Directors: Stephen Cleary and Robert Lemkin
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Pioneering jazz trumpeter Miles Davis has among his many quotable quotes this one: “You know why I quit playing ballads? Cause I love playing ballads.” Davis proved that rejecting his comfort zone was the way to forge the future of a musical form that has been given up for dead more than once.
Chet Baker, on the other hand, loved ballads and settled into them like a cat on a warm pile of towels. You couldn’t call Baker an innovator exactly, but he brought something very unique to jazz. If you can imagine Billie Holiday’s voice coming out of the bell of a trumpet, you’re in Chet Baker country. Baker, like Holiday, achieved a sad, melancholic tone in his playing; his trumpet phrasing even seems to owe a bit to her vocalization style. And sadly, like Holiday, he had the jazz musician’s disease—a heroin addiction that he never kicked—and died tragically—falling (or jumping?) out of an Amsterdam hotel window.
In 1986, just two years before his death, Baker was filmed performing at Ronnie Scott’s, London’s famous jazz club. Very ably backed by pianist Michel Grailler and bassist Riccardo del Fra, with guest performances by Van Morrison and Elvis Costello (in full 80s persona), Baker sang and played with aching beauty and perhaps not a little struggle.
The set opens with the lovely “Ellen David,” signaling the warm cool of Baker’s California jazz that will characterize most of the set. Baker, in a faux-Hawaiian print pullover and black jeans tucked into knee-high cowboy boots, sits like a rickety folding chair on an amp, pointing his horn down into a mike or pressing his craggy, Okie face against another mike to sing. I’ve always noted Baker’s breathy style, but in this performance, he seems to be gasping for air at the top of his sung and blown phrases. It is only when his lungs fully engage that he works into the right notes and carries them long after most of us would be taking a breath. This is the paradox of Baker’s style, a tightrope act that generally settles into a mellow walk on the wire with more than a tinge of anxious emotion. Listening to Baker is both relaxing and a bit harrowing; he is never someone I can half-listen to as background music.
During the opening number and the following “Just Friends,” a fast number that Baker sings and scats, the camera work is pretty bad, jumping back and forth frenetically and focusing on pretty girls wearing the fashion disasters that date this film squarely in the 80s. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that Rob Lemkin, who directed Nina Simone Live at Ronnie Scott’s two years before, must have wrested control of the production after that. The rest of the film is a textbook on how to shoot musical performances. “Shifting Down,” the third song of the set, settles in visually, tightening in on the performers, working magic with the color lighting on the stage to create relational tableaus of the musicians, and using a musician POV shot to light up the dark club with the bright yellow frock of a lovely black audience member.
The set goes a bit off the tracks when Van Morrison takes to the stage. He seems to have dropped in after a few too many at the pub down the street. Clutching a rumpled lyrics sheet, eyes clamped tightly shut, arm twitching a la Joe Cocker, Morrison delivers a version of “Send in the Clowns” that makes me wonder if he even knew how the song went. I love Van, but this was very far from his finest hour.
The set shifts back to the trio, and hits a very fine groove with traditionally rendered “If I Should Lose You” and “My Ideal,” and a funky “Love for Sale” that really shows off the talents of bassist Del Fra. The camera syncopates to the musical beat and later shoots straight up the neck of Del Fra’s double bass, showing his playing in minute detail and teaching me a lot about how such magnificent sounds are made. Indeed, Lemkin uses extreme close-ups to great effect, particularly in illustrating Baker’s reservoir of breath and sure valving. Baker’s vocals for “My Ideal” were so pain-filled; you could sense the tragedy of missed opportunities and wasted pursuits that certainly must have been a big part of Baker’s drug-scarred life.
Elvis Costello joins the trio to sing “The Very Thought of You” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” He seems to rush the first song and bends notes in a way more characteristic of his 80s punk-ska style. His tone and delivery are perfect, however, for the moving “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” blending effortlessly with Baker’s horn to tear at the heartstrings. This was easily my favorite number of the set. The film ends with “I’m a Fool to Want You.”
Short segments that have Costello rather clumsily interviewing Baker seek to shed light on Baker’s history. We learn he lived with his aunt in Oklahoma City from the age of one (a fact I haven’t been able to confirm with admittedly cursory research), a happenstance that seems to have bothered Baker. He says he visits his mother in Oklahoma once a year, but stays mainly in Europe, where jazz is appreciated. I thought he was a little hard on America, saying he had recently played Chicago for the first time in five years and lamenting the lack of jazz clubs across the country. I seem to remember at least half a dozen clubs I used to visit in the 80s to listen to jazz; while certainly not what it was in its heyday, jazz wasn’t exactly dead in my city. It’s more likely that Baker was not getting gigs because of his out-of-control heroin habit. He also reveals that he lost his front teeth in a beating in San Francisco and had to learn how to play the horn while wearing dentures—a truly amazing feat. It has been convincingly argued, however, that he actually lost his teeth due to his heroin use. His final comment, about trying to write his autobiography, but giving it up because “nobody would believe it anyway,” actually sounds about right. (The unfinished manuscript was published after his death.)
I don’t think we’ll ever know the real story about Chet Baker, but for me, that doesn’t matter. I’ve been a fan of his for many years, and all I need to know about him can be found in his music. Chet Baker Live at Ronnie Scott’s, formerly available only in VHS, was remastered for DVD and reissued in 2002 with a few DVD extras and the dubious box claim that this was “The Legendary Jazz Trumpeter’s Last Performance!” I’m happy to say that this accomplished film provides fans with a worthy record of an imperfect, yet impassioned performance by an unabashed jazz balladeer.