“Gee, it’s a drag about your old man.” — Chet Baker to Romano Mussolini
This has long been one of my favorites. Not profound, not insightful. But still to this day it makes me smile.
Maybe it remains brilliant to me because of the double-take. It’s not immediately or obviously humorous; it takes a moment to construct the scene in your head. And sure enough, what you imagine is pretty much exactly what happened:
During his sojourn in Italy forty-five years ago, Chet Baker played a stint with Romano at the Bussola in Viareggio. There’s a famous story that, after their first set together, it was pointed out to Chet whose son Romano was. The trumpeter went over to the piano and commiserated: “Gee, it’s a drag about your old man.” Romano always professed to have no memory of the exchange—“Chet and I never discussed politics”—but Caterina Valente, the Continental chanteuse with whom they toured, claims to have been present and insists it happened.
OK, yes, it’s a throwaway comment, and a superficial anecdote. And yet it pulls together so many different elements I find myself thinking about:
- A comically inappropriate understatement that sounds like parody (how much 50s hipster lingo can you cram into a few syllables?)
- The disparity in scale between the expression of the sentiment, and the reality (You’d think old Benito had lost his wallet, or was passed up for a promotion or something)
- The disparity in scale and import between the world of touring jazz musicians and, you know, Word War Two.
- The strangely touching fact that Chet Baker felt the need to say something. Even if the quote makes him look oblivious or clueless, it somehow makes me like him a little more.
- The cultural touchpoints—I don’t think there are many people under, say, 40 who have a knowledge or appreciation of who either of these men were, or what makes the comment so hilariously awkward. The people I know who have been quickest to laugh at this have definitely skewed older.
- The surreal idea of someone living their life in the shadow of (ahem) notorious larger-than-life parents. How do you make your way in life as a professional musician, when your father is Benito Mussolini? I’ve been curious to read Jay Nordlinger’s Children of Monsters, which reflects on the topic.
- The relaxed attitude Italians seem to have about Fascism. Sure, Il Duce is obviously a very controversial figure in Italy… but try to imagine an alternate history where Adolf Hitler’s jazz musician son garners critical and popular acclaim after the war, while keeping his surname… and Hitler’s granddaughter becomes a high profile neo-fascist politician, and she speaks admiringly of her grandfather and his ideas…. mmm, nope. No chance in hell. But in Italy, sure, why not?
When he returned to the mainland in the 1950s, he performed as “Romano Full” until he discovered that his father’s name, far from repelling customers, was actually a commercial plus. While members of the House of Savoy were forbidden to set foot in the new Italian republic, members of the House of Mussolini were relatively untroubled. It was Romano’s musical associations that caused him problems, not his political ones. “At that time it was very dangerous to have contact with him because the police investigated everyone,” he recalled, but he was talking about the famously drugged-up Chet Baker rather than any old-time fascist.
BTW, both passages taken from the most excellent Mark Steyn:
And thanks to Arahant for organizing the Quote of The Day series: