Chet Baker and the Supper Club

Phil Ford

Listening to Chet Baker Sings, an album of standards on which Baker both sings and plays, is like being in the best, hippest supper club. That’s damning with faint praise, I suppose, although it’s meant as a compliment. Cooking and eating are sensory pleasures, and so is music, and why not have a kind of music that goes well with a martini and a steak? But we will insist that music is more than that. (And by “we” I mean we who are really into music, for whatever reason.) Music is more than a light meal, a cigarette, a drink. It stirs the soul and ennobles sentiment, or it is transgressive and delivers a stinging critique, or it is the existential 20th century man in flight into the unconscious, dig — but it is never just a nice night out. Opera-goers, punks, and jazzniks may quarrel about what music means, the reasons it matters, and the way music makes the difference it does, but they will join hands against supper clubs.

What unites all the self-conscious, self-regarding, and noisy divisions of music is the feeling that their music is a jealous god, and suffers no distractions. Punk clubs don’t have flocked-velvet walls and soft indirect lighting: ideally, they should be dank hellholes smelling of toilets. You can’t move or talk in an opera house, let alone eat steak and sip a martini.  Either way, the principle is not comfort but discipline. Music makes demands of more than mere pleasure; it shoulders the burden of commitment and meaning — things supper clubs are supposed to make you forget. For want of a better word, supper clubs are too bourgeois. They places of escape and denial, theaters of triviality. The famous thickness of the burgher, his anti-intellectualism, his stolid resistance to anything unfamiliar or complicated, is flattered at the supper club. The customer is always right, and the customer wants a peppy tune and a little leg.

Now, Chet Baker is not someone who find supper clubs demeaning. He performs out of a spirit of giving the customers what they want. When he made this record in 1954, Chet Baker had got together a breadwinner style — a pretty face, sweet tunes sweetly sung, thrown in with a little jazz trumpet. It gives off a subverbal, sensory pleasure, and leaves something of the same neurochemical signature the tingle of a martini — a fleeting bodily sensation, a complex commingling of familiar pleasure and pain in a rapt state of relaxation. Chet Baker’s voice is sweet and without vibrato, except at the very end of the longest-held notes. It is always quiet, a little undersung, consistently on the low side of the pitch and behind the beat. He sounds stoned, deep in introspection, but he is also a craftsman, a performer of skill, and watches the audience like a clock. As Dave Hickey writes, for all the contempt he earned from high-modernist jazz critics, Baker could still get work when he died. Baker remains one of jazz’s guilty pleasures, a middlebrow taste in an art form that defined itself against the middlebrow. His art is about the application of skill in service of the customers. I don’t know if it ever occurred to Baker to worry about the commodification of art — probably not. I once read an anecdote about how Chet Baker played a poorly-attended gig and, on being informed that it was Easter, replied “man, are they still making that scene?” These are the values of the working musician.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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