Born to be Blue: the U of T music experts who helped Ethan Hawke play Chet Baker
Hawke was “a natural” says recent grad Ben Promane
Before Ethan Hawke could play legendary jazz artist Chet Baker in the new movie Born to Be Blue, he had to learn how to play the trumpet.
Fortunately, Ben Promane, a recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, was ready to help.
Hawke’s agent found Promane, who graduated with a degree in music performance in 2012, when researching Toronto instructors. The actor and Promane met up twice a week for the next six weeks at the Four Seasons Hotel.
“He was a great student because he was so interested,” says Promane. “He actually taught me a lot because he was so receptive and wanted to know as much as possible.”
Hawke didn’t have much musical training, but his classical acting background came in handy.
“He’s a natural, so he could match pitch. He was very receptive and things happened quickly,” says Promane. “He was trying to internalize the music in order to reproduce it. He really wanted to go as far as he could so he could be a trumpet player.”
The pair went over scales, explored Baker’s music and techniques such as how to hold the trumpet the way Baker would. Hawke even tackled how he’d have to play if he lost his front teeth, as Baker had in a fight in 1968.
Promane wasn’t the only U of T musician involved in the production. Artist-in-Residence David Braid (also an alumnus) was one of the musical partners for the film, brought on by Canadian director Robert Budreau; the pair worked together on short films in the early 2000s. To create the soundtrack, Braid (pictured at right) had to research, transcribe, compose, orchestrate, arrange, produce and record the music.
He also had to contract the musicians. The studio band included U of T jazz instructors Mike Murley (baritone saxophone), David Neill (saxophone), drummer Terry Clarke (who has actually performed with Baker) as well as alumni Kevin Turcotte (trumpet) and Todor Kobakov (piano). Braid also coached Carmen Ejogo (who plays Baker’s love interest) on piano.
“Our jazz composer David Braid created a unique arrangement of this Guys and Dolls songbook classic, which combines a vintage 1960s sound with hints of modernism,” director Robert Budreau told Rolling Stone magazine.
In an interview with the magazine, Braid said, “The original 'I've Never Been In Love Before' from the musical Guys and Dolls is a light and sweet reflection on newfound love, but in Born to Be Blue, the lyrics transform meaning entirely to become dark and ironic.
“Ethan's spellbinding performance of this song at the climax of the film effectively communicates the essence of Chet's performance style as well as gives this 66-year-old song a new life with contemporary audiences.”
“A jazz-specific movie such as Born to Be Blue requires a score that is representative of the mood and period of the film. David Braid is as sure-footed as a composer as he is a performer and brings the correct jazz sensibility to the production,” says Terry Promane, head of the Faculty of Music’s jazz department (and father of Ben).
“I was also pleased that so many of our current teachers and alumni – world class musicians – graced the soundtrack. It’s a wonderful testament to the jazz department.”
For a band full of experts, the most challenging part was finding the right formula to compose flaws in the music so it would reflect the story of Baker rebuilding his technique and confidence after his injury – and not only just make audible slip-ups, but make sure Baker’s wariness is reflected in the arrangement of the music and in Hawke's and Ejogo’s acting.
“The formula had to be such that both general audiences and jazz audiences could recognize the flaws without the music being unpleasant to listen to,” says Braid. “I’m sure the audience would not want to hear vulgar squawking trumpet!”
Alumnus Turcotte was the principal trumpet player for the studio recordings; besides providing the music you hear when Hawke plays, he also played as both Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie in one scene.
“He did this perfectly and tirelessly,” says Braid. “I’m going to make him an Academy Award if he doesn’t win one.”
Born to be Blue premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. The historical drama looks at a turbulent period in Baker’s life with drug addiction and an attempted comeback. March 11 is the Canadian release date for the film, from eOne Entertainment and IFC Films International. The soundtrack will be released through Warner Bros. and Rhino.
See the trailer below:
Jessica Lewis is a writer with the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto