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Les Baxter Article
Breakfast
Remembered
Arthur Lyman Discography
Billy Mure Article
Harold Chang Interview
Stereo Action The Story
Discography
Robert Drasnin Voodoo Interview
Outer Space Exotica Article

 

My
Breakfasts
With
Baxter

 

by
Skip
Heller

 

 

 

 

I would love to start off by saying this piece will give you some startling insight into the musical mind of Les Baxter. I doubt that it will. Les revealed his enthusiasms in his music. As for his deeper self, I doubt that he revealed that kind of thing to anybody, at least not more than the odd glimpse. He was not a man who sought to be understood on any deep spiritual level. He would have liked to have attained Henry Mancini’s level of respect.

 

My relationship with Les was like you’d have if you were in the same profession as your grandfather. Even though I really only got to know him for the last eighteen months of his life, he considered me a close friend. I don’t know why. He didn’t owe me this friendship. But he did want to be appreciated, not only as a musician or a composer, but as somebody who liked him and wanted to hear the stories he could tell. And he had stories. About Duke Ellington sidemen, about Yma Sumac, about everybody with whom he had ever worked. And when these people are all dead and have no lawyers, I will happily tell these stories. There are, by the way, libelous stories about Les Baxter, although nothing scandalous. One is that he took composition lessons from Mario Castelnuevo Tedesco and had one of his own orchestrators do his counterpoint homework. This story came to me through a very respected film composer, who added that Les would have been dead in the water without the services of orchestrator Al Harris.

Al Harris was Les Baxter’s left-hand orchestrator. In fact Les admitted to me that he would often give Harris an orchestral sketch and Harris would turn it into finished orchestration. Yma Sumac claimed that Les had nothing to do with the arranging he was credited for on Voice Of The Xtabay.  But I did find score fragments in Les’s handwriting for "Xtabay" and "Tumpa". However, trombonist Si Zentner, who played on the sessions, remembers Hal Mooney conducting. I am not saying Si’s memory of a 50 year-old session is flawless. I am just saying it fits. However, I organized Les’s scores into a score library (after they had been in boxes in his garage for God only knows how long), and got a glimpse at the handwriting on the scores. He wrote it, even if he hired outside orchestrators to turn it into larger-scale work. Orchestration, by the way, is where you take the written arrangement and decide which instruments are going to play what parts. So any orchestrator hired could only work with what was there in the first place. In Les Baxter’s case, this was a lot. He was a fantastic composer, who understood the line that connected Maurice Ravel to Cuban music, Stravinsky to samba. He had a singular outlook on music. "I’m not an intellectual composer," he would say, "I write emotional music."

Cover of Music Views, June 1955I’ll concede that his need to write was emotional as well as financial. He liked to live well. But mostly he was obsessed by work and the need to feel like a composer. Les never felt so good about himself as when he was shaping together some music. Even in the last year and a half of his life, he spoke of wanting to make a Brazilian-styled follow-up to his all-percussion Skins album. He continued to write new music, and was heartbroken when his health forbade his participation in the 1995 Los Angeles Composers Guild concert. But by then he went daily to his dialysis appointment. His memory was starting to fail him. And a composer needs his memory — to develop an initial theme, remember why you wrote it and how you want it to develop, and why.

And Les’ short-term memory was starting to fail him. Ironically, his command of technical music — sight-reading, the rules of harmony, orchestration and composition, his ability to play the piano and improvise — stayed with him to the last. Almost 70 years of muscle memory wasn’t going anywhere. Les really loved music and food. These were the two things freely indulged in at the house on Mel Avenue in Palm Springs. Actually, the meals were mostly taken at restaurants. But a good meal was one of Les Baxter’s great pleasures later in life. Television after the meal was also a thing of great enthusiasm. Together we watched Beverly Hills 90210 , Murphy Brown, and a then-new show of which he was particularly fond — Friends.

If you wanted to see a riveted Les Baxter, be there when he stumbled onto any documentary about the African or South American jungle. He was fascinated by birds, flowers, and all the stuff that he musically described on Ritual Of The Savage. This was a very genuine passion of his. Sometime in either the late '50s or early '60s, he went to Cuba for the first time, and was taken to some rural area to hear some drummers. He never got sick of telling the story. And he spoke more of the terrain than the music he heard, except to say that the drummers would kill you if you touched their drums. He loved having gone to some "secret jungle nightclub" to hear music rarely (if ever) heard by an American white guy.

The fondest memory I have of Les and a television set concerns the episode of Murphy Brown where Aretha Franklin was the guest. Towards the end of the show, Aretha performed "You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman", accompanying herself on piano. Les was not particularly fond of rock ’n’ roll (except that he liked the Beach Boys and Petula Clark), but he was so bowled over by Aretha that he started laughing out loud. "She’s marvelous!," he said, over and over. "Marvelous!" was Les’ strongest superlative.

He mostly attached it to food, rarely to music, almost never to modern music. The only new music he expressed any admiration for was Carla Bley’s Big Band, some of Frank Zappa’s more compositionally-oriented stuff, and Van Dyke Parks’ Tokyo Rose album. Les didn’t relate to the energy of rock ‘n’ roll or the extended improvising in jazz— he was interested in composition and orchestration. He told me he didn’t understand why Louis Armstrong was "such a God", but loved the classic Ellington arrangements. And, as much of Les’ early experience was as a tenor saxophonist, he worshipped Coleman Hawkins, and Ellingtonians: Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges. That was his era.

As well, Ravel was making some of his greatest statements during Les’ youth. And Les loved Ravel and Debussy. But his personal God was Igor Stravinsky, who took rhythm, harmony, and orchestration to new heights. "Stravinsky changed the world with "Rite Of Spring ", he told me many times. And it figures. Les’ concurrent fascinations with harmony, orchestration, and rhythm all point to Stravinsky. As if further proof is required, note that "Rite Of Spring" is the English title of that famous work. It debuted in Paris as "Le Sacre Du Printemp", and Les’ first great exotic work was originally called "Le Sacre Du Sauvage". Stravinsky was Les Baxter’s all-time icon, and we spent many an evening at the house on Mel Avenue listening to Stravinsky’s Symphony In C — kind of an odd choice as a Stravinsky favorite. Symphony In C was written during Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, and it slyly parodies classical clichés. It is his Rutles work — a brilliant cop of something classic, with its tongue in its cheek. Les loved it.

Cover of Romantic Rio sheet musicLes ate prodigiously but never exercised, and that, by the way, is what killed him. Dinner was inevitably followed by television. He had a 40-inch screen TV, cable, and a VCR. He rarely rented films, but was a veracious cable viewer, a true channel-surfer. I am often asked what of his own music Les played around the house. He rarely played music around the house, either on the stereo or at the piano. Of his own compositions, he would play solo piano versions of "The City" and "Sophisticated Savage" most often. If he wanted to impress company, it was, of course, "Quiet Village". On the stereo, it was mostly the tape of Symphony In C or the CD of his own African Blue. He owned no vinyl copies of his own records, although he did have cassette copies of pretty much everything. There were a few Capitol
titles missing from his personal archive, and I made him copies of those, which were Voice Of The Xtabay, Music Out Of The Moon, and (I think but am not sure) The Primitive And The Passionate.

There is something about "The City" that strikes me as being Les’ most autobiographical piece of music. Again, he would play it often as a solo piano piece. It is, to my ears, nostalgic, clever, and regal. For those who don’t know the recorded version (on Space Escapade), the melody is basically two three-note figures that repeat while the chords move underneath, and, along with "Earthlight", it is, I think, his most beautiful writing. I can hear the influence of Ellingtonian arranger Billy Strayhorn, who Les admired, and who, like Les, was quite influenced by Ravel. Moreover, Les was nostalgic for the days when he was Capitol Records’ "Golden Boy". And the wily way that he uses three notes to motivate a glorious melisma was very intelligent, and Les prized intelligence in himself and other people above any other quality.  Finally, there is a great, understated dignity to "The City", and Les aspired to that kind of dignity. And he had it.

Although he lived well, Les did not feel the business had treated him kindly. He spoke of feeling exiled from music. He was not aware of the resurgence of interest in his recordings. A couple of people had shown up to interview him in the last couple of years. No big deal. Then I showed him RE/Search’s Incredibly Strange Music volumes, and Joseph Lanza’s Elevator Music. Lanza’s writing particularly reached him, so much so that he dictated a letter (to me) for Lanza. And to Jello Biafra, who had recently been stomped at a punk rock show. Jello had said many nice things about Les in the second ISM volume. Soon after seeing that, Les wasted no time telling people he had influenced the Dead Kennedys. Fortunately, Les never heard the DK's. He would not have liked them one damn bit. I once saw him have a near-violent reaction to The Replacements ("I Will Dare", if you’re curious), which is pretty tame stuff compared to, say, "Moral Majority". While Les was not what I’d call a religious man, he was ostensibly a Texas Protestant, and he would have been thoroughly offended by the lyric data.

But he felt vindicated by this new attention, no matter from where it came. I told him about the collector’s prices his records were now fetching, and how people were starting to play his exotic music in dance clubs." People always love my music. It’s still modern to them," he would tell me.

The last months of his life were a juxtaposition of his body and mind failing him with new, visible attention being paid to his music. His short-term memory no longer existed. He remembered who I was when I’d call him, but could not recall if we had spoken earlier that day. One time he played "The City" for me on the piano three times in one hour, pointing out the same passage, clearly unaware that he had done so minutes before. Through it all, his daughter Leslie took care of him, spending more time at his Palm Springs home then her own in Orange County. She took every care to make sure that he spent his last days in the tastefully decorated and lavishly gardened house he loved and doted on.

But it was not to be. The last few months of Les Baxter’s life were spent in hospitals. The last days in Palm Springs were sad. Ten months before his death, Leslie, her friend Peggy, Les, and I spent a week together, and that was the last joyous time I recall in that house. Leslie indulged her father everything, and extended that to his friends. We spent a very happy seven days, going out to eat, hanging out at Peabody’s Coffee Studio on North Palm Canyon Drive while Les was getting his dialysis treatment, and generally kicking back in the desert. Peggy was something of a comic figure, who ran her car over my cowboy boots (which I had placed out in the sun so that the mink oil would be absorbed into them), then nearly got me killed in a car accident on Sunrise Avenue.

By that point, I was enough of a regular in the house that I had my own bedroom. One day during that week, I went to a bookstore and had bought a copy of Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From, a collection of short stories that I kept buying and giving away. When I got back from Crown Books, Leslie and I spoke at length about her father’s condition, and she said this could well be the last time I saw him before his funeral. I accepted the news without reacting much.  I knew he was sick.

There is a story in the Carver book, called "A Small Good Thing". The crux of the story is that a small boy is mortally injured on his birthday by a hit-and-run driver as his mother is across town buying his cake. If you have seen the movie Short Cuts, it is the vignette where Lyle Lovett plays a baker. That night, I was sitting up in "my" room, listening to the late-night doo-wop show on KDES-FM, hearing those beautiful, lonesome sounding ballads and reading Carver’s story about the random unfairness of death coming to a small boy.  And it all hit me at once, and I think I even said goodbye that night. I did see Les a couple of times after that, but with each visit there was less of him and more of senility and ill health. It was a terrible thing.

Finally, on a January morning, I got a phone call that Les had passed away. About a week earlier, I had tried to see him in the hospital, but they were performing an emergency operation on him when I got there, and I was spared the final insult of my last impression of him being a bedridden invalid. On the morning of his death, the sun was shining, and I was having my coffee in the house Joey Sehee then shared with Senor Amor. Joey and I were getting ready for a gig in San Francisco, and we were excited and planning the show. Then the phone rang, and Aime Elkins gave me the news. I called a few magazines and news services. The Fed Ex man showed up with the new Joey Baron CD. Life continued apace, but I felt like I was watching it from behind a piece of glass. Finally, I put on a tape of "The City", and listened with a lump in my throat. It took a few days before I could cry. Too many people were calling me for information, Leslie couldn’t handle it, and I had a duty to my friend and his memory. It wasn’t a huge duty or anything, but it was mine.

Honestly, I think you knew the best things about Les if you listen to his best music. He put the best of his personality into his composing, and as a result, his best music has the same traits as he had. The worldliness, intelligence, eagerness to please, and generosity of the self are all there in spades. Les wanted above all things to be remembered as a composer, and I am sure it was because he saw the best parts about himself represented in his music. Unfortunately, I cannot remember him solely that way. He was a charming and generous — if cantankerous — friend, with whom I whiled away many hours in the desert sun, and from whom I learned a great deal about music.

- © 1998 Skip Heller