The profoundly swinging guitarist and admirable man Little Charlie Baty has died of a coronary at 67. I promised myself I would not make this site a necrophile’s amusement park, but I make exceptions for people I knew, people who made strong impressions, and Charlie was one. I was only in contact with him last May, but his loss is fierce to me.
Saturday night, Marc Caparone joined the conversation at the Jazz Bash by the Bay to tell us that Charlie was gone. I was physically stunned. It was sadly appropriate that we should get the news from Marc, because he was the first person to ever mention Charlie’s name — this guitarist who played just like Charlie Christian, who really swung, who was genuine. I filed that praise away, as one does, hoping that I would hear Charlie in the flesh — which happened at the Redwood Coast Music Festival.
I have evidence, which I treasured when it was happening, treasured through watching and re-watching, and treasure more now — video recordings from May 11 and 12, 2019. I am reproducing the links in full, not my usual practice, in hopes that readers will stop what they are doing and dig in.
First, a groovy set with boogie, blues, and a lovely HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN:
Then, Baty Plays Christian — rocking not only the room but the neighborhood:
A few thoughts. Marc told me of Charlie playing I GOT RHYTHM for twenty-five choruses and making the crowd stand up and cheer. I can believe it: Charlie would have been very happy at the Reno Club in Kansas City c. 1936.
Charlie could thrill a crowd, but virtuosity for its own sake wasn’t what he came for — flaming the fretboard, as a guitarist friend once called it. He lived the music and he lived to share the feelings of songs with us. So his playing was strongly melodic, even through the runs and blue notes, the sharp dynamics, the small dramas-in-swing, the shifting harmonies and variations on variations. A Baty solo was like a short story: it proceeded logically from start to finish; you could analyze its architecture after the fact, although at the time you were swept along by invention and momentum.
He rocked, to put it simply. And he knew it, so part of the pleasure was watching a master’s sweet assurance in his craft.
When I first saw him in person, my five-boroughs skepticism kicked in. This was “Little Charlie“? This broad-shouldered man, like me, might wear a suit from the Portly section (a good deal of real estate in front, around the belt buckle) which he carried without embarrassment: Here I am, and I don’t have a problem with myself. If you do, find another damn place.
His assurance wasn’t arrogance, but it was an easy, perhaps hard-won, self-knowledge, and I saw him as an experienced ship’s captain, later a tribal chieftain, as he told a few stories to us after the set.
When I introduced myself to him, he was gracious in an unfussy way and he made me feel comfortable. Later, when I shared the ecstatic videos with him, he was splendidly grateful and gracious — in private and in public. I saw him in person for perhaps three hours and exchanged a dozen sentences with him in person, and perhaps another handful of emails and Facebook call-and-responses.
So why do I feel so bereft, why is there a large space in the universe where Little Charlie Baty was, and now is not?
To me, both in his playing and in the way he carried himself — powerful yet sometimes understated — he radiated an authenticity, a disdain for posing, that will remain admirable to me. One way to walk through the world; one way to make the air full of melody.
Goodbye, Charlie. Swing out. And thanks for your brief, blazing visit to my world.