Interview: Bob Whitlock (Part 4)

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For years, bassist Bob Whitlock has been blamed for getting Chet Baker hooked on heroin in 1952. Bob is named in several books as being the one who set Baker on his ruinous path. The problem is, according to Bob, it's not true. They were together when it happened, but Bob says he didn't encourage Baker to try it or even want him to do so. [Recent photo above of Bob Whitlock by Leslie Westbrook]

In Part 4 of my four-part interview with Bob, he talks about the day Baker first used, his own work as a Fulbright Scholar and his regrets...

JazzWax: Was Chet Baker a user when you knew him?

Bob Whitlock: Chet was a latecomer to hard drugs. He smoked as much pot as anyone alive though. My god, that guy was insatiable. But he wasn't a hard-drug user at first. I remember the first time Chet ever used drugs. In a way, I feel kind of guilty about it.

JW: How so?

BW: In 1952, I was going to score from a guy down in San Pedro, Calif., about a half hour south of Los Angeles. Chet drove down with me and stayed in the car while I went into the guy's house. But I was in there too long to suit him.

JW: What happened?

BW: Eventually Chet came up and knocked on the door. It was an uncool thing to do, since anything could happen with paranoid people. Fortunately, the connection I was using knew that Chet was a musician and was cool.

JW: How did it play out?

BW: Chet came up to the door and asked where I was and why was I there so long. They let him in. Chet could sense that the situation wasn't cool immediately and that he shouldn't have come in. A connection feels very threatened when someone unknown comes into his house, even they knew who he was.

JW: What happened next?

BW: I had just gotten down, and the guy asked Chet, “You want to get off?" I think Chet was afraid not to because this guy represented some kind of threat.

JW: Threat how?

BW: I really don't know how to go any deeper into that. It might have just passed, but I think Chet felt he needed to prove to this guy he wasn't someone who was going to be dangerous to him. I also think Chet felt that he had gotten me in trouble and needed to undo that. I never urged him to do a thing told him there was no need.

JW: Did Baker get high?

BW: Chet got down, and it was a terrible experience. He started vomiting. This stuff was very pure and strong. Chet got so whacked.

JW: Based on his personality, it sounds like if he hadn't started with you, he would probably have done so with someone else.

BW: He was hell-bound to do it. He always had that all-the-way-Jose mentality, whether it was playing the trumpet or smoking pot. He probably smoked enough pot by himself to last a lifetime. There was never any restraint or halfway with Chet.

JW: So you had nothing to do with convincing him to try heroin?

BW: My god, no. That has been put on me for so long. He was with me when he started but I had absolutely nothing to do with pushing him into doing anything. Chet was alwasy his own man. But to this day I feel guilty about the whole thing.

JW: How did you kick the habit?

BW: In 1976 I went into Synanon, the drug-treatment program in Santa Monica. I kicked there. I had gotten caught stealing and was arrested. It's amazing I made it as long as I did before getting caught. When I was on probation, I visited my probation officer and he was amazed that was both a Fulbright Scholar and a junkie.

JW: How did you become a Fulbright Scholar?

BW: I had written my masters thesis at UCLA on Anton Webern [pictured]. It won me a Fulbright. I studied as a Fulbright Scholar in Paris in 1961 and '62. I originally was going to transcribe a manuscript but soon discovered that someone in London was already working on the project. I went to the Fulbright committee and told them about the project already in the works and that I wanted to make a switch.

JW: What did they say?

BW: They showed [contemporary classical composer and conductor] Pierre Boulez my thesis on the early, pre-serial music of Webern. Boulez said he would see me weekly for lessons on the bass. I was beyond happy but also scared to death.

JW: Why?

BW: My original intent was to transcribe a manuscript and here I was studying Schoenberg and Berg with Boulez [pictured]. But then Boulez received a letter notifying him that he had to go to Baden-Baden in Germany.

JW: Why?

BW: Boulez was founder and head of a program there. He told me that he was sorry, that he couldn't' follow through. He lined me up with his old teacher, Max Deutsch. So I studied with Max for a year, mainly Schoenberg and Berg quartets.

JW: Did you gig in Paris.

BW: Yes. About two weeks after I arrived in Paris I was hired for drummer Kenny Clarke's group, which included Rene Urtreger on piano and Jimmy Gourley on guitar.

JW: Who else did you gig with?

BW: Zoot Sims came over from the States around December of '61. After that I worked with Kenny Drew. Only lousy thing about the gig was that the owner got to sing with the group every night.

JW: And Baker?

BW: I played with him again but not as much as I would have liked. I left Paris in May '62. Chet had been in jail in Italy, and I just missed him in Paris after he was released. 

JW: What do you think looking back?

BW: Chet never should have ever done that, and I should never have let it happen. I didn't encourage it, but I should have done more to prevent it—myself included. I wish I had never gotten into drugs.

JW: Why did you?

BW: I was just trying to be one of the big guys. All the people I worshiped were using: Art Pepper [pictured above], Zoot—all the guys. It was the thing to do.

JW: Who got you hooked?

BW: Some guy I had known in junior highs school. One day we were talking and it turned out that both of us were smoking weed. But he was also using.

JW: Why did you leave the Gerry Mulligan Quartet?

BW: The first time I left was in the summer of'53. We were playing at the Haig. We had recorded the one album and I was offered a job to accompany June Christy [pictured above] and Vido Musso. So I told Gerry I was leaving. We weren't working, and I needed income. I said, “Gerry, all we do are these auditions and stuff. I have to go up for two weeks and work, and then I'll be back." The gig was at The Say When Club in San Francisco.

JW: How did Mulligan take it?

BW: He was fine with it. But right after I left, Gerry and the quartet got booked into the Blackhawk in San Francisco.

JW: How did you feel?

BW: I was ready to shoot myself [laughs]. Gerry had gotten Carson Smith [pictured above on bass]. A couple of weeks later Gerry offered me the job back. I have no idea why, but I took it. Playing behind June was OK, but I was kind of sorry I had.

JW: Why?

BW: She was great, but I had missed out on the quartet's breakout. I worked with the quartet into the beginning of '53. I left the second time after Gerry and I got into a big fight.

JW: Over money?

BW: No, Chet and I had gotten busted.

JW: How did that happen?

BW: Carson Smith used to come into the Haig to check us out. One night we were out in Chet's car—just Chet, Carson and me. We were smoking weed when we saw a squad car go by. Chet flipped the roach out the window. The cops saw it in their rear-view mirror and backed up and were right on us.

JW: You were arrested for a roach?

BW: Not quite. It turned out that Chet and one of the cops were from the same town in Oklahoma and they got to talking. Which was great. I sighed and thought we weren't going to go to jail. But then the other cop was a hard-ass and said they had to search the car. They wound up finding two full lids [ounces] of pot and took us all in.

JW: What was Mulligan's reaction?

BW: When I got out two days later, Gerry [pictured above] got all over me. “You and Chet are bad news for each other," he said. I went back all over him. I said, “You're a fucking hypocrite. How can you sit there and talk to me about using considering what you've done?" It was kind of threatening, like were going to get into it physically. But then we came to our senses. I told him he could shove the job up his ass. Gerry said you ain't got no job. The irony, of course, is that Gerry got busted a short time later.

JW: What did you do?

BW: I went back to Utah. Two of my cousins had come into the Haig and saw the condition I was in and were ready to kidnap me to get me back in health. I stayed back there for about seven months. There was no messing around up there. When I returned to L.A., I started working with Art Pepper again and Stan Getz for a while.

JW: What do you think when you look back on the Gerry Mulligan Quartet?

BW: I feel proud to have been a part of it. I feel a lot of pride in that group. Those were the greatest months of my career. I felt very lucky. I was barely old enough to buy a drink and was already playing with one of the major groups in jazz. I was dumbfounded by it and impressed with myself. I wish I had made different choices back then. But I was young, excited and didn't know any better. [Recent photo above of Bob Whitlock by Leslie Westbrook]

JazzWax tracks: A few favorites featuring Bob Whitlock...

Warne Marsh—Live at Dana Point: 1957 (VSOP) here.

Joe Albany—Right Combination (Riverside/1957) here.

Peggy Lee—Pass Me By (Capitol/1965) here.

Joe Pass—Simplicity (World Pacific/1967) here.

A special JazzWax thanks to Leslie Westbrook.

JazzWax clip: Here's a tasty clip of You Go to My Head with Zoot Sims (ts) Henri Renaud (p) Bob Whitlock (b) and Jean-Louis Viale (d) in 1961 at the Paris Blue Note. It's off of Zoot in Paris (United Artists), another great find...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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