Saturday, March 11, 2017

"Looking for Chet Baker" - Bill Moody

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Chet Baker—or Jet Faker, as I often called him—and I met in the early 1950s. The musical rapport between us was immediate. We worked, recorded, and traveled together for nearly five years. In 1953 Chet, his first wife, Charlaine, and I rented a house together in the Hollywood Hills. It was there that I wrote many of the compositions we later recorded. In addition to being arranger, composer, and pianist with the quartet, I took care of all the details when we went on the road, so I came to know Chet very well.

Chet was often thoughtless where other people were concerned, but he could play. He loved cars and drove too fast, but he could play. He was a drug abuser for forty of his fifty-eight years, but he could play. All that is true.

It's not true that Chet couldn't read music, although he couldn't read it well enough to do studio work. But it is true that he knew nothing about harmonic structure or chords, even simple ones. If you asked him what notes were in a certain chord, he couldn't tell you. He was, however, a truly instinctive player with an incredible ear and great lyrical sense.

If anyone has doubts about this, just listen to "Love Nest" or "Say When" from the CD - Quartet: Russ Freeman and Chet Baker [Pacific Jazz]. It's unfortunate that many critics and musicians were unaware of what they were listening to. Chet Baker was unique; there will never be another like him.

Bill Moody has done an outstanding job in capturing a very difficult subject. Not only is Looking for Chet Baker an enjoyable read, but Bill provides a further glimpse into the jazz life and the character of one of the music's most remarkable musicians.”
—Russ Freeman Las Vegas, 2001

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. Moody, a professional drummer and noted critic, lives in northern California. Looking for Chet Baker is his fifth Evan Horne mystery.

Previous titles in the series are Solo Hand [1994, which introduces his main character, pianist and private detective, Evan Horne], Death of a Tenor Man [1997, which focuses on the mysterious death of tenor saxophonist, Wardell Gray], The Sound of the Trumpet [1997, Clifford Brown] and Bird Lives [1999, Charlie Parker].

I found out about the publication of Looking for Chet Baker through two reviews that appeared in May, 2002 in The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, respectively.

The Times review was written by Julius Lester who is an author of numerous books and a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

King of Cool - Julius Lester

“When I was in high school, there was a small group of us who liked jazz. I don't recall how we discovered it in the Nashville, Tenn., of the mid-1950s, but in the sounds of the Count Basie Orchestra, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown and Max Roach we heard statements about living that were far different from those in the banjos and steel guitars of the country music for which Nashville was famous.

Bebop had the exhilaration of an improvisatory order being imposed on a chaos that could be controlled only lo the extent and only as long as one plunged into it. It was one cultural response to the giddiness of the postwar economic expansion accompanied by the Cold War against a communist enemy and the ever-present possibility of a nuclear war that could end human life on the planet.

Another and almost opposite cultural response was found in the "cool" sound of what came to be known as West Coast jazz. Where Parker and Gillespie would leave one breathless with the number of notes they could play on one breath, "cool" jazz made silence an integral part of the music and showed that one held note was as expressive as the 10 Parker or Gillespie would have played in the same time.

"Cool" jazz was both more controlled and more melodic than bebop, attributes that made it more accessible and appealing to white audiences.

For a brief few years in the '50s, no one exemplified cool jazz more than the white trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker. …

Bill Moody's mystery, Looking for Chet Baker, describes vividly the paradoxical existence of a man who created art of ineffable beauty while simultaneously living a sordid and self-destructive life.

Born in 1929 in Oklahoma, Baker moved with his parents to the Los Angeles area in 1940. His father, a failed musician, bought him his first instrument, a trombone, and later a trumpet when Baker found the trombone too big to handle. Because music came as naturally to the young Baker as breathing, he could scarcely read a score and was never known to practice. He only had to hear a melody once to be able to play it back flawlessly. Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, with whom Baker teamed in 1952 to make some of his best recordings, describes him in "Deep in a Dream" as an idiot savant, "a kind of freak talent. I've never been around anybody who had a quicker relationship between his ears and his fingers." Ruth Young, one of Baker's many abused lovers, went further: "You gotta realize, Chet was not that intelligent. He did not know what he was doing-----He just did it."

Baker's reputation grew when, at 23, he played with Parker on the great alto saxophonist's West Coast tour. In 1953 and 1955, Baker was voted the top trumpet player by the readers of Down Beat, the jazz magazine. Black musicians derided him as the "Great White Hope" and wondered if Baker really believed he was a better musician than Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Gillespie and Brown, all of whom finished behind him in the polls.

But Baker's popularity was not only the result of the lyric sweetness of his trumpet playing and the depth of feeling he conveyed. His image on album covers was the quintessence of "cool." He looked like an androgynous puer aeternus, the eternal youth who belonged on a Keatsian Grecian urn. Baker was perhaps the first jazz musician who was conscious of his image, so much so that he seldom opened his mouth to reveal the missing front tooth knocked out when he was a child.

James Gavin in his Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker,  says that beneath that cool exterior, however, was an insecure man. Because playing jazz came so easily, perhaps he did not value his talent or think he deserved the acclaim. He admitted to an Italian magazine that playing in public terrified him and only drugs made him feel in control. "The public stops being an enemy, a hostile bunch of adversaries ready to strike me down with their whistles. I don't have anyone in front of me anymore. I am alone with my trumpet and my music."

But perhaps there is no deeper reason for Baker's almost lifelong drug addiction than what he wrote in his brief memoir, As Though I Had Wings.  After thanking the person who introduced him to marijuana, he added, "I enjoyed heroin very much." Heroin use was an integral part of the world of jazz, bebop and cool. But although many musicians, such as Davis and John Coltrane, struggled to free themselves from the drug, Baker was among those musicians for whom playing jazz was merely the means to make enough money for the next fix. In Europe, where Baker lived most of the time from 1955 until his death in Amsterdam in 1988, many doctors were willing to keep him supplied with narcotics.

Mulligan explained Baker's popularity in Europe as "a case of worshipping the self-destructive artist... .It's a Christ-like image of self-immolation."

By the end of his life, he was injecting drugs into the arteries of his neck because a lifetime of needles had destroyed the veins everywhere else on his body. ...

Baker died under mysterious circumstances. His body was found lying in the street outside an Amsterdam hotel, his head bashed in. Some believe he got high and slipped or jumped from his hotel room, but the one window in the room was only raised 15 inches. Others think he was killed by drug dealers to whom he owed money.

The mystery of Baker's death is the subject of Bill Moody's Looking for Chet Baker, the fifth in his wonderful mystery series featuring Evan Horne, a jazz pianist who gets embroiled in unraveling mysteries, generally involving the lives and deaths of jazz musicians.

Horne is in Europe for a couple of gigs when his close friend, Ace Buffington, a professor of English at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, seeks his help in researching a book on Baker, but Home turns him down.

However, Horne's Amsterdam promoter has gotten him a room at the same hotel in which Baker was staying at the time of his death, the same hotel from which Buffington has mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind his leather portfolio containing his research materials. Concerned that something has happened to his friend, Home begins looking for him. To find Buffington, he must retrace Baker's steps during the last days of his life and try to solve the mystery of his death.

A characteristic of the modern mystery novel is the intimate look it provides to readers of a world they might never see. As a professional jazz drummer, Moody knows jazz clubs and musicians, and he is adept at evoking place, whether it is Los Angeles, San Francisco or Amsterdam. He is wonderful at melding the facts of musicians' lives with fiction, and here he vividly re-creates the sad and painful last days of Baker.

Looking for Chet Baker is the best in the series. The writing is fluid, the plotting is tight and there is a wealth of interesting minor characters. The book also has a lovely introduction by Russ Freeman, who played with Baker for many years, and closes with a selected discography of Baker recordings; Gavin's biography contains as complete a discography as one will find. Moody's and Gavin's books skillfully recreate the jazz subculture and pay tribute to a man who could not apply his extraordinary musical intelligence to the rest of his life.”

The Wall Street Journal review was written by Gene Santoro, a former working musician and Fulbright Scholar, who also covers film and jazz for The Nation and the New York Daily News.
He has written about pop culture for publications including: The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, Atlantic Monthly,People, The New York Post, Spin, 7 Days and Down Beat.

Santoro has authored two essay collections, Dancing In Your Head (1994) and Stir It Up (1997), which were both published by Oxford University Press, and a biography of jazz great Charles Mingus, titled Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus (Oxford, 2000). He is currently completing Made in America, essays about musical countercultures.

Die Cool: A mystery novel revisits the 1988 death of the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in Amsterdam. - Gene Santoro

LOOKING FOR CHET BAKER By Bill Moody. 253 pp. New York: Walker & Company. $24.95.

“JAZZ and detective fiction have been linked almost since the days of hard-boiled pulps, and their relationship deepened once film noir set it to soundtracks. Some of the spark between the two is the stuff of genre: jazz as the dangerous sound of the other side of the tracks was part of the atmosphere  private  dicks moved through on the margins of America.

Bill Moody has taken the next step, creating a jazz pianist-sleuth named Evan Horne. A Berklee-trained musician, Horne packs a piano player's curiosity about and thirst for harmony — in jazz terms, possible scenarios for a melody and musical arrangement. Like a hero out of Hitchcock, he is drawn, usually against his will, into amateur crime-solving — in his case, crimes involving jazz. (In the wryly tongue-in-cheek Bird Lives, he helped the F.B.I, track a killer stalking smooth- Jazz stars.) Once hooked, Horne translates his musical talents into investigative skills. Just as he would with a new piece of music, he focuses on the plot's key features, runs alternative variations to see how they play, eliminates extraneous elements and searches for coherence.

Looking for Chet Baker is the fifth Horne novel, which says something about how good Moody is. A musician himself, Moody is a fluent writer with a good ear for dialogue, a deft and ingratiating descriptive touch, a talent for characterization and a genuine feel for the jazz world. His anti-hero is white and vaguely middle-aged, smokes nonstop and is coming back from a hand injury that nearly ended his musical career. He also has his own ironic twist. As Fletcher Paige, the saxophone star who duets with Horne on and offstage, notes slyly: "F.B.I. girlfriend, cop friend, ex gonna be a lawyer. Man, you the most law-enforcement-involved piano player I ever knew.”

In earlier novels, Horne's sidekick was a professor named Ace Buffington. A fan who aided Horne's musical comeback, Ace reflects jazz-milieu tensions between insiders and outsiders. In Moody's new novel, Ace is at the mystery's heart. While researching a biography of Chet Baker, he shows up in London, where Horne is gigging at Ronnie Scott's club. Ace sees his Baker book as the steppingstone to becoming chairman of his English department, but he needs Horne's help to get inside the jazz world. Horne refuses. But when Horne arrives in Amsterdam a few days later, he discovers Ace has disappeared — from the same Amsterdam hotel Baker died in front of in 1988, after falling (did he jump or was he pushed?) from a window.

Horne's fears for his friend and his curiosity shift him into high gear once he finds Ace's research wedged behind the radiator of the hotel room where Ace stayed — the room that was Baker's last. As Horne chases leads, he rings some standard P.I. changes — withholding information from cops, getting set up and drugged by his quarry. All the while, Ace's mystery and Baker's become more entwined.

Moody works these story lines like a clever arranger setting two familiar melodies in unexpected counterpoint. Fletcher Paige helps make it swing. A 69-year-old veteran of the Count Basie band, Paige has moved to Europe, where his life is relatively free of racism and full of celebrity perks. A fan of hapless Hoke Moseley, hero of Charles Willeford's mysteries, Paige plays a street-smart but cautious Watson to Horne's Holmes. Their musical dynamics give rise to some of the book's most vibrant descriptions: "I start a rubato introduction, letting the minor chords do the work through one out-of-tempo chorus. Then I start a vamp, in tempo, just beyond ballad speed. Fletcher slips in like he's parting a curtain, and just suddenly there, sliding into the melody, singing with his horn, catching everybody off guard with long, elegant lines, at times almost like cries, floating and lingering like billowy clouds in the air even after they're gone."

Though it’s Long Goodbye denouement ties up loose ends a bit too neatly, Looking for Chet Baker is thoughtful entertainment. And like Baker’s music, it is open to anyone - no jazz-insider ID required.”

1 comment:

  1. The Bill moody books are pure delight for Jazz Profiles readers. Above all, Moody is brilliant when writing about the actual playing of jazz, and you find yourself slavering for a recording of Evan Horne's sessions with Fletcher Paige.


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