In Düsseldorf’s commons (Uni Mensa in German), in 1986, Chet arrived one hour delayed. He was announced there with his fine trio, featuring guitarist Philip Catherine and bassist Jean Louis Rassinfosse who played a half-acoustic bass.
The George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet – which was supposed to do its set after Chet – did the first half of the concert. This was power jazz with the wonderful Danny Richmond on drums and Cameron Brown on bass. I only remember their energy.
Then came Chet … in sandals, looking like a monk, to put it nicely. He blew a few notes into the mike, stopped abruptly, put the mike to his mouth and then he yelled, in a sudden outburst: “It’s too loud!” — I don’t know what the engineer behind the desk did, but it was obviously okay then and the concert began.
It was great! What a sound, what an inspiring evening. The forceful, almost violent jazz of George Adams was soon forgotten, it just had squibbed into the air. Do I remember particular tunes? Yes, only one: Chet’s interesting, kinda funky version of Cole Porter’s Love For Sale. But what I clearly remember was an all in all good mood when I left the place of the event.
One year later, in Cologne’s now demolished jazz club Subway: Chet was supposed to do two evenings there. This time with a quartet, he only performed on the second, the Saturday night gig.
I don’t know exactly who was in there but I guess it were those guys: Harold Danko on piano, Rocky Knauer on bass, and John Engels was behind the drums.
The band seemed to be stoned which didn’t seem to bother Chet. He was more worried about his horn which apparently didn’t work properly. There he sat, helplessly pushing the jammed valves, then he eventually grabbed the mike and asked something like:
“Some trumpet player around?” I was seated right in front of him and said: “Yes!” Since the great Chet Baker intended to play on my trumpet, I fetched it from the checkroom and handed it over to him.
He took it, looked at it, and counted: “One, two, three, four!” into a very fast and boppish Conception, George Shearing’s masterpiece, a tune as closely connected to Miles Davis as it was to Chet Baker.
He played it in the key of C, that’s what I remember. After the last note, Chet waved my trumpet over his head, smiled at me in a sardonic way while he was pretending to bung the horn in some corner. I was quite shocked, but of course got the joke in the same second. This was my first real instrument, a Getzen Capri but with a little hole in the middle tube.
What do I remember yet? He played the rest of the concert on his own horn and … kept my valve oil. When I arrived later at home I found it gone. Chet Baker, a thief!
During the break, I talked to him a little bit, a short chat with Chet so to speak, and asked him if he had time for giving me a mornings lesson. He only said: “That would be kinda lesson!” …I was satisfied.
Then I talked to pianist Harold Danko. I had brought sheet music to the concert, one of my own compositions in the style of Chet, unaware of the fact that he was a lousy sight reader. Mr. Danko understood my request for plugging an own tune; but then he told me that Chet hardly even played new tunes of his own band members because he was simply too lazy for doing rehearsals. And so I took my sheet and just enjoyed the second set.
Well, of course a very moving and tearfully sung My Funny Valentine, Chet’s silent announcement that this would be his last concert in Cologne, and again a very fast number in the key of C, Charlie Parker’s Cool Blues. This time with Chet’s complete solo and not the edited version from the concert with Bird’s quintet in the University of Oregon, on November 5, 1953, where a moron had just chopped off Chet’s solo; and so we can only hear brief glimpses with Chet during a couple of chase chorusses with Shelly Manne.
Now, the title of my tune which would have fit perfectly to Chet’s style: Out Of The Window …I called it that way because I was leaning out of the window when that very line came into my prophetic mind.
I’m a bit sad that Chet Baker never got to know any of my compositions. But you can believe me: I’m very relieved at the very same time that he never played that one!
I’m not completely sure about Chet’s musical roots, but I’m certain that he had listened a lot to the big bands, to the “Great American Songbook” as delivered by Tommy Dorsey, or Glenn Miller.
Harry James was one of his influences too. One can hear that on his early recordings with Gerry Mulligan’s quartet. He still had quite a vibrato there.
His main influence was of course Miles Davis, but technically and rhythmically he was definitely inspired by Charlie Parker whose harmonic and melodic language he had quasi eaten up.
Many folks claim that Chet lacked technique. The same fellows, mostly critics, also say that about Miles. But I, as an enthused trumpet colleague, can tell you: Both guys had chops and knew how to handle their horns! — Miles and Chet reflected the new style, a certain coolness which stemmed directly from Lester Young who was another big influence.
P.S. #2 — Chet has the last word with a complete concert video. That’s how I remember him: Strong, direct & humorous.
ⓒ Bruno Leicht
Cologne, May 13, 2008
(Edited & updated by the author on May 14, 2013; and on December 23, 2014)