Jazzed Up in Bagni di Lucca

In August of 1960, Chet Baker, the great jazz trumpet and fluegelhorn player on the run from the US for drug problems, was stopped in the toilet of a petrol station on the road leading from Lucca to Viareggio. Chet was in the toilet for well over an hour and the attendant decided to call the police who broke down the door. They found a trail of blood, a syringe, vials of palfium (a powerful opioid analgesic approximately three times more potent than morphine and subject to drug prohibition regimes internationally through UN treaties) and an American who claimed to be “Chesney Henry Baker.” Following the investigation, the trial, conviction, and appeal at the end of 1961, Baker was sentenced to sixteen months in Lucca’s prison.

13th April 1961:  American jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (1929 - 1988) during his trial in Lucca, near Florence, Italy, on charges of the illegal use of narcotics for which he was subsequently imprisoned.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

(Chet Baker Being Arrested at Lucca on charges of Drugs Possession)

Later during his imprisonment Chet was allowed to practice in the cell, for five minutes, twice a day, and the sound of his trumpet spreads through the city like the voice of a true jail bird stuck like a nightingale in a cage. People would gather on the walls which surround Lucca’s prison on one side to hear the incredible sounds coming from a barred window.

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This sound was superbly captured by the B. B. Jazz Quintet in their concert dedicated to the immortal Chet and to jazz interpretations of Broadway musicals at Bagni di Lucca’s Anglican church yesterday.

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Marco Bartalini was “Chet”; a member of the audience who remembered those heady, tragic days when Chet was detained at Lucca’s Town council’s pleasure commented on Bartalini’s amazing re-evocation of the trumpeter’s smoky, sparse and melancholic sound.

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Andrea Pellegrini has to be one of the most superb Italian jazz pianists I’ve heard. Already scoring a great hit at Siena Jazz and venues throughout the world he showed complete mastery of the idiom required to accompany Chet numbers, especially those composed in Italy like “So Che Ti Perderò” (“I Know I Will Lose You”), “Il Mio Domani” (“My Tomorrow”), “Motivo Su Raggio Di Luna” (“Tune on a Moon Beam”), “The Route”. Pellegrino’s solos were superb, truly studied improvisations in the manner of the highest jazz expressions.

Nino Pellegrini, a noted teacher of double bass, showed his immense dexterity on the instrument, sometimes using a bow and moving the bass line with baroque ingenuity.

Drummer Marco Simoncini combined a subtle approach to his art with understated emotional undertones using both padded and unpadded stick and fully exploiting the expressive capacity of his instrument. It was a just a pity that he was allotted only one break during the evening.

Singer Bianca Barsanti showed herself at home both in musical and classical numbers. Her rendering of “Summertime” was especially convincing with a second verse in which she discarded mike and launched into a stratospheric soprano line worthy of the finest classical singers.

An added surprise was that half way through the concert Bianca exquisitely sang a fin-de-siècle song by Paolo Tosti, Queen Victoria’s own singing teacher , dedicated to the beauties of Bagni di Lucca and re-discovered by local historian Bruno Micheletti.

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I would also add the exhibition,in the same venue, of band instruments from the now sadly defunct Benabbio Philharmonic band:

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A group is only as good as its ensemble playing. Pellegrini’s band was absolutely together, fully understanding through that universal language of music what each member was expressing. It was a delight to follow the intricacies of variation in the numbers and, especially with the Cole Porter songs in the second half of the (interval-less) concert, the audience was completely bewitched by the musicians.

What is the history of Italian Jazz? Surely it must have suffered under fascism? Surely not! Unlike the Hitlerian regime Italy had no particular condemnation of “decadent negroid” music. Indeed, Mussolini’s own son Romano Mussolini developed into one of the country’s greatest musicians in this genre.

And what is the significance of Chet Baker, described by jazz historian David Gelly as “James Dean, Bix and Sinatra rolled into one” and whose life, pock-marked by violence and heroin, was not exactly conducive to developing into a great musician. (But then why does jazz always have to have so much support from the darker side of humanity – is that side so necessary to the development of this barely hundred year old musical genre?) Chet was able to crystallise and see into the essence of jazz avoiding the too-many-notedness of Bebop and aiming towards an inner beauty, a coolness (by which is meant the use of fewer notes to express more things) which opened the door to the consummation of style that Miles Davis brought to unsurpassed fruition.

At the end of the concert flowers were presented to the singer by Bagni di Lucca’s library supremo Angela Amadei on behalf of the Montaigne foundation who so generously organised the concert under its’ chair Marcello Cherubini, and we all felt that we had contributed at least one petal of those flowers that paid such a magnificent tribute to the great Chet and gave so much enjoyment.

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Truly, when I next pass Lucca Jail on my walk on the walls I shall cast my eyes upon the sombre building with a different look and perhaps, half-hallucinating (though not on palfium I hasten to add!), hear the inimitable sound of Chet’s flugelhorn.

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4 thoughts on “Jazzed Up in Bagni di Lucca

  1. A really amazing event with lots of interest for everyone however I did find the venue as did the Jazz Players totally quaint even unique whoever thought of holding such an event in the Bagni di Lucca Grenlees Library although I hasten to add that we did attend the George Melley event in the once Tramshed UK! As always an excellent blog with an interesting explanation of Chet whose musical vibrations will linger on in the Library atmosphere for ever after the Tosti homage to Bagni di Lucca was a great discovery well done also the great musical instrument brass instrument collection adorned the background delightfully any takers out there to start up a band?! The parting piece saddened me somewhat the Judy Garland song from the Wizard of Oz Somewhere Over the Rainbow beautifully performed this song reminded me of my early childhood happy days!

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