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Toronto Jazz Band
Toronto Jazz Band

 

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Toronto Jazz Band


Chet Baker Story
Meeting Chet Baker... Chet Baker

During the summer of 1978, Toronto singer, Jean Samion booked me to play drums on a gig with her at a very exclusive night club. On piano during the first week was Norm Amadio, during the second week, the amazing Frank Falco. The bass player for both weeks was Kim Hunt.

Jean had a long standing relationship with a number of very high profile musicians. On one of the gigs she got through Buddy Rich, to play with vibraphonist Mike Manieri, Jean met and performed with Trumpet player/vocalist Chet Baker. Jean had told me about all of the great musicians she had worked with, but it didn’t really hit home with me until one night on the gig when nobody showed up to the club we were playing at.

After the first set finished, the manager of the club came up to us to tell us he was closing the restaurant early, and welcomed us to take the rest of the night off. Jean and I sat in the empty club, and over a slice of cheese cake, decided to go over to a local Toronto jazz club called: "Bourbon Street."

When we got there, Jean was met by a number of people that knew and respected her and we were quickly ushered to a very good table. On stage accompanying the trumpet player was a drummer and piano player that I had known about for several years, but had yet to meet and playing bass was Dave Field. (Yes, the same legendary Dave Field that plays in the DB Band today!)

The featured soloist was a person that I had read about in Downbeat Magazine and heard about through stories Jean had told me, but I must admit, beyond that I didn’t know much about him.

The one thing that did stand out in my memory was the fact that he had a well documented association with Heroin. Growing up with a somewhat myopic view of the world, I could not understand how it was that people could put a drug user on such a high pedestal (If you will pardon the pun).

Chet Baker was a living jazz legend. Having played with the likes of Bird (Charlie Parker), Red Norvo, and Gerry Mulligan, he had already carved out his stature in the jazz hall of fame. Validating the incredible talent of this man was the fact that he won the Downbeat Magazine and Metronome polls as: "Best Trumpet Player," several times.

Remember, at the time he managed to achieve this incredible recognition, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and a number of other very accomplished trumpet players were also very popular. But Chet was the man who helped to make the beautiful jazz standard "My Funny Valentine" the international hit that it had become and that registered his place in jazz history.

So here we are at Bourbon Street; me, Jean, Chet, the band, and several other people jammed into this smokey club. Jean was a very outgoing person and as soon as the band took a break she caught Chet’s attention and waved him over to our table.

Chet came over and gave Jean a big hug and motioned him to sit down across from me. She said: "Chet this is Dan Bodanis. He is my drummer and you must hear him play, you must!" Just then, a number of people came over to Chet and complimented his playing. Everyone wanted to wish him well and speak to him. It was as if Jean and I weren’t even sitting at the table.

When Chet finally sat down he apologized for the constant interruptions and asked Jean how she was doing. Jean asked Chet about a number of mutual acquaintances that were names I had only read about in Downbeat Magazine. I was finally realizing the significance of Chet’s fame, and it really hit home with me; his contribution to jazz and those that love jazz was indelible.

Although very small and emaciated in stature, when Chet turned towards me, he suddenly captured my attention in a very strange way and his stature somehow seemed to change. At this point in my life as a teenager, I had not had a lot of experience in life, particularly in dealing with drug addicts and I did not know what to expect.

Chet Baker was very warm and embracing when he turned his attention toward me. He was sincerely interested in the fact that I was a young drummer that loved to play jazz and he took a long time to ask me a number of questions regarding my development as a musician. He asked me who I studied with, if I could read music, and most importantly: who was I listening to and which drummers did I most admire?

We really hit it off well! He kept asking me questions about all kinds of things relating to music. When it was time to go back to the stage to play his final set, he made a point of asking Jean and I to stay, and we said we would.

As the set progressed, I found it more and more difficult to listen to him. At that time, my musical tastes tended to include anything that was passionate, intense, and contained a lot notes played machine-gun fast. The band that I was most into at that very point was: "The Mahavishnu Orchestra" featuring the ultimate "drum-gladiator" of the day: Billy Cobham.

It was difficult for me to listen to Chet because most of the music that he played during the set on trumpet, or sang, was moderately slow. Some of it was actually downright "dirge-like" in comparison to the hyper-active tempi that I was used to listening to.

(The fact is, at the time, I totally lacked the maturity to understand and appreciate Chet’s music!)

When the set was over, Chet made a bee-line to our table. Once again, after ten minutes of dealing with his fans he turned his full attention to Jean and me. Jean was very kind to tout my drumming abilities to Chet, and upon hearing Jeans’ endorsement, Chet asked me to come back the next night to sit in and play the last set.

At that point in my development, I was very eager for the chance of sitting in anywhere at anytime, with anyone. I had no fear whatsoever, and quickly agreed to comeback the next night. I even remember Jean telling Chet about the great job I would do when I came back. She really promoted me to Chet, and even though I wasn’t really a fan of his music (at the time), I realized that this was the opportunity of a lifetime!

I do not remember what it was that Jean said to cause Chet to respond with the next phrase, but I remember him saying: "That’s great! Last week I was in Philadelphia working with two young tigers. As a matter of fact you remind me of the drummer."

I asked Chet where he was playing the previous week, and he told me that he wasn’t playing anywhere live in a club. He said: "My record company had me buried in the studio with these two characters that really played very well together!" He also said: "I really enjoy the energy of playing with them; they really moved things along during the session, they played with great energy!" "They made a great bass-drums team!" "You would have really enjoyed the drummer; he inspired me to play like no one else I have ever met."

Of course I had to ask: "Who was playing drums and bass?

Now before I share Chet’s response, let me remind you that I boldly laid claim, a few paragraphs back, to fearlessly wanting to play with anybody, anywhere, at anytime!

Well… when Chet answered my question, the resulting physical sensation of "shear stark terror" immediately enveloped my ability to breathe normally. As my pulse quickened, I thought, "Oh my God, what have I got myself into? "Was I nuts?"

In jazz circles, there are few people that have worked together as a rhythm section and gained more notoriety than Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. As a matter of fact, the guy who was winning every major poll as "Best Drummer," was Tony Williams. Ron Carter was winning every poll as "Best Bass Player."

Listen to any of Miles Davis’ best recordings, and guess who is playing drums? Tony Williams helped to define an era in jazz, with all of his landmark work performing with Miles. Tony also helped to redefine everyone’s perspective on what a drum solo could sound like.

He smashed paradigms, and completely raised the bar for every drummer that ever picked up a stick after him. Not only did Tony Williams play with Miles Davis (Miles discovered him and began to use him on drums when Tony was just 16 years old!), John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie, he had just played drums on Chet Bakers’ latest record, with Ron Carter on Bass!

At first I thought: "Naw, he’s kidding me, he’s just trying to mess with me." When he started to talk about the tunes they recorded and Tony’s setup in the studio, with his 5 piece kit of Gretsch drums and his old K. Zildjian cymbals, I knew that I was in "way over my head!" Chet wasn’t messing with me. He had just recorded with Tony Williams. Tony Williams!!!

What does one do when faced with a life threatening situation? (I know I’m being melodramatic, but I had never been so musically intimidated in my life!) The normal human response is fight or flight. To fight would mean that I would have to come back the next night to sit in. Flight would have meant "leave immediately, never come back, and don’t ever hold yourself out in the capacity of ‘Jazz Drummer’ ever again! (Again, the myopic view of a very young man.)

As an aside, I remember Chet making a comment about Dave Field’s playing. He said he really liked the bass player because "he played with fire!" The frightening thing was, he did not say a word about the drummer, who was a very well respected veteran of the Toronto Jazz Scene. Although Chet did not come right out and say it, he made it clear; he was not at all impressed with the drummer. Maybe this is why he wanted me to come back to sit in?

Now remember, Chet had told me that no other drummer had ever inspired him like Tony Williams. He also told me that he loved to play with "Young Tigers!"

Objectively speaking, I may have had the money to join the "Young Tigers" fan-club, maybe even as a charter member, but I was no Young Tiger! (Or, "Young Tony" for that matter!) Metaphorically speaking, I was more like "the lamb being lead to the slaughter!"

Jean could see that Chet had taken a real shine to me and asked Chet if we could take him to an all night coffee shop that she knew. He said he was pretty tired and just wanted to go back to the Westbury Hotel, where he was staying. She asked Chet if I could give him a ride back to the hotel and Chet said "sure, I’d like that."

I don’t remember too much more of what had been said during the next few minutes before we left the club, because all I could think of was: "How do I get myself out of this?" The next thing I knew, I found myself in the parking lot, putting Chet’s trumpet in the back seat of my car and opening the passenger side door for him.

So here I am in my old two tone blue Pontiac Parisienne Brougham, with the blue crushed velour seats, with jazz legend - Chet Baker sitting in the front seat as my passenger. I was now deeper into this than I could have imagined. He started asking me if I knew certain jazz standards and luckily, I had played them, and he said: "Good it’s settled! Come down tomorrow night and play the last set."

As I was navigating my way through back streets to get over to Younge Street, Chet asked me a question that I had never been asked before. He asked me if I had any "MJ?" I asked him what MJ was, and he looked at me like I was from Mars.

"MJ," "Weed," "Marijuana," "do you have any, man?" I told him that I didn’t have any and that I had never taken drugs. He really didn’t believe me and he actually became quite demanding.

"Man, are you putting me on?" "I need some weed, don’t hold out on me man, that’s not fair, I hate when guys do that!" When he realized that I was telling the truth, for the rest of the ride, he fixated on having me drive him around the city to find some "grass."

He kept asking me if I knew where he could "score some grass" and everytime I said "no" he became more irritated. As he got more and more upset, I actually started to feel relieved. Chet Baker was now angry with me because I refused to drive him around to find drugs, and the way I saw it, that was my "out."

Thankfully, the drive from the Bourbon Street Jazz Club to the Westbury Hotel was a relatively short drive. When I dropped Chet off at the corner of Younge and Carlton, he quickly got out of the car opened the rear passenger door, grabbed his trumpet and very graciously thanked me for the "cab ride."

In my mind, I had been let off the hook. (Once again, myopia saves the day!) I did not have to show up the next night to play because I had been demoted from "Drummer to Cab Driver." Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a cab driver, if that is your chosen profession.

Playing drums for a living was my chosen profession, but Chet now saw me as a cab driver. The one expectation that no one would ever place on a cab driver is: to go to a jazz club and sit in, to play a set with a legendary jazz trumpet player.

Thank God for cab drivers.

In retrospect, I realized a while later that I made a serious error in judgment.

No: refusing to drive Chet around to find drugs was not an error in judgment; that was a very smart move!

(As a quick aside: Having worked with musicians (since then) that have been under the influence, particularly in recording situations, has taught me that any kind of "narcotic perspective altering" leads to really warped opinions and lousy recordings. I have actually been on studio dates where musicians were "high" and thought they played well, only to find out later they had been replaced by someone that was not "under the influence.")

My error stemmed from refusing to face my fear of playing music that I instinctively knew I did not have the depth of maturity to play, with a person that had a tremendous amount to teach me. I had walked away from a tremendous opportunity for growth.

There are many "worse-case scenarios" that one could postulate. Even as a young jazz musician, the mental gymnastics involved in catastrophising like this seemed to come quite easily. As a matter of fact this mind-set came far too easily. Thanks to the help of some great teachers, I was able to "de-junk" my mental processing of this way of thinking.

What I learned as a result of the whole "Chet Baker experience," was to embrace my fears with a cautious, but steady hand. From that day forward, although he will never know it, Chet Baker taught me to face all of my musical fears with the intent of learning and improving from each experience.

Since then, I have been exposed to a number of very challenging musical experiences. My perspective from that point in time up to the present has been to embrace those opportunities as steps on the never ending ladder of self improvement.

My friend in Texas, motivational speaker "Zig Ziglar," had a diagram in his great book: "See You at the Top." (Buy it and read it!) The diagram showed a picture of an elevator with a great big sign across the closed doors that indicated: "Out of Order." Beside the elevator was a diagram of a stair case with a man walking up one step at a time.

If I remember correctly, Zig wrote the caption: "The elevator to the top is out of order." "Success comes one step at a time!"

The experience with Chet cured the myopic perspective I once had.

Thanks Chet.

For all the information you could ever want on Chet Baker visit http://www.chetbaker.net/



 

 

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