Chet chat

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Biographer Matthew Ruddick talks to Sung Bale about the musical genius of Chet Baker. Top photo by Calvin Sit

Puffing on a smoky cigar in the art deco quarters of Cohiba Atmosphere, Matthew Ruddick remembers Chet Baker like an old friend. “He looked like James Dean and had this incredible natural gift of musical talent.” Hong Kong resident Ruddick never met the jazz prodigy, who hit it big in the 1950s as both singer and trumpeter, but more than 10 years of research and conversations with those closest to Baker – lovers, childhood mates and artists – has made Ruddick one of the most definitive biographers on the man whose talent was ultimately consumed by a raging heroin addiction. Funny Valentine – The Story of Chet Baker, which has just been released in Hong Kong and has gained a substantial buzz in both jazz and literary circles worldwide, chronicles Baker’s life right up to his mysterious fall to his death out of an Amsterdam hotel window in 1988.


“My interest in jazz began with Miles Davis,” explains Ruddick with a sense of pride in his voice. “I then discovered Chet Baker and really wanted to get hold of all his recordings. I called this record company in Connecticut. The owner of that company invited me over to the private warehouse, showed me all the records and introduced me to this book that had just been released about Chet’s recordings. It contained some biographical details. That’s how it all began.”


Finance worker by day and writer by night, Ruddick travelled to the USA and Europe countless times to reconnect with Baker’s contemporaries and old flames, including Ruth Young, jazz singer and the adopted daughter of Max E Youngstein, founder of the United Artists record label. Marilyn Monroe and Warren Beatty were frequent guests in her childhood home. “Ruth met Chet in a jazz club,” says Ruddick. “At that time he was just coming back from his three-year hiatus. He was trying to kick heroin. She was with him throughout his comeback, for 10 years, and heard some of his best recordings. They even sang songs together.”


Ruddick attests most of his meetings to luck. “Jack Sheldon, who performed with Chet, still plays the trumpet once a month in this bar in the States and I happened to be in that place on that day.” However, given the singer’s tumultuous affair with his other love – heroin – others weren’t as willing to talk. “Some had had their lives irrevocably damaged by Chet,” says Ruddick. “Others were upset for other reasons. One of his old girlfriends suddenly stopped talking one day, saying she was tired. She phoned later. She had suddenly realised that she was talking about the past and most of the people she knew from that time had already died.”


Funny Valentine is Ruddick’s first book but the writing bug has already bitten him. “I’d love to write a biography on Herbie Hancock,” he says. Ruddick is also in talks with a friend in Europe about a new jazz blog that is taking shape and recently spoke in a series of music-related talks at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.


The one regret Ruddick has is that he never got to see Baker live. “If I were to meet him today, I’d definitely want to hear him play, rather than just talking to him,” says Ruddick. “He really cared about music. Sadly, he also cared about drugs. I suspect that if you weren’t part of his life in those two ways, he would find it difficult to relate.”


“My book isn’t just about his lifestyle though. It’s about music in the 50s, the pre-rock and roll era. Jazz is dying nowadays,” he adds sadly. “It’ll never be as big as it was before.”

Funny Valentine – The Story of Chet Baker is published by Melrose Books, priced $229.

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