Chet Baker - Chet Is Back!

Chet Baker Chet Is Back! (RCA 1962)

Chet was back with a vengeance.

Chet Baker - Chet Is Back!


Chet Baker (trumpet), Bobby Jaspar (tenor saxophone, flute), Amedeo Tommasi (piano), René Thomas (guitar), Benoit Guersin (bass), Daniel Humair (drums)


on January 5-15 at RCA Italiana Studios, Rome


as RCA 10307 in 1962

Track listing

Side A:
Well, You Needn’t
These Foolish Things
Star Eyes
Over The Rainbow
Pent-Up House
Ballata In Forma Di Blues
Blues In The Closet

The man and the myth. Misunderstandings about Chet Baker are ubiquitous. Everything about the hip junkie and hobo oozed jazz. Cool cat, good copy. No shortage of hangers-on that love to share so-called badass experiences with the iconic trumpeter. The portrayal of Baker in Bruce Weber’s documentary Let’s Get Lost features wonderful music but is shamelessly romantic. The saga continues with the Dutch movie My Foolish Heart, a silly movie that is marked by outstanding trumpet playing by Dutch trumpeter Ruud Breuls. Better read Dutch bassist and writer Jeroen de Valk’s Chet Baker; His Life And Music, a close account of Baker’s life and career that debunks many myths, among those the belief that Baker was murdered in his Amsterdam hotel room and the stories that his teeth were kicked out and admirers recorded Baker’s trumpet playing outside the walls of jail in Italy. Plenty of good jazz stories remain once the fairy tales have worn out.

The man and the music. What can I say? Baker’s discography is extensive and getting back into the work of Baker now and then is a joy, picking old favorites and discovering new ones in the process. Inevitably, there are let-downs. Baker, in particularly bad shape in the 1960’s, made his share of mediocre records. Hours of Baker on end leads to a craving for a little variety, in the case of Baker the hunger for spicy hot trumpet. But no mistaking, there’s nothing like Chet Baker’s cushion-soft lyricism, pure gold, pure sunlight, pure melody, pure angels playing doctor in the snow…

Remember what Buddy de Franco reportedly said: “We were all jealous of his talent.”

And Hank Jones: “Chet’s playing affected many people, from the standpoint of its simplicity. (…) His playing was simple – perhaps! But he had complex chords in mind. He may have been dancing all around, but he was conforming exactly to the chord progressions of the tune, or of the tune as he had arranged the chords. It only appeared to be simple. This is probably the best expression of an artist – when the artists can make something appear to be simple. And yet underneath, it was complicated harmonically.” (Gene Lees, Waiting For Dizzy)

If they say so. And him that’s got ears and them that love Chet Baker cherish the man and the music, unless you once started off with his Mariachi Brass LP’s on World Pacific and couldn’t be bothered. So much to explore but time and again I fail to snatch Hazy Hugs from the bins, his record with the Amstel Octet on Timeless in 1985. Baker didn’t bother to take off his bathrobe and change garb for the photo shoot. Night and/or day, who cares. Having lately focused on ‘straight-ahead’ Chet, I naturally gravitated to revisits of And Crew on Pacific Jazz from 1956, a solid record featuring Bobby Timmons and In New York featuring Johnny Griffin and Philly Joe Jones on Riverside from 1958. Riverside’s label boss Orrin Keepnews put Baker in different settings – climaxing with the vibrant and smooth vocal album It Could Happen To You – but also opted for a hard bop album.

In New York is excellent though I feel that something’s missing. Hot trumpet perhaps. Both And Crew and In New York – as well as the excellent bop-inflected Playboys with Art Pepper and Phil Urso – were made in between problematic encounters with the law and jail sentences on drugs charges. In 1959, Baker knew the net was closing in and fled to Europe. During his first sojourn to Europe in 1955, Baker found himself in Paris, jazz-minded capital of France, smoky Bohemian cellar of existentialism, turtleneck-sweatered paradise of croissant and cool. Small wonder they loved Chet Baker over there. The Barclay label fancied the trumpeter and gave him the opportunity to record with fellow traveler and pianist Dick Twardzik. Twardzik tragically died from a heroin overdose in Paris. Their finest cooperation was The Chet Baker Quartet (or Rondette), a record of challenging compositions by Adam Zieff. Lovely record!

Baker was warmly received in Europe but it wasn’t all fun and games. To quote The Grateful Dead: “Trouble ahead, trouble behind, Casey Jones you better watch your speed.” The establishment was keen to bust Baker and the trumpeter finally was arrested and indicted in Italy, serving his sentence in Lucca. Baker finally got out of prison at the tail end of 1961. He recorded Chet Is Back in January 1962, arguably the finest of his bop and hard bop albums, quite amazing considering his circumstances.

The Bakerman was back on track, his sound confident and bright, his solos replete with ideas and impromptu deviations that make clear the trumpeter felt like a fish in the water. Baker’s free-spirited handling of Monk’s melody of Well, You Needn’t, which also features a spontaneous stop-time chorus, and the clarion-call of the high note that ends his solo of Parker’s Barbados are intriguing cases in point. Ever the great ballad man, Baker’s renditions of These Foolish Things and Over The Rainbow abundantly affirm Hank Jones’s theory of Baker’s greatness.

It’s a consistent album, completed by Star Eyes, Rollins’s Pent-Up House, Pettiford’s Blues In The Closet and Tomassi’s Balatta In Forma Di Blues. Baker is matched by his European partners. The pan-European fest features the Belgian guitarist René Thomas, tenor saxophonist and flutist Bobby Jaspar and bassist Benoit Guersin, Italian pianist Amedeo Tommasi and Swiss drummer Daniel Humair. They’re hot, fresh, bubbling with joy and anticipation. That’s what I love about Baker’s cooperation with the crème de la crème of Europe: regardless of excellent American counterparts, this one’s got the edge.

René Was Back as well, the guitarist from Liège had spent a couple of years in the USA and received compliments by cooperators Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. Back in Europe improved his Jimmy Raney-based style. He’s one of a kind, intense, hypnotizing, employing a lilting, gypsy-like tone. The wealth of ideas and blues variations that Thomas displays on Blues In The Closet gets near Planet Parker. The spicy, mature playing of Bobby Jaspar, acclaimed tenorist and flutist that had already been featured on recordings with J.J. Johnson, Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane, is another great asset of Chet Is Back. A great day in Rome.

A couple of years later, Prestige released a series of records that were culled from one session: Smokin’, Groovin’, Comin’ On, Cool Burnin’ and Boppin’ featuring George Coleman and Kirk Lightsey. Omnipresent, lauded albums on jazz fora on the internet highway. But apart from the fact that copying the title word play of Miles Davis’s pioneering hard bop records on Prestige from 1955/56 was not a good idea, I’m not convinced of its so-called excellence. It’s a great band but Baker sounds uninspired and tired.

As straight-ahead jazz goes, Baker’s albums on Steeplechase, recorded live at Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen with guitarist Doug Raney and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen are highlights of his career. Then there’s The Improviser from 1983, Chet Baker firing off bop crackers with a very good Scandinavian band. So much to explore…

Maja Lemmen, background portrait of Porgy founder Frank Koulen

Family Affair

Manager Maja Lemmen (70) has been taking care of business at the Dutch jazz club and cultural theatre Porgy & Bess ever since Eve bit the apple. She started out in 1960, when she had moved in with the family of Porgy founder, Frank “De Neger” Koulen. “But when I was 17, I wanted out. I was going crazy, you know how it goes, puberty! But Frank said, ‘you? You’ll never get out of this place!’ He was right. I was holding on to dear life, working hard and getting involved with the beautiful music called jazz.”

Early summer sun. Saturday’s shopping crowd is leisurely strolling in De Noordstraat, which, like many streets of our brave new civilisation, puts best foot forward to guard off the gulf of retail stores in favor of small enterprises. Clothing, shoes, household appliances, books, delicatessen… And, right in the middle, Porgy & Bess. The vintage bar, self-made floor, the painting of exotic black girls, pictures of jazz legends and the portrait of Frank Koulen on the wall. A jukebox underneath, tables in front of it. Terracota walls, various brass instruments hanging on the ceiling. The dark nightclub interior at the back of the club, the performance area, where the Steinway grand piano is hidden under a black sail cloth. Right in the middle of that area, Maja, Miss Porgy & Bess.

In 2017, the club will celebrate its 60th Anniversary. Quite a feat for a jazz club, to say the least. A cult hero of mythic proportions ever since he passed away in 1985, the Suriname-born Frank Koulen arrived in Dutch Flanders with the Allied Forces in 1944, married Vera van den Bruele and transformed their tearoom into a jazz cafe. With it, Koulen, the only dark-skinned person in town, hence “De Neger”, forever changed the cultural life of the medium-sized harbour city Terneuzen and the Benelux jazz landscape. Koulen, eternally short of cash but always brimming with ideas and socially conscious visions, introduced streetparades, staged Dixieland and modern jazz, as well as various cultural festivities. Lively entertainment for the youngsters of the day. After his passing, a dedicated army of volunteers and passionate sponsors rebuilt Porgy & Bess (also literally) from scratch and made Porgy & Bess what it is today, a world-wide known, highly acclaimed jazz club.

But what if Maja’s mother hadn’t taken a cab to fetch a ball of wool at Van den Bruele’s wool and linnen shop? One can only guess. “That shop was right in front of future tearoom and jazz club Porgy & Bess. We had recently arrived from Rijswijk. My mother had heart problems so she took a cab. Frank was working in the store and, curious as he was by nature, asked about her un-Flemish, big city accent. A friendly talk. Then, in that charming, pleading tone of his, Frank asked, couldn’t her daughter help out on Friday nights? That’s where I get into the picture.”

When did jazz come into the picture? Maja, adding a stirring touch to the story in the way old sailors recount a legendary shipwreck, explains: “Well, the Koulen family, including seven kids, was great, but it was quite a transistion of course. Then Santa Claus gave me a transistor radio. I had this sparsely furnished room, just a bed and a table, a footstool. So I took the little radio under my blanket, couldn’t sleep, it was about three in the morning and suddenly, I heard something…. Afterwards the announcer said it was John Coltrane. Dizzy spells, heart beating! That beat of Coltrane, and the inherent blues, amazing. It was Radio Brussel. The man said, ‘dear listeners, until next week.’ Yes! From that moment on, I was hooked. In an odd turn of events, I seemed to be taken by an invisible hand. And a voice that said, ‘come, come with me, you’re not alone anymore…’”

“When I got older, I started thinking about the background of jazz. About, for instance, Strange Fruit. I’ve heard it being performed countless times here, by Lillian Boutte for instance, but I never really thought about it, until one day it clicked. The hanging, the drama… It was a protest song at heart. An eyeopener for me. I think it also took Frank a while until he realised where he came from. From black men who’d had a hard time in a white world, essentially. That’s why he felt close to the black performers who came over. Initially, Frank was a straight New Orleans Jazz guy. One day Piet Noordijk played in Porgy. He had a row of saxes lined up on stage. Frank said, ‘Hey, you’re not going to experiment, right?!’” Maja laughs. “But when people like Hans Zuiderbaan and Frans de Ruyter programmed modern jazz, Frank also veered towards that style eventually. Improvisation, melody, but still recognisable mainstream jazz. The emotion of it, Frank dug that.”

Practically every musician I’ve met celebrates Porgy’s striking hospitality. Many compliments are written down in Porgy’s monumental series of guestbooks. Not a hint of hesitation on Maja’s part when she’s asked about its origins. Clearly, the good-natured, creative, fanatic import Terneuzen fellow, Frank Koulen, instilled a sense of pride and joy that remains in the minds of Porgy’s people to this day. “O yeah, that comes out of Frank. That’s an un-Dutch thing, you know. Frank is notorious for shaking the hands of every incoming customer. Talking about a welcome! As far as food and lodging go, it wasn’t a case of plainly setting up a table of cheese sandwiches. No, Frank cooked exotic meals for the guys, took them out and invented all kinds of ways to make them feel comfortable. It’s a matter of ‘giving’, you know. He raised and trained us in this respect, definitely.”

A good student, Maja, cum laude for sure. But it takes a responsive, giving soul as well, to keep it up for so many years. Lemmen turned into a true jazz ambassador, a temperamental host to both musician and audiences. At heart, it’s a family affair. “You may be right. Porgy, and the group of people attached to it, is like having a family. A sense of pride is involved. I keep meeting people who say that they’ve discovered the jazz life at our place. That’s wonderful! You know, a man named Joop van Tatenhove walked in here years ago. He had a father who was a regular visitor in the sixties and seventies. Joop, a seaman, had moved to Terneuzen, came in and said, ‘I would like to offer my services as a volunteer as a way to offer my gratitude for the fact that Porgy & Bess enriched the life of my father.’ Now, if that ain’t the power of music, right?!”

To say that Roy Hargrove would settle for an apartment near the Westerschelde sea is overstating, but the trumpeter’s kinship with the Porgy family is evident. He performed in Terneuzen as a young lion in the mid-nineties. Since then, Hargrove has made sixteen appearances at Porgy & Bess. “The European tours of Roy, and of other Americans as well, usually start or started in Terneuzen. It is a way for them to start off in a relaxed matter, settle down for a few days. Take bicycle tours along de Schelde. It reminds them of the Hudson, I think. Then they rehearse in the afternoon. That’s cool, here I’m tending business, filling fridges, making phone calls, and meanwhile listening to their music. That’s why I’m so rich!”

And, as an afterthought: “There might be a jam on Saturday before the official gig on Sunday afternoon.”

That’s a fact. Yours truly once attended an unforgettable jam, with Hargrove and Gregory Hutchinson leading a pack of local young heroes till the dawn’s surly light. It’s one of many great Porgy experiences. As a Terneuzen native, I spent many hours in Porgy & Bess and although up north for years now, drop in regularly. I’m grateful that the generous Maja and crew provided me and my friends with a great, warm-blooded place to hang out; with a stage for jam sessions, performances as a singer and the release party of a novel. Moreover, I have fond memories of performances of, to name but a few, Benny Golson, Rein de Graaff with David “Fathead” Newman and Houston Person, and Chicago blues outfit The Red Devils.

Indeed, the list of performers at Porgy & Bess is impressive and ranges from legends like Arnett Cobb, Freddie Hubbard and Archie Shepp to modern luminaries as Danilo Perez, Christian McBride, Joe Lovano and European top musicians as Toots Thielemans, Philip Catherine and Jesse van Ruller. And, of course, Art Blakey in 1982 and Chet Baker in 1985. “To hear Chet play and sing was like being in heaven. Otherwise, Chet was on his own, soft-spoken and, you know, classy in a sleazy way. There was this regular customer, a strong-willed fellow, who came back from the toilet. He said (raspy voice), ‘Hey Maja, you gotta take a look in the john, there’s this junkie fellow, I wonder did this guy buy a ticket?’ It was Chet, of course. Slender, greasy hair, his woodchopper’s shirt…”

Art Blakey was another lasting experience. Maja: “Before his show, Art Blakey was sitting behind the drum kit for a long time. The group, (including the young Terenche Blanchard and Donald Harrison, ed.), was upstairs. There were two little girls milling about the stage, giggling, humming, having fun. Blakey had a broad smile on his face, sat enjoying that scene the whole time. Then, when the band came on, Blakey set off a long sermon about the merits of jazz, it was exciting. You know that deep voice… And he and the band swung like mad, of course. That groove was out of sight!”

Warm-hearted memories. Decades ago. We’re writing 2016 on the wall of the world now. Terra could use some uplifting jazz vibes. Will Maja ever retire? “Ah, they don’t put musicians in nursery homes from the moment they’ve turned 65, right? As long as I’m not too feeble, I’ll go on. Excluding local events, programming is not on my plate anymore, I’m tending daily business, dividing tasks between Pascal and me. I’m, as I often say, the ‘multi-functional household tissue’. The prospect of continuous household activities means I’m keeping close to where it’s at!”

Maja Lemmen

Maja Lemmen (Lexmond, 1945) is the manager of jazz club and cultural venue Porgy & Bess. Porgy & Bess celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2017. It has been host to Nat Adderley, Rob Agerbeek, Monty Alexander, Chet Baker, Art Blakey, Paul Bley, Ray Brown, Ray Bryant, Don Byas, Betty Carter, Philip Catherine, Jimmy Cobb, Al Cohn, George Coleman, Johnny Copeland, Ronnie Cuber, Lou Donaldson, Dr. John, John Engels, Fapy Lafertin, Hein van de Geyn, Astrid Gilberto, Wolfgang Haffner, Slide Hampton, John Handy, Benjamin Herman, Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz, Diana Krall, Lazy Lester, Harold Mabern, Charles McPherson, James Moody, The Paladins, Horace Parlan, Cecil Payne, Nicholas Payton, The Red Devils, Rod Piazza, Dave Pike, Art Porter, Rita Reys, Arturo Sandoval, James Spaulding, Lew Tabackin, Rene Thomas, Cedar Walton, Kenny Werner, Mark Whitfield, Nils Wogram, Phil Woods and many others. Porgy & Bess also stages classical music matinees, roots music, and much acclaimed literary evenings.