired who do things with different subjects. Tony Hillerman, for example, writes about a Navajo reservation policeman. You can’t read Hillerman without learning a lot about the Navajo legend and mythology. He does it in such a way that is woven into the story. Another one is the English author Dick Francis, who writes about horse racing. Francis was a jockey himself, so whenever you read his books you learn an awful lot about horse racing whether you want to or not. He does it in such a way that it doesn’t detract from the story, it only enriches it. That is what I hope to do with my books.

JJM Last question…If you could choose one event in jazz history you could have attended, or, as a musician perhaps you could have sat in on, what would it have been?

BM One thing that comes to mind right away is the recording of Kind of Blue. I would have loved to play with that group, when it was Miles, Coltrane, Cannonball, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, Bill Evans and Paul Chambers. That was such a landmark recording, it would have been really great to be there for that. To play on it would have been the ultimate!

 

 

 

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Looking for Chet Baker:

An Evan Horne Mystery

by

Bill Moody

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Bill Moody products at Amazon.com

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This interview took place on April 10, 2002

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Chet Baker biographer James Gavin

 

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