Bill Moody: Books


Looking for Chet Baker Excerpt

April 28, 1988

Chet Baker, nodding, listens to the playback in the cavernous Hamburg studio. Only two tracks to go. His teeth are hurting, getting worse lately. He touches his jaw, feels them slip. Making it so far though, playing good, but now he just wants to get out of there, get in the Alfa and drive as fast as he can to the gig in Paris. Just cool it for a white.

Chet's old friends Herb Geller and Walter Norris are there for the date. Herb and Walter come into the control booth to hear the playback of "Well You Needn't." Norris, the brilliant pianist, sits quietly, legs crossed. Herb, his horn hanging from around his neck, watches him, listens, checking him out. Chet, smiling at Herb now, hearing his solo. So long since L.A., from the days when he and Gerry Mulligan packed the Haig for almost a year.

"Not too bad for an old guy, huh?" Chet says.

Herb nods. "You sound great, man."


"Are you okay? You need anything?"

"Just hope that guy gets back here with the teeth glue." He looks at the floor for a moment. "You know, man, if the uppers go, I can't play anymore, but I have an appointment with a dentist next week." Chet sighs, shakes his head, smiles that sad smile. "I gotta get out of here, man."

Herb nods again and smiles back. It's been over thirty years, but he knows how it is with Chet, how it's always been. "I know. Well, only a couple of more tunes left."

The engineer stops the tape as the track ends and looks at Chet. "That one is fine for you?" he asks.

Chet, glancing at Herb, catches his nod, saying, "Yes, it's fine."

As always, he hadn't played for anyone. Certainly not the record company suits who were now relaxing in chairs, in the control room, beaming at each other. They were scared earlier when he hadn't showed for the rehearsal. Chet didn't need to rehearse, but the orchestra, one of the best in Germany, did. For two days. An eighteen-piece big band and forty-three strings. Chet just played. He examined these old songs, played them, and then put them away until the next time. They would always be there, waiting for him like the women, the friends he left and eventually returned to. They were waiting too. Even if he was sometimes selfish, untrustworthy, there was something about him, that sweet nature that made people welcome him back.

The band reassembles in the studio. The audience takes their seats. Chet aware now of the musicians sneaking glances at him, wondering, he guesses, if he's going to make it, but he's never doubted himself. He's been through too much for that now. It's just these goddamned teeth. Then a man carrying a small paper bag comes in quietly, holds it up to Chet.

"I need five minutes, okay," Chet says to the conductor.

"Of course, Mr. Baker."

Chet goes out, taking the paper bag from the man, going to the men's room, squeezing the gel out of the tube and quickly applying it, resetting the teeth, testing, biting down while sixty-one musicians and the audience wait. After all this time the teeth still give him trouble, but there's nothing he can do about it.

He splashes water on his face, raises his head slowly, and gazes in the mirror, seeing an old man, a man older than his years, staring back at him. That face, perhaps once destined for Hollywood, is now lined, wrinkled, the cheeks sunken, the eyes sad and dark. The face of an old Indian. It's a face he knows well, but occasionally he still sees the young man in the old man's reflection. "You ain't no movie idol now, are you?" he asks the mirror.

Drying his face and hands with a paper towel, he heads back to the studio, nodding to the musicians and conductor that he's ready now. He looks for Herb Geller in the saxophone section and winks. "Okay, let's do it," he says to the conductor.

He's chosen all the tunes. They're going to call the album, My Favorite Songs. He's comfortable with these tunes, and no matter how many times he's played them before, he finds something new, some new way to approach a phrase, hold or bend a note. He still doesn't know how he does it, but that doesn't matter. Doing it, playing, is all that matters.

The conductor raises his baton, begins a count: a lazy three-four tempo for "All Blues." Chet nods his approval, and the orchestra starts the vamp figure. He holds the horn casually as always, feels one twinge of pain when he puts the mouthpiece to his lips, but it passes quickly. He picks his spot and blows that first long tone, simple and pure, letting it settle over everyone there like satin, easy, relaxed, slipping into the tune. In that moment the missed rehearsals, the late arrival, the interruptions, are all forgotten, unimportant now. All will be forgiven when everyone hears the playback.

Chet, eyes closed, breathes life into the horn, playing, already seeing Paris in his mind.


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