JJM: There is a very beautiful passage in the book where Chet describes taking his boat out on a lake, sitting quietly and waiting for his destiny to meet him….
CB: That’s the way he was, if he was ever upset or something disturbed him, he would just take off. And usually he’d take off and go somewhere and be by himself. You didn’t even know where he had went, you’d just wait for him to come back. One night, in California, he took his horn out into the hills and just slept under a tree that night.
CB: No, I’d never heard of him, didn’t know who the hell he was. I never listened to jazz, I was listening to Elvis Presley. That was my man back then because I was 19 when I met him. I went to work with the Shirley Bassey show in Milan, hated it as soon as I got there, it wasn’t what I had expected. But it was for a month so I was expecting to be there for a month. I didn’t go anywhere for the first week but there were other guys there and every night they would say were going to see Chet Baker but I didn’t care to go and went back to my room. That went on for a week until one Saturday night they said you’re not going home to the hotel, you’re coming out tonight whether you like it or not and practically dragged me along. One of the guys had a bunch of records under his arm and going over in the cab they were all talking about Chet Baker and I was hearing all this and I thought God, why would I want to meet him? I didn’t even know what he played. I was hearing how he’d been busted for this and busted for that and of course I found out afterwards it had all been highly exaggerated, but at the time I was wishing I wasn’t here that I was back in my room. When we got there and got out of the cab, we could hear the music playing and I could hear someone playing a trumpet and it really sounded beautiful. I didn’t know it was Chet so we went inside and there was no place to sit, it was absolutely packed. There was an upstairs and then you went downstairs to the bandstand and even the stairs were jam packed. So anyway, we had to wait upstairs until the set ended and then people started to leave. I didn’t even know what he looked like and then coming up the stairs, watching the stairs with the rest of the people I was with, I saw this guy coming up the stairs and not knowing who it was I thought, God that’s a good looking guy, he’s really nice looking. It was like as he came up the stairs he looked at me and I was looking at him and I didn’t know who he was until somebody said Hey Chet, ya know and here he comes. So they wanted him to sign their albums and stuff like that and I just stood back there and he kept checking me out and checking me out and next thing he invited everybody to dinner. I mean everybody and I’m thinking wow, how many are there. So even at the dinner table when we went to the restaurant he was checking me out but I’m thinking well, I ‘m going home, I’m only here for three weeks and I’ll never see him again. No ideas, no thoughts, nothing. So that was that that evening. The following week every night I caught sight of him back stage. He was always talking to somebody and sort of looking my way. One night I hear a voice behind me say hello and I turned around and it was him. He says to me, “Do you remember me?” I said yes and then he asked “did anyone ever tell you that you should be in the movies?” I looked at him and thought this is the old line. I said to him “couldn’t you think of a better line than that?” He said “It’s not a line” and he got quite indignant about it. I said, “oh it isn’t” He said “no, what are you doing tomorrow? I’ll prove to you it’s not a line. Do you remember that guy who was sitting next to me, Mario Fatore, well he owns a film company. He saw you that night and he wants to meet you.” Well, I didn’t believe him so he set up this arrangement to meet him next morning (Sunday) and drive me to the studio. Of course I didn’t believe him, I thought he wouldn’t be there. So I went down extra early just to be sure I could see him coming and he was already there. I thought ok he’s here so I got in the car and we drove outside of Milan to the studio. It was Sunday morning so the place was dead, and when we go in and meet Mario. Chet knew some Italian and after a few exchanges they call in some guy to take me to the make up room and gives me one of those stamped on Italian faces. He takes me back out, I sit in front of a Singer sewing machine and Mario asked me a few questions in his broken English. It was a matter of a few minutes and that was that. After that he goes over to his desk and gets out a wad of those big Italian bills, I didn’t even know how much it was, huge things, counts out a bundle of those and gives them to me. Well, you see, if it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t have been suspicious but I had never been paid that way. Your money usually goes to your agent and you get a check every so often. So when we got out of there I said to Chet you set that up didn’t you? He said no I didn’t. I said you did, I don’t believe you, this feels like a set up and he denied it. He denied that for years. I finally got the truth out of him I think it was about 1975. And I said you can tell me. So this was all those years later and he said well, I didn’t actually set it up, he said but I knew if I took you out there, Mario would know that I was really interested in you and go along with it. So I knew, it was a set up and he denied it for about 15 years.
JJM: Any other favorite memories you could share with us
CB: Oh, the early years. Chet always used to like travel late at night when he got off the job because there was no one on the road, it was quiet and he thought he could make good time. We did a lot of traveling at night, high speed too! It was nice with the radio on, stopping for a bite to eat, staying a small motels. I miss him, I do. It really hasn’t even sunk in that he’s gone. I know he his. At times I really miss him and I know it but a lot of times it’s like he still here…my memories, the pictures that come into my mind, his music, it’s like he is still here and I’m still married to him even though he is dead. It’s weird.
CB: Chet gave everything to his music, I mean, we took second place basically, family…it has to. You can’t be home, be a good daddy and husband all the time and be on the road as well. But I accepted that because I knew it was what he did for a living and the kids grew up with it. I’m not saying it was easy for them not having their dad around all the time but what was the alternative, that was what he had always done. We couldn’t ask him to change, what would he do sitting here in Oklahoma or anywhere for that matter? He used to talk about when he got too tired to travel maybe taking on a couple of students but I don’t think Chet would have had the patience for that. He was very short on patience. When it came to telling someone what to do musically, after about three times, he’s loose it. If you didn’t get it, he didn’t have a lot of patience so I don’t think that would have worked out, personally. He’d feel that they should be able to hear it and play it but of course, it’s not always like that.
CB: Chet was no angel but again, there was a hell of a lot more to his life than Bruce Weber’s portrayal of the dark, gloomy, beat looking jazz clubs in “Let’s Get Lost”. What about showing some of the luxurious clubs that Chet worked in . He [Bruce Weber] wanted a look. He made that movie the way he wanted it to be and it wasn’t exactly the way things were. I believe it is time that people saw things written straight by Chet, from Chet’s heart, straight from Chet’s mind. The book is Chet, that is precisely Chet. How he writes, that is how he speaks, that’s the Chet I knew. It’s him, the way he puts it. I thought he put it together pretty good really, for someone who wasn’t a writer. And his memory, he has a memory…you think that someone who’s done drugs doesn’t have a memory and is burned out…he’s got a very,very good memory for people, places and things.
JJM: What would you like most for people to know about Chet?
CB: Well, anybody that’s planning on going into the music business, to be very careful about the people you surround yourself with. Just don’t take any deal that comes to you like Chet did just because he wanted to play and sign these pieces of paper that ultimately give you nothing. You know what I mean. Just be very careful who you deal with and don’t do anything by yourself, take anyone’s word for it or sign on trust. Get a lawyer, you know what I’m saying? You don’t know what I’m going through trying to clean up his estate. It’s going to be never ending. I’ve done a lot and there’s still a lot more to do. It’s going to be a forever job. Even with contracts it’s hard to get people to pay you. With or without you have a hard time. But, just be very careful who you let handle your business. I think that’s what brought Chet a lot of grief, the people he had handling him in his life that were really like cheating him and that hurt him a lot too when people would do those things to him, he couldn’t understand it. Or they would promise I’ll do this and put a record out and pay you and he’d never see them again. So, just be very careful who you’re around and stay away from the drugs if you can.
CB: Chet was a very shy, very generous person. And very honest, though there are people who would dispute that but that depends on who they are and what their story is. But to me, painfully honest, sometimes too honest because that made him vulnerable too. I used to say Chet you shouldn’t tell people so much (people would ask him things and he’d tell them). Sometimes they were not very nice things that they would ask but he would answer the question. Especially in earlier years, I think in later years he learned a little bit better. But he was a good man and basically he loved his music to the point where he put everything else aside for it. He was a true musician whether you liked his music or not. When people would say to him, oh you’re the greatest trumpet player in the world, he would say I’m not the greatest trumpet player, there are all kinds of good trumpet players, nobody is the best. So, that’s how I remember him, very quiet, very laid back, very easy going. Literally would give the coat off his back, he’s done that a couple of times…walked up to some poor old soul on the street who looked as though he hadn’t had a meal and given him twenty dollars or something like that. He had a lot of heart, Chet he really did, even with all his problems he had a lot of heart I think. He wasn’t a bad guy, you know what I mean. Sometimes you’d think he never grew up, you know, because of some of the things he did without thinking ahead of time. But, he always seemed to land on his feet though, no matter what. When I read these things about over the years how he started out as this bright star and da da da. Chet never left the music business. As a matter of fact, quite honestly, I think that some of the opportunity that came his way (that he was excited about when he told me about them) I think subconsciously he even sabotaged those, you know what I mean. Because, it really wasn’t what he really wanted to do. It was something that was going to make him a lot of money but it wasn’t something his heart was in. So even though he came home excited, he would sabotage it in some way. And that took me a while over the years to see that because he really just wanted to do what he was doing which was traveling, working in clubs, and working with an audience at the concerts. He loved what he was doing and I don’t think he thought he could handle any more that what he was doing. And don’t ever mention the Mariachi brass…oh my god did he hate those things. When we first got to California, here we are with two babies with another one on the way, no club jobs, and they were trying to cash in on the Herb Alpert thing and that was the only time Chet felt he sold out was with those damn albums. Chet hated those things, but he had babies and needed the money. He did sell out, I guess, in a way, but he had to. But there were people that loved those records and guess what, they made royalties. He couldn’t understand it, look at this he’d say…this shit made these royalties and this over here is making nothing.
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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Chet Baker biographer James Gavin.