Friday, August 23, 2013

Chet Baker’s Worcester curse

By Chet Williamson

It’s common knowledge that in addition to being a famous jazz trumpeter, Chet Baker was also a notorious junkie. 

Many of his drug-addled days were littered with tall tales shrouded in myth, even in death. He died tragically as a result of falling out of a window in 1988.

One of the more unusual stories of Baker’s dope chasing happened in Worcester

The account is documented in James Gavin’s biography, Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker.



Evidently, for years Baker and fellow musician Gerry Mulligan were under constant surveillance and harassment of John Edward O’Grady, head of the narcotics bureau of Hollywood, CA. O’Grady led a squad of detectives in pursuit of, “protecting society against the creeping menace of drugs…. Mine was not to reason why addicts took drugs, mine was to bust their asses,” he wrote in his memoir, O’Grady, the Life and Times of Hollywood’s No. 1 Private Eye.   

According to Gavin, O’Grady amassed what some called the biggest narcotics arrest in history in the LAPD history: an estimated 2,500-plus suspected junkies and pushers, many innocent. His main targets were jazz musicians, whom he considered, “the dregs of society.”

In his book, O’Grady bragged, “I set out to destroy that crowd and damn near did…. I ran Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, the great saxophonist, out of town. I could have nailed him. His arms were covered with track marks from heroin needles. But he was too old and too drunk and I decided it wasn’t worth wasting the time nailing Parker just so the City of LA could pay for his keep." In 1955, Parker died of pneumonia, heart failure, liver disease from years of drug abuse. He was 34.

Gavin asserts that also on O’Grady’s hit list of arrest targets were the likes of Stan Getz, Billie Holiday, Lenny Bruce, as well as Mulligan and Baker. “It turned into a plague,” Mulligan is quoted as saying. “O’Grady used to love to come around and bait Chet, and Chet always had a smart rejoinder so this guy was after him.” 

On April 13, 1953, Mulligan, Baker and their wives at the time were in fact busted. While the musicians were plying their trade at the Haig on Wiltshire Boulevard in Hollywood, O’Grady and Hill paid a visit to their home. This was at the height of the revolutionary piano-less quartet’s success. See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2010/jan/29/chet-baker-gerry-mulligan

The account is well documented in Gavin’s book and elsewhere. The detectives didn’t find any hard drugs, only marijuana. They then proceeded to the club and confronted the musicians backstage, ordering them to roll up their sleeves. “Look at that – fresh marks,” O’Grady is reported to have said. At this point, they drove back to the house in search of drugs. Mulligan relented and presented them with the evidence, his works [needles] and a small amount of heroin. 

The headline read: “Hot Lips Bopster, Aide and 2 Wives Jailed; Nab Dope.” Mulligan spent six months in jail at Sheriff’s Honor Farm in Modesto, CA. Baker was spared, but continued to have the hell-hounds of the law on his trail.

Two years onward, Baker had had enough. Gavin: “In 1955, on a trip to Worcester, Massachusetts, Baker and Bill Loughborough, a drum maker who became his lifelong friend, met two gypsies who offered to help cast a spell against O’Grady and Hill …. Trekking into the woods at night, they lit a fire, sat in a circle, and murmured incantations against the policemen while fondling clay dolls with pins stuck in them.”

A word on Loughborough: Commonly known as Bill Love, he passed away on April 7, 2010. He was a cat of many lives and one who resided in and out of the jazz purview. In music he is best known as the co-author, along with David “Buck” Wheat, of “Better Than Anything,” a popular jazz number covered by numerous artists including, Irene Kral, Sheila Jordan, Bob Dorough, and Al Jarreau.

Wheat and Loughborough grew up together in San Antonio, Texas and were also the founders of the Boobam Bamboo Drum Company, and from 1954 to ’55 built instruments for composer Harry Partch. Their instruments were used by several jazz ensembles during this time. A percussionist himself, Loughborough appears on the Pacific Jazz recording, Chet Baker and his Crew, where he is listed as playing chromatic tympani.

A one-time 16 year-old student at MIT, Loughborough was a life-long advocate for the disabled. For more on this fascinating character of America music see: http://www.talkingsigns.com/loughboroughtrib.shtml

For more on Partch see: http://www.harrypartch.com/

The question is: What was Loughborough and Baker doing in Worcester in 1955? The fact that Gavin mentions Loughborough as “a drum maker,” one could assume that the musicians may have been on their way here to visit Walberg & Auge, one of the largest and most prestigious percussion manufactures in the country. See: http://jazzriffing.blogspot.com/2013_03_01_archive.html

Also, the Baker band was touring the East Coast that summer appearing at such places as the Newport Jazz Festival and the Celebrity Club in Providence

The pianist in the band had other reasons to visit Worcester. The Telegram ran this item: “The wedding is announced of Miss Joyce Swenson of Holden to Russ Freeman of Los Angeles, composer and pianist with Chet Baker’s band. They are visiting here, having come from the coast. She is a former instructor at Arthur Murray’s dance studio here.” 

Freeman worked with Baker from the summer of 1953 through August 1955. The pianist is quoted as saying that the trumpeter's heroin use began at the end of 1954. "He started to use right around the time everyone else was stopping. Drugs were going out of fashion. I was also strung out for a time, but I had stopped just when we started the quartet in June of 1953. Chet was also the only guy who continued so long while other junkies either quit or died." 



In 1955, Chet Baker was deep into the throes of junkiedom. Before the year was out, the brilliant young pianist Dick Twardzik, who was touring Europe with the trumpeter, was found dead in Paris. He was 21. A victim of a drug overdose, the death profoundly impacted Baker. Note: Bostonian Peter Littman was by then the drummer in the band.



Pianist Dick Twardzik in action as a ghostly Chet Baker looks on 

As far as the location of the Worcester woods, that remains in question. It could have been anywhere between here and Providence. Along Route 146 is a reasonable guess.

Gypsies? Documented histories of such people who lived or traveled in and around Worcester go back to the 1880s. Or, it could have just been an expression used by Loughborough to describe or conceal the identity of the men.   

Although, in this bizarre midnight ritual Baker was convinced by the performance of the men and the authenticity of their supernatural powers.

“Years later,” the trumpeter claimed that the curse had worked,” Gavin reported, “not only had O’Grady been ejected from the narcotics squad, but Baker heard, had been badly injured by a bottle thrown at his head.” 


Chet Baker at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: walnutharmonicas@gmail.com. Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com  Thank you.






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