As Though I Had Wings: A Memoir

As Though I Had Wings: A Memoir


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Chet Baker, legendary trumpeter and singer, dominated the jazz scene of the 1950s. These memoirs recall Baker's early childhood, then launch into a full-bodied and lush account of his jazz-driven journey to self-awareness and his reinvented career in the 1970s and 1980s.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312167974
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/28/1997
Edition description: REV
Pages: 118
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.58(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

In this excerpt, Chet Baker recalls his first encounter with Charlie Parker, an audition for a spot in Bird's combo as they toured the West Coast.

From As Though I Had Wings

One day during the summer of '52 I returned home to find a telegram under the door. It was from Dick Bock, I believe, and it said that Charlie Parker was auditioning trumpet players for some club dates in California. The audition was to take place that same day at three o'clock at the Tiffany Club. I rushed over, arriving a little late, and I could hear Bird from outside as he ran through a tune with some trumpet player. Pushing into the darkened club, I could make out Bird up on the stand flying through the blues. I sat for a minute or two, looking around the room. I recognized many trumpet players and lots of other people I knew who somehow had found out about Bird being there. I saw someone move up to the bandstand and say something to Bird. I felt uncomfortable and very nervous as he asked the crowd if I was in the club, and would I come up and play something with him. He had bypassed all these other guys, some of whom had much more experience than I had and could read anything you put in front of them.

We played two tunes. The first was "The Song Is You," and then a blues song written by Bird called "Cheryl," in the key of G, which, luckily, I knew. After "Cheryl," he announced that the audition was over, thanked everyone for coming, and said that he was hiring me for the gig. We did two weeks at the Tiffany, playing with Scatman Crothers -- actually, it may have been Harry the Hipster. At any rate, it was incredible being on the stand with Bird. The first tune every night was fast, after which the rest of the night was easy. Bird was a flawless player, and although he was snorting up spoons of stuff and drinking fifths of Hennessy, it all seemed to have little or no effect on him. I wondered at the stamina of the man. He treated me like a son, putting down any and all guys who tried to offer me some shit.

During the breaks I'd drive him over to a taco stand a few blocks away and he'd eat a dozen tacitos with green sauce; he loved 'em. Sometimes, in the afternoon, we would drive down to the beach or around the Palos Verdes-San Pedro coastline. Bird would get out along the cliffs and stare out to sea, or watch the waves breaking on the rocks below for half an hour. I'm sure he liked California very much, for he enjoyed the open spaces, the beach, and the chicks. We played a few gigs for Billy Berg, and the old 54 Ballroom on 54th and Central was packed for Bird. There were hundreds of smiling black people giving him the respect and admiration that he so richly deserved. He made them happy, he made them dance, and he entertained them with his ideas and his heart. They loved him.

We had just finished a short tour up in North Bakersfield, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver along with Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald, and were into our third night at a club called the Say When when we got fired. It just so happened that during our engagement there was a big telethon benefit for muscular dystrophy that we appeared on, as did almost every entertainer who happened to be in the Bay Area at the time. It was quite an affair, with people phoning in their pledges of donations from restaurants, clubs, and hotels, as well as private residences. We finished our TV appearance and returned quickly to do our first set at the club. When we were through, Bird got on the microphone and announced that he was passing the hat among the customers, with the proceeds to go to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and that the club had agreed to equal whatever was collected. He did this, of course, completely on his own, without having spoken to the manager of the club, who was a tough guy named Dutch. Anyway, after the money was collected, Bird walked over to the bar, with all the eyes and ears in the joint focused on his counting out the money. The total came to $125. Naturally, Dutch refused to kick in his $125. People began yelling, banging on the tables, etc.; there was almost a riot, and as I said, that was the end of our engagement. Later that morning Bird must have fallen asleep with a cigarette in his hand and set his mattress on fire. He was staying in a hotel across the street, and we were all awakened by the arrival of the fire department and the subsequent tossing of Bird's mattress out into the street. Oh Bird, never a dull moment.

Excerpted by permission of the Chet Baker Estate. Copyright © 1997 by the Chet Baker Estate.

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