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Evan Horne, recovering from both the injury to his hand and to his psyche, is on tour in England, hoping to concentrate on music and not on crime. But his old friend, Ace Buffington, who's led him into trouble before, shows up with a contract to write a biography of legendary trumpeter Chet Baker. Baker died of a fall from the window of his hotel in Amsterdam in 1988. Whether he accidentally fell, or was pushed is one of the mysteries of the jazz world. Evan resists this adventure until Ace turns up missing and ...
Evan Horne, recovering from both the injury to his hand and to his psyche, is on tour in England, hoping to concentrate on music and not on crime. But his old friend, Ace Buffington, who's led him into trouble before, shows up with a contract to write a biography of legendary trumpeter Chet Baker. Baker died of a fall from the window of his hotel in Amsterdam in 1988. Whether he accidentally fell, or was pushed is one of the mysteries of the jazz world. Evan resists this adventure until Ace turns up missing and leaves him no choice. To find Ace, he will have to dig into the mysterious death of Chet Baker.
I put off calling Ace Buffington for a couple of days, but some, perhaps misguided, sense of obligation or loyalty finally makes me give in. We agreed to meet at a pub called the Boar's Head just off Shaftesbury Avenue, near the London theater district. It's noisy and smoky inside, loud voices, bodies shouldering up to the bar for that one last drink before curtain time, and Ace is easy to spot. He towers over everyone, waving money to get the bartender's attention.
"Wow," Ace says as I come up. "Busy here. I'll get the drinks. See if you can find a table, then we'll drink to our collaboration. Beer okay?"
"Sure." I try to catch his eye. "It's not going to happen, Ace."
He looks at me, feigns puzzlement. "What?"
"Whatever it is you're going to try and sell me." I've thought about it all afternoon, anticipating the moment, steeling myself to ward off Ace's enthusiasm, persuasiveness, and persistence. He's done it before.
"Hey, c'mon, Evan. At least hear me out." He waves again at the bartender.
"Won't make any difference, Ace. You'd be wasting your time, I'm afraid to even ask why you're in London." The spring semester isn't over yet. Ace should be at UNLV, lecturing coeds on American literature and correcting final exams, not meeting me in a London pub.
"Sabbatial," Ace says. "I was eligible and jumped at the chance, especially when this other thing came up."
I shake my head and smile in spite of myself. "I'll find a table."
I turn from the bar and spot some people getting up, putting on coats. I get there just ahead of three guys, claim the table, and wait for him to join me.
I met Ace Burlington on one of my first trips to Las Vegas when I was playing and conducting for Lonnie Cole. Ace is a big, friendly guy who is crazy about two things: jazz and tennis. A professor of English at UNLV, he also has a passion for collecting old records, and a knowledge of jazz history that reflects his love for the music and impressed me. When his wife Janey died suddenly of cancer, he threw himself into work. But even department politics, which he describes as worse and more vicious than any crime family, weren't enough to fill the lonely hours. Ace got it in his head to do an article on Las Vegas, and that's what got me into trouble the first time.
Until me, jazz musicians had simply been names he'd read about or listened to, but he wanted to get inside. Ace loves having a jazz musician friend, but sometimes he goes overboard, which is why musicians often keep people at a certain distance. Civilians, we call them. No matter how much they're into the music, there's that unmanageable, impossible-to-close gap between the bandstand and a seat at a front table.
I suppose it's true of any profession. Talking, communicating, with a colleague is different than with an outsider. There's so much that doesn't need explaining. No matter how hard someone like Ace tries—and he does try—he still can't quite understand what goes on in your mind when you're on the bandstand. How it feels, what you're thinking. Still, Ace has been a good friend. It's his overzealousness that gets me in trouble.
He decided to write an article on the Moulin Rouge, the first interracial casino in Las Vegas, and more pointedly, somehow explain the death of saxophonist Wardell Gray. He enlisted me to help with the research and talk with musicians, and since he'd got me my first gig after the accident, I felt obligated, so I agreed. What I didn't know was that I'd uncover a mess from the past, butt heads with a minor Mafia figure, and almost get myself killed.
Ace's record collecting got me into trouble too, when he hired me to authenticate some supposedly lost recordings of trumpeter Clifford Brown. That time it was a looney-tune collector, and I found out how serious those can be. I vowed then that would be the last time. But Ace finding me in London meant he was up to something again, and he was going to try and drag me into it. Not this time. I couldn't afford any more misadventures, and I still had Los Angeles on my mind, although Ace had had nothing to do with that. But what had happened in Los Angeles was part of the reason I was in London.
My chops were back, I was recording again, Natalie and I were very serious, everything was going fine—until a crazed woman, bent on getting vengeance for her brother's rejection by the jazz world, started knocking off smooth jazz artists. She left a trail of clues the FBI couldn't figure out until I was brought in to help my high school buddy Lieutenant Danny Cooper. It spiraled out of control into a psychological duel between her and me, a nightmare that has left me with a hollow feeling inside. Enough so that I want to escape for a while and decompress in Europe. Ace isn't going to get me this time, but I know he will try.
He jostles his way through the crowd and sets down two glasses of lager with a firm hand. He settles himself on one of the upholstered stools and takes a long drink.
"What other thing, Ace?" He winks at me and pauses to take a big gulp of beer. "Ah, worth waiting for," he says. He sets the glass down and gives me his full attention.
"A bona fide book deal, a tentative contract, just one minor thing to firm it up." Ace's eyes light up with enthusiasm as he explains. I've seen this look before. "Who's the one jazz musician who has been written about more, has more recordings, and is still surrounded by a certain mystique, still being talked about today?"
I light a cigarette, relieved that English pubs are not as hard on smokers as California bars. "Miles Davis." Keep this low-key, I think, so Ace doesn't get too excited.
"Close. Right instrument, wrong guy."
I shrug. "Okay, tell me."
"C'mon, Evan." He leans closer. "There's even a whiff of a movie deal. He's been compared to James Dean. You know, tragic life, sometimes brilliant career, and ... mysterious death." He looks disappointed when I won't play the game. He holds up his hands. "Chet Baker, of course."
"Of course. A movie deal?"
"Yeah, couple of big-time actors are vying for the rights. Over ten years since he died, and he's still being talked about."
I can see Ace is only getting warmed up. I'm beginning to feel like I'm trapped with a time-share salesman moving in for the close. "Okay, so you've gotten a tentative contract for a Chet Baker book. Congratulations, I'm happy for you." But Ace doesn't sound happy. There's something in his voice, some air of desperation about him, as if he just has to make this sale or he loses the commission.
"It's fate, Evan, fate. Turning on the radio, catching you on the show the other night. We're both in London. Did you know that Chet Baker died just a couple of hours' flight from here, in Amsterdam, and here you are in London, maybe going to Amsterdam yourself. It's meant to be." I had told him about the possibility briefly on the phone.
"The Amsterdam gig is tentative." I look at Ace steadily. "And no, Ace, it's not meant to be, not this time." His pained expression makes me pause. Ace was responsible in no small way for getting me playing again, but as far as I am concerned, the books are balanced.
Ace puts down his beer and takes a breath, as if now he's going to tell me the truth. "Okay, I won't lie to you. The book deal is tentative because I promised them you'd be coauthor." He can't meet my eyes. He takes another drink of his beer. "There, it's out."
For a moment I stare at him, speechless. "Why, Ace? You didn't even talk to me about it." I try to hold my anger in check, but it's getting difficult."
"I know, I know. It's just ... Evan, look, I really need this. If I'm finally going to get a full professorship, I need another book. I've made some enemies, but I want to run that damn department, politics or not. With you on board, the contract is a sure thing, then ..."
He lets me finish the thought. I don't like the implication that if I don't help him, I'm responsible for his not getting promoted. I sigh and look around the pub. It's less noisy now as it begins to empty out. People are gathering up their coats, saying good-byes. "I already told you, Ace. It's not going to happen."
"Evan, we were partners, remember? We worked well together. Look what we did with Wardell Gray. Almost solved a forty-year-old murder. And what about Clifford Brown, those lost tapes? You proved they were phony. I couldn't have done that by myself. I need you on this, Evan." His voice drops lower. "I really need this, Evan. I wouldn't ask otherwise."
"Stop it, Ace. Nobody said it was your fault, but those things got me way in over my head. Are you forgetting I almost got killed a couple of times? No, I'm through with that, especially after L.A. and Gillian Payne."
"Hey, I wasn't any part of that."
"I didn't say you were."
He looks away for a moment. "She got sentenced, you know. Life without parole." He takes a drink of his beer and looks at me, quickly realizing he should change the subject. "Have you heard from Natalie?"
Once I was out of it, I hadn't followed the case. "No, but I didn't expect to. I haven't contacted her, either." Ace shakes his head. "Well, I'm not going to go there either." He leans forward, revs up again. "But this is different. Chet Baker is a completely other thing."
"Really? You know that for a fact? For all we know there are people who would prefer keeping his death just the way it apparently was—an accident. And as far as anyone knows, it was an accident." Even in the noisy pub, I hear my voice louder than I intended. A couple at a nearby table turns to look at us. "Ace, I'm sorry, man, I really am, but I have to pass on this one. I can't do it. You're on your own."
Ace smiles weakly and shrugs, and his tone changes to quiet acceptance. "Well, hey, I had to try, didn't I? No hard feelings?"
"No," I say, but that's a mistake.
His tone changes once again. I've never seen him like this. He won't look at me. "What do I have to do, Evan? I don't think you understand. I need this to happen."
"Ace, don't do this. I know it's important, but I can't do it."
He nods silently, doesn't say anything for a couple of minutes. I don't know what more to say, but I know it isn't going to be yes.
"I really didn't think you'd go for it," he says finally. "I understand. I just got carried away. The editor seemed just on the edge." He sits up straighter, manages a show of false cheerfulness, but comes off as disingenuous. "Don't worry, I'll manage. I'll just have to do such great research they'll give me a book contract anyway. But did I mention you'd have credit? Your name would be right there on the book. I mean, I don't expect you to do this anonymously. I—"
He puts up his hands. "Okay, okay. I'l stop." He looks at his watch. "Hey, you better get going. Opening night, huh? Wish I could stick around to hear you, but I've got some things to do."
A gap of uncomfortable silence descends upon us that even the pub noise can't drown out. I feel like I have to say something. "Look, there must be plenty of research material on Chet Baker. If you're going to Amsterdam, you can talk to some musicians, maybe the police—"
"I know how to do research," Ace says.
The silence falls over us again. Finally I have to break it. "Well, I should go."
"Sure," Ace says. "Well, listen, if the Amsterdam gig works out, promise me we'll get together, have a beer or something." He digs in his pocket for paper and pen. "Here," he says. "This is where I'll be staying." He writes down a name and number and hands it to me. "Let me know if you're coming."
"Sure, Ace, of course." I stuff the paper in my pocket and stand up to go. "Good luck with everything." The crowd has thinned considerably as I make my way to the door. I turn back once, toward Ace, but he's still at the table, staring into his empty glass.
Then I walk out.
Soho is back behind Shaftesbury Avenue. I wind through the noisy little crowded streets, filled with pubs, sex shops, Indian, Chinese, and Greek restaurants with lamb roasting on spits in the window, tobacconists, and the occasional fish-and-chips shop. My mind, though, is still on Ace's proposal and Gillian Payne. She had killed three people and almost killed her brother. The FBI made me her contact after she promised to stop the killing if I agreed to help her find her brother. I found him, but it cost me a lot, mainly my relationship with Natalie. What was she doing now? Ace's mention of her brought memories of our times together flooding back.
Across from Ronnie Scott's I stop and grab a coffee and a cigarette, enjoying this last moment of anonymity before I walk across the street. It feels good to see my name on the marquee of one of the oldest established jazz clubs in Europe. I feel good. I want to play, and I don't want to think about anything else but music. Not Ace, not Gillian, just music.
Inside the club, there's a fair crowd already. I walk past the bar to the back room behind the stage. The grand piano awaiting me is flanked by a bass and drum set. The seating is slightly tiered, arranged in a half circle facing the stage. Somebody points at me, and I hear a voice say, "I think that's him." Backstage, Pete King, the burley Cockney manager of the club, is talking with the bassist and drummer.
"Evan," King says. "All right then? These lads are ready to go." He jerks his thumb at Gordon and Derek, the bassist and drummer.
"Hi, Pete, hi, guys." We'd only had time for a short afternoon rehearsal. They were both good, and I knew everything would be okay if I stuck to standards, a couple of blues. Derek glances up at me from tapping his drumsticks on a rubber pad. Gordon nods and smiles.
Pete looks around. "Well, all right then, shall we?" We all file onstage and take our places as the lights come up while Pete makes the opening announcement.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It's our pleasure, and I'm sure it will be yours, to meet pianist Evan Horne. He's American, but we won't hold that against him."
Pete pauses, taps the microphone, waits for the polite chuckles that follow. I catch Gordon rolling his eyes.
"Hmm," Pete says. He glances at me and shrugs. "Ronnie always did that better. Anyway, with Evan are our own Gordon Powell and Derek Runswick."
I begin with "Alone Together," medium tempo. Gordon and Derek follow easily, and by the second chorus we hit a comfortable groove. My hand feels good and relaxed, the piano is in tune, and I realize I'm in good company. I haven't done it that much, but it can be hit-and-miss with pickup rhythm sections, nothing like your own group. They're not Gene Sherman or Jeff Lasorda, but these two have backed plenty of American visitors and both are good players.
I play another couple of choruses, then give it to Derek for his solo. I nod at Gordon, and we play some eight-bar exchanges, then take it home. A couple of ballads, an up blues, and I end the set with "Just Friends." First tunes, first set, butterflies gone, and the three of us know each other a little now. The audience is with us, and the applause is genuine as we take a break.
"Hey, nice guys," I say to Gordon and Derek. "Let me buy you a drink." I catch the waitress and order for the three of us.
"Two whiskeys neat also, please," a familiar voice behind me says. I turn and find Colin Mansfield and another man. "Hello, Evan," Mansfield says. "Come and join us. This is Mike Bailey with the Daily Telegraph."
"Hi, Colin. Didn't expect you so soon." I shake hands with Bailey. He's a short, stocky man in a rumpled suit and knit tie.
"Always like to catch an opening night," Mansfield says. "Mike would like to do a piece on you for the arts section if you have time."
"Well, sure, I guess so."
"Don't worry," Bailey says with a quick, reassuring smile. "It won't hurt much."
"We can go in the back if you want. I've got about a half hour before the next set."
"Suits me," Bailey says.
"Good, I'll get our drinks sent back," Mansfield offers. He goes off to find our waitress.
Bailey and I head for the backstage dressing room. He takes out a pad and pen from his bag, and I get a cigarette going.
"Colin has filled me in on your background. This will be short, but I'd like to try and get it in tomorrow's paper. I understand you have a new recording coming out."
"Yes, that's right. Quarter Tone Records. Small label in Los Angeles. We recorded it just before I came over. I don't think there's a release date yet, but I haven't been in touch with them for a while."
Bailey looks up. "Hiding out in Europe?"
Something in his tone bothers me, but maybe I'm being too sensitive. I've been burned by the press before—misquotes, misinterpretation, and sometimes they just make up things. "No, just getting away from the fray for a while."
Bailey nods and scribbles on his pad. There are some more questions about music, my playing, and how I like Ronnie Scott's. Then he shifts gears. "I imagine that episode with the serial killer in Los Angeles was quite an ordeal."
I pause, wondering where this is going, but I can't seem to escape it. "Well, it wasn't fun, I guarantee you."
"No, I'm sure," Bailey says.
Colin joins us then, followed by the waitress with our drinks. "Well, cheers then," Mansfield says, raising his glass, and we all drink.
"What are your plans after Ronnie's?" Bailey asks.
"Well, they're pretty sketchy. There's a possibility of a gig in Amsterdam, then we'll just see what happens from there."
"So you might stay in Europe for a while, then?"
"Possibly. Like I say, I'll just have to see what happens. I like to play it by ear."
Mansfield and Bailey exchange glances, then Bailey continues. He glances briefly again at Mansfield, and some kind of signal passes between them.
"Wasn't Amsterdam where Chet Baker died?"
"So they tell me, but that's not why I'm going there."
"No, of course not," Mansfield says.
Bailey nods. His smile seems more like a smirk to me. He makes a few more notes, then closes his notebook. "Well, I guess I've got enough. Thanks for your time."
"No problem. Are you staying around for another set?" I ask Mansfield.
"No, I'm afraid not. I have to be up early."
"And I have a deadline," Bailey says, getting to his feet. "I enjoyed your music."
I walk them out. We shake hands again, and I watch them disappear toward the front door. Derek and Gordon are leaning on the bar, drinking beers.
"Mike Bailey, wasn't it?" Derek asks.
"Yeah. You know him?"
"Fucking wanker," Powell says and downs his beer.
Derek smiles. "He thought Gordon played too loud for a singer. What did he say?"
Gordon screws up his face and spits out the words like they're something that tastes bad. "Powell's obtrusive drumming lent little to the evening's performance. What the fuck does he know? He's a critic."
Derek winks at me. "Gordon's very sensitive."
"Hey, that's a good quality in a drummer."
"See," Gordon says. "I told you."
I get a signal from Pete King then. It's time for the second set.
This one gets even better. Derek's lines are just right, and Gordon's cymbal sizzles underneath me throughout the set. My only regret is that I know that, just when we're really meshing, the gig will be over and I'll be on to someplace else.
I'm staying at a small hotel in Bloomsbury, arranged for by Pete King. The room is so small I can hardly turn around, but it's clean and comfortable and includes breakfast. Over bacon and eggs in the dining room, I leaf through the paper, looking for the arts section. Mike Bailey was a fast writer. The best thing about the piece is that there's no accompanying photo.
JAZZ PIANIST DETECTIVE
FINDS PEACE AND QUIET IN LONDON
American pianist Evan Horne opened to a respectable crowd at Ronnie Scott's last night, but most of the patrons probably weren't aware they were listening to a sometime private investigator whose last assignment was to help the FBI catch a serial killer in Los Angeles.
I hate to even read the rest of the article. Bailey has dug up all the details and implies that I might be heading to Amsterdam to investigate Chet Baker's death. He makes playing piano seem a sideline, the music secondary. I try to get angry, but I'm beginning to realize stories like this one are something I can't escape, perhaps ever. There's nothing inaccurate, it's just the slant he takes. Bailey ends on a brief, albeit positive note.
Horne's playing was a pleasant surprise. He displayed excellent technique, despite having a near-career-ending injury several years ago, and his rendition of standards, particularly ballads, is reminiscent of a muscular Bill Evans. Horne is at Ronnie Scott's through Saturday.
I finish breakfast and go for a walk, thinking about Bailey's story and wondering how much Mansfield was in the background on it, and what Pete King will think. But, as they say, any publicity is good; if it puts more people in the seats, who's going to complain?
Ace Buffington, on the other hand, does worry me. He doesn't seem at all like his old self. That cloud of desperation around him isn't normal. I'm not surprised that he tried to enlist me once again, but I am at the pleading way he did it. I know that wasn't easy for Ace, and I feel a little guilty about refusing. There is something else going on, something he isn't telling me. I can sense it, and I don't like the feeling.
Until Colin Mansfield brought up Chet Baker—and then Ace and Mike Bailey—I hadn't even thought about how he'd died. It was just there, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, another of those jazz legends that get embellished in the retelling, but nothing more.
I left Los Angeles in what now seems a permanent move. I left my car and few belongings in storage with Danny Cooper, and gave notice on my Venice apartment. I simply hopped a plane to New York and points east with a vague idea of going to Europe.
But now, walking through the narrow streets of the Mayfair district of London, past Rolls Royce and Jaguar showrooms, expensive boutiques, and trendy restaurants, L.A. doesn't seem so far away after all. It's always just there, just over my shoulder, with people like Mike Bailey ready to take up the thread and question my motives for being here. There are going to be more questions to answer to bring it all back, and that's something I don't want to do, not now.
I've done that already.
Excerpted from Looking for Chet Baker by Bill Moody. Copyright © 2002 by Bill Moody. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.