The night, suitably, was cool. Upper 60s set on descending to mid 50s after an afternoon high that just kissed 80. Then again, this was winter in Miami. Still, a superstitious sort might say the gods had tailored the weather in accordance with the coming of their celebrated guest. Less superstitious sorts would say it was the celebrated guest who stringed along the weather in accordance with his own temperament. Both sides would be right. Why? Because the man who alighted on Miami that night was indeed one of the gods, and that year weather, world and what have you were his to do with as he damn well pleased.
We bring you back to Sunday January 5, 1957; the night Chet Baker came to play a hotspot called the Ball and Chain.
Located “On the Trail”, that is, SW 8th Street, when “Tamiami” was superfluous and “Calle Ocho” wasn’t even a glimmer in a Batistan eye, Ball and Chain had been wowing the keenest crowds since the ‘30s. So wowful was the joint, in fact, that by this time both Count Basie and Billie Holiday had become veritable regulars.
According to Miami Historian Paul George “The neighborhood was primarily Jewish then, and the Schechtman family, who owned the Ball and Chain, who like most of their neighbors had fled, (or had family who fled), the Holocaust, booking black entertainers was no big thing. Late at night, after the club had closed, the Schechtmans would even sneak said entertainers into their neighboring Tower Apartments, over on SW 7th street.”
This night though belonged not to Jazz’s most renowned Masters, but to the jazzman who would come to join those Masters in their most renown.
Indeed that night did belong to Chet Baker — and Chet Baker belonged to Miami.
Coming off a whirlwind year which saw (and heard) Chet Baker Sings tune in the whole wild world, the sly sleek songman slunk into the Magic City with the grace of all angels and the may-care of the devil himself. Even then the singing trumpeteer was being giving grief by the purists, who preferred their players boxed into easily-defined corners, and even then, the singer whose voice most evoked the sound of the most acute trumpet played since Gabriel was circling around their squareness.
It didn’t hurt that Baker had matinee idol looks, nor that he’d been christened cool first by Charlie Parker, then by Gerry Mulligan (who Chet helped make coincidentally famous back in ‘52). It also didn’t hurt that Baker could literally shred your heart with a single line, no matter what the instrument.
At Ball and Chain on that early January evening, while the majority of what was then small town Miami were still nursing their resolutions, Baker stepped on to the same stage as that held by Basie and Billie and his other esteemed predecessors, and let the smart set have it.
The result, as they would say given the chance, was transcendent. No tricks, no gratuitous licks, no kicks, other than a single wallop to the solar plexus, a wallop so sincere it left those lucky enough to be in attendance unlucky enough to never again get to experience such hurt — or such beauty. Not like that anyway. And not from Chet Baker.
Yes, Baker would go on to resurgence after resurgence, almost always pushed back to the periphery by blockhead American critics. And yes, Elvis Costello would eventually draft Baker for “Shipbuilding” (Punch the Clock ‘83) and Bruce Weber would immortalize the main(lining) man in ‘88’s Oscar-nominated Let’s Get Lost; the truth is though that never again would such a worldly wondrous wanderer take his place in just such a way on such a fabled thruway as the Trail.
Forget the fact that way back when there was then no such thing as Calle Ocho; that there wasn’t even an I-95; instead remember that Miami was united in ways we’ve not seen since now. Something swingin’ to consider in the coming weeks when the Ball and Chain reopens its doors on The Trail. Let’s all pray the ghost of the Prince of Cool is there to warm our souls.
WORDS BY John Hood
PHOTOS COURTESY OF Miami Archives