What Happened, Man?

by John Wooley


In reading over this gorgeous jumble of images and impressions, I can only wonder at how accurately they reflect the very essence of Chet’s life: unremitting chaos shot through with pure genius. Chet wouldn’t have had it any other way.

—Carol Baker, in her introduction to Chet’s posthumous memoir, As Though I Had Wings

I can think of no other players, other than Charlie Parker and Art Pepper, where the proverbial statement, “The man is the music and the music is the man,” can more truthfully, appropriately, and dramatically be applied to than that of Chet Baker.

—Drummer Artt Frank, Baker’s musical partner and friend


In the late 1960s, Artt Frank was living in Southern California with his family, playing drums for the jazz organist Richard “Groove” Holmes and painting houses for his day job. One evening, he passed by a jazz club called Donte’s. When he saw the marquee advertising the Chet Baker Quartet, he remembers, “I nearly got hit from behind.”

Swinging into the parking lot, he walked in, got a beer, and sat down at a table right in front of the stage. Even though there wasn’t a cover charge, the crowd was exceedingly light, and when Frank heard Baker play, he understood why.

“He was not playing well at all,” says Frank. “He finished half a solo—not even a solo—and came down from the stage to end the set. I said, ‘Hey, Chet. Chet, Remember me?’

“He said, ‘No. Sorry, man.’ And he kept on walking.

“I said, ‘Chet, you remember when you told me one time that if you hadn’t been a trumpet player you were going to be a racecar driver and drive at Le Mans?’

“All of a sudden he stopped dead in his tracks. ‘Yeah. Yeah, I do, man. In Boston.’ So he came over and shook my hand and sat down.”

Although Frank didn’t want to be a pest, he was alarmed by the decline in Baker’s playing, and blurted out, “What happened, man?”

“He said, ‘Well…’ and took this set of teeth out; they were very, very poorly made,” remembers Frank. “Then he smiled—and four front teeth were missing.”

In 1966, Baker was jumped by multiple assailants outside a San Francisco jazz club. Some say the assault was drug related. Whatever its motivation, it had cost Baker several teeth, and most of his livelihood. Even as he tried to hustle gigs and keep his band together, both his stock and musical skill suddenly plummeted.

“I saw the little scar tissue around his cheeks, and he told me that he had permanent trigeminal nerve damage on the sides of his mouth and jawline,” says Frank. “When I’d come to see him later on, he’d have devastating pain on the right side of his jaw whenever he tried to play.”

This time, the meeting led to a lasting friendship between Frank and Baker. Frank’s good friend Nicky Blair hired Baker, who was not well off financially, to help him paint houses. Even then, Frank encouraged the trumpeter to start practicing again in earnest.

“Imagine how you’d feel,” Frank says. “You’re on top of the world, you have a thousand of what you’d call friends hanging around you. And then, all of a sudden you lose your teeth, and the record companies, the club owners, the musicians leave you—abandon you. You’ve got no gigs at all, because you can’t play. How would you feel about yourself?

“But he started practicing again, through a lot of pain. He’d stop, and he’d get a note, and he’d get another note, then he’d get another note. ‘This is the most I’ve played in weeks,’ he’d say, and he’d stop and rub his right cheek. I’d ask, ‘What’s the matter?’ and he’d say, ‘It’s pain and numbness.’ But he’d keep practicing.”

“We’re out there, pretty much soaking wet, and he finally confesses to me that he’s scared.”

In 1969, after Chet had started to play melodies, Frank recalls, the drummer started trying to hustle gigs for Baker’s comeback. But all the clubs, including Baker’s old jazz haunts, took a pass on a man they saw as washed up and unreliable. Frank persevered, however, finally finding a place called the Melody Room (now the location of the notorious Viper Room) on Sunset Strip.

“The guy didn’t know a thing about Chet Baker,” says Frank. “I said, ‘I’ll guarantee he’ll pack this club. Give me a break.’ He said, ‘I’ll try you for a weekend.’”

After getting the job, Frank called everyone he could think of who might be interested, including an LA deejay named Chuck Niles. Niles, according to Frank, responded by going on the radio “almost every hour, telling that Chet Baker was making a comeback.”

Friday night, the band members gathered outside the club, where, thanks to a stiff wind that had carried away a “C,” the marquee read “Het Baker and Friends.” It was raining. Baker, whose flugelhorn was currently in hock, was using one lent him by Herb Alpert.

“Chet didn’t want to go in,” Frank remembers. “We’re out there, pretty much soaking wet, and he finally confesses to me that he’s scared. He didn’t want to let the people down.

“I said, ‘Chet, if you don’t go in there now, you’ll never work in this town ever again. Never again, Chet. You won’t do it.’

“Then, all of a sudden, I’m carrying his horn in my right hand, and I feel his right hand on my arm, over my hand, his fingers around my fingers on the horn case. And he says, ‘I’m ready, Artt. Let’s go in and re-gather our chops together.’ And we opened that door and stepped into history.”

* * *

Every summer I’d spend a couple of months on the farm in Yale walking the dirt road that led to the highway, picking wild raspberries along the way. Often I’d walk out into the watermelons, pick one up over my head, and let it fall so that it split wide open. Then I’d eat the sweet heart out and leave the rest to the birds.

—from As Though I Had Wings, by Chet Baker

Chesney Henry Baker was born two days before Christmas 1929, in Yale, Oklahoma, his mother’s birthplace as well. He was only there for a year, however; it was the Depression, and the family was forced to move from their headquarters so Chet’s mother and father could seek work in Oklahoma City. Young Chet spent the next several years of his early life in the home of his father’s sister, returning, once he was old enough, to the rural Yale farm during summer vacations.

Around 1940, the Bakers moved to California, where Chet became adept at both truancy and trumpet. His first instrument had been a trombone, brought home by his father, but a few futile weeks led to its replacement. He continued to play throughout his high school years and through two separate stints in the military, and by 1952 he had begun making a significant impression in jazz circles as a member of the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s quartet. A year or so later, Baker was leading his own group, which attracted a lot of listeners.

One of them was Artt Frank, a bop drummer who’d first been knocked out by Chet’s playing in an unlikely place: the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

“It was just after the Korean War,” Frank recalls. “We were on our way home, and I was aboard the USS Des Moines, a heavy cruiser. I was in the mess hall, listening to the USO radio station, and all of a sudden they played this guy, and I said, ‘My God! Who is that?’ He was playing bebop, but it was more lyrical and melodic than anything I’d ever heard before.”

When the song was announced as being by a young ex-Army trumpeter by the name of Chet Baker on Pacific Jazz Records, Frank said to himself, “I’ve got to meet this guy.” A spiritual man, he prayed to God that one day he would.

The entreaty was answered, but not for a couple of years. Discharged from the service, Frank returned to his hometown of Westbrook, Maine, working a split shift at a local paper mill. He wasn’t playing much at the time, but he was listening, and when he heard that Baker was coming in for a week-long gig at the famed Storyville jazz club in Boston, Frank borrowed his brother’s car and drove down.

“I went inside, and the place was jam-packed—beautiful young girls, good-looking young guys,” he says. “This was just after Chet had won both the DownBeat and Metronome polls for being America’s newest trumpet discovery. And these girls are saying, ‘Oh, Chet Baker. He’s so handsome.’ ”

Frank let it leak to the ladies that he knew Chet personally, a complete lie. They were skeptical, so when Baker left the bandstand for a break, Frank walked up and said, “Hey, Chet. Artt Frank. Remember me?”

Chet didn’t, and said so. But after Frank had returned to the bar, to the derision of those who’d witnessed the brush-off, Baker caught his eye and gestured for Frank to meet him outside.

“Maybe he felt sorry for me because he hadn’t acknowledged me,” muses Frank. “But we go outside, and he says, ‘Where were we supposed to have met?’

“I said, ‘Chet, I can’t bullshit you. I’ve never met you before. I just heard you on the radio, man, coming back from Korea.’

“We walked out to the end of the street and stood on the curb. The traffic was moving by quite rapidly, and he stood there, all mesmerized. I said, ‘You all right, man?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yeah. It’s just these cars, man. If I hadn’t been a trumpet player, I’d have been a racecar driver. And my dream would’ve been to drive a car in Le Mans— and win.’ ”

Since the Storyville gig was being broadcast over the radio and had strict time and repertoire requirements, Frank wasn’t able to sit in that night. However, Baker told the drummer that the band had a month-long gig coming up at Birdland in New York, and if Frank wanted to come up then, he’d be glad to have him guest with the band.

That sounded great to Artt Frank, who’d already sat in with the likes of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell in that same famed venue. However, when the time came to go, Frank was unable to find anyone to cover his shifts at the mill.

The two men wouldn’t meet again for nearly a decade and a half.

* * *

In 1973, Chet told me he was going up to visit his old friend in Denver, Colorado, a guy by the name of Phil Urso, the tenor saxophone player. While he’s there, Dizzy Gillespie’s there, and he says, “Are you working?” Chet says, “No.” So Dizzy Gillespie calls the Village Gate in New York City and gets him a gig. Everyone thinks this is his first comeback gig, but the first comeback gig he ever had was with me, in 1969 in Hollywood.

-Artt Frank

The Melody Room job was a success, drawing celebrities like Old Hollywood’s Frankie Avalon, Dennis Cole (then starring in the TV series Felony Squad), Lenny Bruce’s mother and widow, and a rising Ike and Tina Turner, who were working next door at the Classic Cat Burlesque. Management extended the quartet’s booking, and while Baker had many more ups and downs until his 1988 death from a fall in Amsterdam, there was no doubt he was on his way back.

These days, Artt Frank is getting ready to publish a memoir he calls Chet Baker: the Missing Years. He chose the title, he says, “because no one knows what happened to him after the beating. To them, he gets his teeth knocked out, and all of a sudden he makes a comeback in ’73. What happened in the years between? Other than his loyal wife, Carol, I’m one of the few who knows.”

He also knows that the one-dimensional caricature of Baker as a fuzzed-out hipster— reinforced in articles and books and even a documentary—is an injustice to the musician he knew as his friend.

“They don’t know the man,” he says. “They don’t care to dig deep into the man, into his length and breadth and width. People just want a story— he was a junkie, he was a bastard, he was a taker, he was all of this. But he wasn’t.

“One time, we were sitting in a Denny’s restaurant, just below the Strip from the Melody Room. It was about 2:30 in the morning. Chet’s having silver-dollar pancakes and eggs over easy and coffee, and he looks out the window and says, ‘Look at that poor bastard, Artt.’ I looked out, and there was a guy digging down into a garbage can. And he gets something and starts to eat it.

“Chet says, ‘How many people you think care about that poor bastard?’ And he gets up, leaves the table and goes outside. I can see him reach into his pocket and put something in the guy’s hand. It must’ve been five or ten dollars, because he didn’t have a lot. Then he brings the guy in to sit with us, and he buys him breakfast.

“In ’75, we were playing in a place called Lush Life in New York, me and Chet. We’re walking down the street one day, and we come by this open fire. It was very cold out. All these black kids and Mexican kids and Puerto Rican kids were all around the fire, trying to keep warm. Everyone had a coat except this one kid. So Chet stopped and said, ‘Hey, man. Try this on.’ He took his coat off and gave it to him and said, ‘How’s it feel?’ The kid said, ‘Good, man.’ Chet says, ‘Keep it. It’s yours.’ And we continued walking.

Those are Chet Baker stories,”Frank concludes, “That’s the kind of guy Chet Baker was.”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 17. Sept 1, 2013.