Le Chet qui pêche

My favourite bit of Paris was the area bounded by Quai St Michel to the north, the Boule Miche to the west Boulevard St Germain to the south and Rue St Jacques to the east; the very heart of Left Bank bohemia though I didn’t know it then. One night Sandra and I chanced on a jazz club there called Le Chat qui peche and crossed the street to see who was playing. We looked at the bill board: CE SOIR – CHET BAKER. Blimey Chet Baker!

Chet Baker – Great White Hope rival to Miles Davis
Chet Baker – Heart Throb Crooner
Chet Baker – King of The Cool
Chet Baker – DRUG ADDICT

Oh yes. I’d read all about Chet Baker leaving The Gerry Mulligan Quartet after heroin rumours. And the flight to Europe. Then the bombshell: Chet Baker on drugs charge in Italy. Worse: Chet Baker jailed for drugs offence. Chet Baker in prison! That’s where I thought he still was and now, sensationally, he’s here in Paris – ce soir. 

Le Chat qui pêche was just a small room opening off to the left from a narrow entrance giving on to the street. Or was it a cave reached by a narrow stone stair? Could be. There must have been a bar though I can’t visualise it now – or the decor. It was a big night for me but although the room was full it was hardly crowded. I’d like to tell you how we were dressed. Since I’ve forgotten I’ll invent our wardrobe. Sandra had gone to art school and trained as a dress designer. She was tall and tended not to wear the highest of heels. So. Black suede flatties and dark green ski trousers with a strap under the instep, a big turtle-neck mohair sweater – let that be black too – and a lightweight camel-coloured coat with a tie-belt, thrown over her shoulders. Her pale eyebrows will be drawn-in heavily and shaped with black pencil and her eyes made-up like Elizabeth Taylor. No jewellery. I will be wearing jeans, blue probably but I’ll make them black. Brown shoes with plain fronts, yellow socks, a heavy black fisherman-knit sweater and a dark  blue cotton pull-over-the-head anorak.

The band just suddenly appeared through a door from an adjoining room. No MC no announcements. A French trio I assumed – piano bass drums – and the man himself. I remember exactly how he was dressed. Like an advertisement in Esquire: dark blazer, white shirt, sombre tie, Ivy League dark grey flannels, black punched shoes. His dark hair combed straight back with a soft parting. Handsome. Oh yes. No sign of the pale shaky raddled junkie of fiction but a man who looked hardly different from his pin-up pics of the mid-fifties. A touch of Jack Palance about the shape of his face and features. But a clean-cut college-kid Palance, not the blue-jawed busted-nose heavy so familiar on the screen.

I can remember the name of only one number the band played and I think it was their first – they went straight into Milestones. A brave move to take on the Miles Davis classic. They played it much faster or much slower – you’d think I’d remember which but it’s gone. I’ll have them play it slower but it was longer than Miles’ own version which I have on a well-worn record. Chet Baker rarely looked at his sidemen. They were Italian – I’ve since learned – and right with him. He was impassive – drugged to the eyeballs we told ourselves in foolish explanation. He played so beautifully. And sparingly. No cascades of Dizzy Gillespie fireworks, no Miles Davis morse code blips. Just his own elegantly cool exploration of that unforgettable theme.

Ah Chet Baker. To hear Chet Baker – in Paris. Alive free and ten feet away from us. I still can’t get over how physically unmarked he was by the ups and downs of his life and what extraordinary chance had led us to see him. The whole visit I suppose was marked by extraordinary chance. Well it seemed so at the time but looking back perhaps it wasn’t that extraordinary. McKechnie and Esther, Karen, Sandra and myself had all grown-up and gone to schools in the same area of North London: it wasn’t so surprising our paths should cross in Paris. It was the first and last time I saw Chet Baker though – and Esther and  McKechnie and Karen too. But he’s still alive* and playing and I guess they .are too.


Jeff Cloves

* Chet Baker ‘fell’ from an Amsterdam window and died in May 1988.
This extract is taken from ‘Paroles de Paris’ Outside Stroud 2009

One day, while in Paris on that visit, I walked right across the city from the 20th to the 16th – and then back to Rue de la Bucherie in the 14th where I was  staying. Compared to London, Paris is small and compact and it was a memorable exploration. Walking or cycling is the only way to properly see Paris. When I was in Paris in 2008, thanks to its innovative bike-hire scheme, it was busy with carefree cyclists again.



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