Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: Chet Baker:The Missing Years by Artt Frank

It was my pleasure a couple of months ago to write a review of Linda Holiday sensei’s book ‘Journey to the Heart of Aikido’. And now I shift my focus to another book written by another dear friend. This is Artt Frank’s memoirs of his time with jazz legend Chet Baker entitled ‘Chet Baker: The Missing Years’. First I’ll give my brief history with both Chet Baker and Artt Frank. I played trumpet middle school through high school. Even though I was first chair in the Soquel High School band I found out I was playing with a weird embrochure. My upper lip and tongue formed the embrochure. And when I tried to play with both lips in the embrochure, everything got unsteady. So when I went to the University of California Santa Cruz I pretty much gave up playing. I would try now and again but never was motivated enough to really practice enough to develop my embrochure the orthodox way. And I  went on to become a martial arts instructor. But I always was somehow drawn to music. Finally in early early 2007 I was at Starbucks in San Jose and saw a cd for sale that featured Baker’s music. I  bought it and put it in my car stereo not expecting anything and drove away. The first song was ‘Let’s Get Lost’ and the vocals blew me away. I had never heard anything like Baker’s voice. And then I started to listen to his playing, and I was inspired to rent an instrument and try to play again. So after almost 40 years I tried to play with an orthodox embrochure and couldn’t produce a sound. So I thought to myself this was going to end very quickly. But I put on some of Chet’s music and when I was in the energy field of his playing I could somehow make a sound. And not only that after a few minutes I was free forming to his playing. This was something I absolutely could not do in high school. No written music, I couldn’t play. So something was different.

So with the inspiration of Chet Baker’s music I bought more of his cds and started practicing. And I wanted to know more about him, so I went online. I was disappointed to find that so much written about Baker the person had a negative slant to it. It didn’t make sense. There was such a profound beauty and power to his playing and all I read about him was negative. So finally I came upon Artt Frank’s website And I was happy to see someone who knew Baker personally talk about him in not only good terms, but with love and appreciation. So there was an email contact on the website and I emailed Artt and thanked him. He emailed me back and gave me his phone number and asked me to call him. I did and we began what is to me a very dear friendship. Artt has not only  brought Baker the man, not the jazz legend, and made him alive for me, he has given me some great guidance in my playing and my approach to music. So both a mentor and a dear dear friend.

Now to the book. I must say that even though Artt has personally shared so much about his time with Chet with me, this book was still a revelation to me. I don’t want to give too much away because I want people to read it for themselves. I was given an advance copy by the publisher. I am not sure of the release date, but there is talk of it being released in February. It would be fitting because Baker’s signature song was ‘My Funny Valentine’.

This book details the period of Baker’s life that is completely unknown. In the mid-sixties Baker suffered a severe beating in which his remaining upper front teeth were knocked out. He had lost one at age 13. And both sides of his jaw suffered severe nerve damage. How he made his comeback and was able not only to play the trumpet again, but to play it even better is revealed here. And instrumental in that was the love and support he got from his wife Carol and from his friend and guardian angel Artt Frank.

So without giving too much away about the book, here are some odds and ends that are just the tip of the iceberg so to speak:
-Baker loved sweets. Especially sugar jelly doughnuts and apple pie with vanilla ice cream.
-He had to deal with a lot of pain when he played. In the beating where he lost his 4 front upper teeth he suffered nerve damage to both sides of his jaw, so to play was to in some sense suffer. He took pain pills to play. And he had lower back pain from years of traveling from gig to next gig.
-Even though most people place Baker’s comeback much later, his comeback was a gig in Los Angeles at a place called the Melody Room  with Artt Frank on drums. And it was Artt’s hard work and persistence that set the whole thing up.
-Artt goes into great detail about what set Baker’s playing apart from other trumpet players both in tone and phrasing. And he offers a great insight when comparing Chet’s playing to that of Miles Davis.
-Artt recounts Chet’s process for freeforming, where and how he got his musical ideas. Not to be missed. I read it every day……
-Baker reveals to his good friend things about his childhood and history you won’t find anywhere else. Also revealed is Baker’s warm relationship with his wife Carol and his family life during this time when he was practicing for his comeback.

Several other things I will say. There is great attention to detail in the writing. Artt said being an ear and heart player he had to learn music just by hearing it. So he has a wonderful ability to remember things. And even though he has played with other great musicians, he began early to write things down about Chet Baker. So the dialogue is   in Chet’s words and in Artt’s words.

And Artt not only doesn’t dodge the drug issue, he takes it head on. But with incredible compassion and understanding. He personally questioned Chet about his drug use and challenged him on more than one occasion. But he was also there whenever Chet needed him. In some ways the book reads like a novel in that there is much suspense in it. It is a historical memoir so we all basically know how it turned out. But  for example how Artt got Chet to his comeback gig at the Melody Room left me on the edge of my chair. Chet put Artt through a lot, but through it all everything was met with such devotion and love from Artt’s side. And without Artt there would have been no comeback for Chet, and so much of his music would not have come into the world.

Being a martial artist I have seen speed. But Artt Frank when he plays the drums has the fastest hands I have ever seen. They move like flames. He once shared with me that Chet loved Bruce Lee and Japanese Samurai movies and that they would watch them into the wee hours. Ueshiba Osensei,the founder of aikido used the term takemusu  to describe his art. It means martial art that is tied to unlimited creativity, where movement are spontaneous and created appropriately in the moment. My sense is that Baker was doing a similar thing in music. His freeforming was really composing. He was a genius. And having the opportunity to see and even to play a bit along side Artt, I put him right next to Chet.

If you are someone with an interest in jazz history this is a must. If you would like to see how love, devotion and compassion from Artt , combined with steely determination from Chet resulted in overcoming impossible odds, this book is also a must. A great read for all.