CMW Preview: Jazz Crooner Matt Dusk On Chet Baker, Fashion And Success

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By: Curtis Sindrey

Jazz is ripe with tradition and history, and while many people cling to that history and its stars, Canadian crooners like Toronto’s Matt Dusk has taken what he has learned from the greats and molded it for a modern audience. With his new album My Funny Valentine: A Chet Baker Songbook, Dusk channels talented, yet troubled trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker, and its his goal to bring Baker’s unique style of west coast jazz to the east coast and beyond.

“Chet Baker is one of those guys that a lot of my peers know about but the public are aloof to him,” Dusk says. “He was a popular guy back in the ‘50s and ‘60s but he never crossed over into that teeny-bopper, Frank Sinatra status.”

“With this record I wanted to put a different spin on it in terms of making it more my sound and hoping that when people listen to my music they’ll go back and discover who Chet Baker was and why he was important in the grand scheme of jazz, specifically west coast jazz.”

Dusk wanted to illustrate Baker’s genius, not by regurgitating his greatest hits, but by diving deeper into his extensive career, he wanted to rejuvenate a string of Baker’s late-career gems to show a different side of the troubled star.

“There were a few songs that I had to put on [the album] like “My Funny Valentine” and “Time After Time,” Dusk explains. “I found that near the end of his career when he was on his way out, there was a certain innocence to the way he played on songs like “All The Way” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” so I want people to listen to not only “My Funny Valentine” but also his lesser known songs too.”

“[Chet Baker] was a popular guy back in the ‘50s and ‘60s but he never crossed over into that teeny-bopper, Frank Sinatra status.”

As more young singers burst into the industry, many aren’t turning to jazz standards, but instead pillowy pop tunes or club-thumping dance music. Dusk says that jazz is an acquired taste, and that whatever you sing; you have more competition than Chet Baker ever did.

“Young people will always be into pop music because it’s what their peers listen to and it’s free,” he says. “In the past, recording a record was such a different process because there was less of it, and less stars and now there’s not just one Chet Baker, there are three and a half of him, so it’s quite difficult to endure over the years because eventually you’ll be forgotten which is fine, I’m okay with that.”

If jazz is more your thing and you eventually want to become the next Michael Bublé, Dusk says that in order to succeed, your show has to be your number one priority.

“You have to be undeniably amazing in a live setting and you can’t replace that,” he says. “Artists spend months, maybe years making a record and they spend two weeks putting together their live show, it’s absolutely ludicrous because the live performance is where you communicate the idea and if you play in front of 20 people and you sell five CDs, that’s five new people who are your fans who want more of your music, but that only comes from live performance.”

How “packaged” are jazz singers these days? Are the crisp suits and shiny shoes just part of a strategy to sell more records? Dusk doesn’t think so. He’s been into suits since his childhood where he grew up with The Rat Pack and Hollywood movie stars like Cary Grant, who has served as a style icon to Dusk since he was a teenager.

“Wearing clothes is like wearing a costume at a Halloween party,” he says. “You are exuding an image and suits and the type of imagery that you see on the packaging is very reflective of the era that I’m singing from so why not go along with that.”

Dusk admits that he bought suits at Goodwill during his early career, but as he matured he recognized the importance of a good tailor and knowing how you want to look.

“Make sure that you’re wearing clothes that fit you,” Dusk says. “And if you’re unsure take it to a tailor because ultimately it has to fit you because what looks great on a mannequin might not look good on you.”

“The problem is that tailors are more difficult to find, they’re hidden, and if you find a good one don’t tell your friends or it will take you two months to get your jacket back.”

For the past several years, the music industry has evolved in such a way that fans are more inclined to purchase individual MP3s rather than full albums like they once did. Dusk says that there will always be a dedicated fan base for jazz artists because the genre caters to members of a certain lifestyle that still consumes full albums.

“[Nearly] 95 percent of my scans on this record have been full album purchases,” Dusk explains. “And the reason is that the music that I perform is more of a lifestyle music where people are now so used to pop artists putting out one or two great tracks and then filling out a record of sub-average songs and for jazz and classical artists, there will always be people who buy the full album.”

“You can spend little time and make millions of dollars as a musician or you can spend your whole life [making music] and make less than $7,000.”

With the release of a recent Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA) study, which concluded that Canadian artists spent 29 hours a week pursuing music and made $7,228 per year from music in 2011, the financial future of Canadian artists might look bleak, but Dusk argues that musicians must create their own opportunities and work hard, if not harder than their peers.

“When I started I wasn’t even making seven grand and I was spending more than 29 hours a week [creating music],” he says. “Ultimately, you can spend little time and make millions of dollars as a musician or you can spend your whole life [making music] and make less than $7,000.”

“Right now, I’m rehearsing and I do that for a minimum of three to four hours a day if I’m not on the road and if I am on the road I’m doing double that and if you put in 29 hours a week and you’re not succeeding in some way, you need to see why you’re not succeeding and to make a critique. Music is one of those things where we don’t really understand why some things work and why others don’t, but rehearsing and getting better will always make you have a better chance.”

Success has never been a priority for Dusk, who “always aspires to something better and higher,” and he says that you have to allow yourself to accept the gift that music brings.

“The fact that I get to do music for a living is success in itself,” Dusk says. “But the interesting thing about music is that it’s a bottomless pit and you always learn from it, so if you lose sight of that, than you lose [the reason] why music is awesome. Music doesn’t ask for anything, it just constantly gives and if you can’t take what it’s giving you than your learning will be [halted] by your own ego.”