For those of you who don't know, Chet Baker was an American Jazz musician and singer who was possibly as famous for his amazing contributions to the music industry as he was for his drug addiction. His life and career were both complex and inspiring as David Goldthorpe discovered through his extensive research for his show, Chet Baker: Like Someone In Love.
Goldthorpe does not attempt to impersonate Baker but rather takes a journey through his life revealing the heart and soul of a very talented yet troubled man.
How would you categorize your 'relationship' with Chet Baker in terms of influences or inspirations within your own life?
I first ‘met’ Chet Baker fairly late in my childhood, actually through the film The Talented Mr Ripley, when a Chet Baker Sings record fell out of Tom Ripley’s satchel. After watching Matt Damon’s beautiful rendition of My Funny Valentine later in the film I went out the next day and bought my first Chet Baker album, My Funny Valentine. I remember at first being disappointed that the title track didn’t have any vocals but then as I listened to the album more I fell in love with Chet’s lyrical style of trumpet playing and that’s really where the whole love affair began. A few months later I was staying in London and working as a barista in the basement café of a big office building. They had this video screen blaring pop music videos all day and I found it pretty offensive so one morning when opening up I sneakily turned off the music videos and replaced them with my trusty My Funny Valentine album and suddenly the place was transformed. One of the executives from upstairs whom I had come to respect came in for his morning coffee and thanked me for the “injection of class”. This was one of the first times in my young life that I realised I was an individual with my own tastes and opinions and Chet Baker was a big part of that realisation.
How much did that 'relationship' drive the creation of your show: Like someone in Love?
The seed of the show originated when I had to perform a monologue in the last year of my Musical Theatre diploma, I had to find a subject with whom I had a real personal connection. Quite apart from the connection I already had with Chet I also felt an affinity with his drug addiction, having had my own problems with drugs in my late teenage years. Having pulled myself out of that downward spiral I was interested in exploring, through Chet’s life, what might have happened had I continued in my descent.
How much of your time was spent researching and did you discover any little gems about Baker that you didn't previously know?
I spent about 6 months researching the show before the premiere and I tend to explore and develop it further with each new production. James Gavin’s excellent biography "Deep in a Dream: The long night of Chet Baker" was essentially my bible, but perhaps even more useful was Chet’s own incomplete memoirs published with the title "As Though I Had Wings". This really gave me an opportunity to hear Chet’s “voice”, to get inside his head and get a feel for how he thought, as well as what sort of stories he liked to tell. Most of the ‘little gems’ that I found appear in the show, many of which are verbatim, one of my favourites is the tale he would tell of how he got himself out of the Army through a series of behaviour designed to make him appear mentally unfit; including not using the latrines with the other men but going in a “patch of bushes over the road” and putting himself “into this trance, not moving, talking or reacting to anything… for days”. Great fun.
Although a musical genius, Baker's life was seedy and corrupted – how much of that aspect of his life is featured in the show and do you feel it important to tell the tale from a 'warts and all' perspective?
I certainly do feel it’s important to tell the whole story, no matter how seedy it is. Chet lived a very full life and went through some pretty dark and crazy times. As well as being hugely charismatic he could also be a self-serving arsehole. He could sound so innocent and sweet when he was singing but then go back to the hotel and shoot heroin and cocaine into his balls. So in writing the show I wanted to give a balanced perspective, sure there is the story of the famous audition with Charlie Parker, talk of his rise to fame and his first love but I also explore the darker side that was present throughout, meaning that this show is perhaps more gritty than your usual biopic or tribute show.
Artistically presenting the life of a non-fictional character holds some responsibilities – what are those responsibilities for you?
As I mentioned above I wanted to give a balanced perspective on Chet’s life, it was very important to me not to judge the man one way or the other or to take a particular stance on the way that he lived his life. I aim to simply present it as it was and let the audience make their own decisions. Throughout the process I have constantly imagined Chet’s reaction were he to have watched the show, this has kept me honest and helped me avoid the temptation to fabricate or over-dramatise.
Your show has had a successful run in New Zealand since 2007. How and when was the decision made to bring it across to Australia?
I have been interested in bringing the show to Australia since 2008 when an Aussie friend of mine came to see it in Dunedin, NZ. Melbourne was the natural choice because of the strong jazz scene and when I found out that my friend Tim Solly, the musical director who has been involved since the shows inception, was in town at the same time as me, I went right ahead and called The Butterfly Club. Each time we have performed the show in New Zealand we have done so in bigger and bigger venues the largest being the historic Nelson School of Music Concert Hall built in 1901. Although the show works well in these large venues I’m excited about the opportunity to strip it back to it’s element, to get it back into the intimate setting for which it was first created. Our very first season was in a tiny underground jazz bar in Wellington called "Happy". As Chet says in the show, referencing his early band-mate Gerry Mulligan, “He’d wanna play these big concert halls but I’d rather be in a smoky little club somewhere".
What is your hope that audiences take away with them after having viewed the show?
I want audiences to have had a chance to meet the real Chet Baker, to get closer than they ever could by seeing a photograph or reading an album cover. As well as a great night out filled with gripping live theatre and jazz that is both soulful and swinging I can guarantee that even the most devoted Chet aficionados will learn something new. Those who didn’t know Chet at all before the show will certainly know him by the end.
You have been performing Baker for some time but can you recall, as an actor, what your initial process to find him (his essence) in performance may have been?
Chet once said that the key to life was finding something that you loved doing and learning to do it better than anyone else. This was an interesting jumping off point for the character and I think the moment that I first ‘found’ Chet was when I realised that he applied this sentiment to both the music and the drugs. Heroin use among bebop players was really a badge of honour in some ways, something that said “we know, you don’t” and I think that this was really important for Chet, that knowing smile, that inner calm that comes from knowing exactly how to find happiness whether it’s in the melody or in the needle.
You do not set out to impersonate Baker – would you categorize the show as a homage or something different?
I was chatting to a director friend of mine during the development process and talked about trying to capture Chet Baker for the stage, he said “don’t go for the look, or even the sound of Chet, it’s the feel that you are after”. In many ways the show is as much a portrait of a junkie as it is an exploration of a jazz musician and an intimate slice of life with a fascinating character.
You are an actor, singer and performer based in NZ – Can you share something about yourself that may surprise your fans?
When I booked the first season of the show I did not actually know how to play the trumpet. It’s something that I’d always wanted to do, especially since reading Louis Armstrong’s "In His Own Words" in my teenage years, but I’d never had the discipline to learn. So I booked a venue, musicians, publicity and director and then realised I had about 8 weeks to not only finish writing the show but also learn to play the trumpet!
With a huge amount of concerted effort I learned to play a couple of short solos for the first show and managed to play them well enough to be reviewed as “singer/actor/trumpet player David Goldthorpe”. Although I had a couple of trumpet lessons to ensure I was not picking up any bad habits I was largely self taught through a process of listening to and imitating Chet’s recordings. That was a few years ago now and I have come on leaps and bounds since then, drummer Richard Wise commented when playing for the show in Hastings a couple of years back that I “sound more like Chet every time we do the show”. I now play trumpet in a couple of local bands but whenever I play Chet it feels like coming home.
And finally, what is next for you?
The next big gig for me is actually here in Australia, I’m booked to perform in a national tour of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach with exciting new Melbourne based theatre company, Playing with Snails. I have quite a background in theatre-for-children and I’ve been looking forward to this tour for some time. It’s a really magical production of one of my all-time favourite books and will be a whole lot of fun with a great bunch of people.
Chet Baker: Like Someone in Love at The Butterfly Club October 27 – 30 http://www.chetbakershow.com/