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The New Republic Online
Thursday, June 13th, 2002


 

Deep in a Dream

by James Gavin

My Unfunny Valentine

A review by David Thomson

In the early hours of a May morning in 1988, a body was found on the street outside the Hotel Prins Hendrik in Amsterdam. Its skull was crushed from having landed on a spiked post; the body seemed to have fallen from a window of the hotel. Later there was some dispute: had the man fallen or jumped, or had someone even pushed him? This is a book about dementia, hallucination, and drug trance, and so I am inclined to confess that I think it may have been me or someone who had read the whole of James Gavin's book and followed the long, long night to its bitter, entirely predictable, yet endlessly delayed closure. I don't want to be unkind, and in this case it was surely mercy if some angel gave the man's frail back a tender, guiding push. We are talking about Chet Baker, after all; and, as many people attest in this book, he had been dead for years already.

Not that this truth had turned many people away from the living legend, and that now is the point of the whole thing. If you treasure Chet Baker, if you have all his recordings of "My Funny Valentine" and "Let's Get Lost," and if you revere the desperate effort to hit flat notes, to stretch more paining pauses, to disappear into the ether, then buy this diligent book, but do not read what I have to say about its subject. I have enormous admiration for the stoicism of James Gavin in sticking with his subject. He cannot always keep out of his story his own natural horror at the mess called Chet. And he must know the monotony of these hundreds of pages in which the trumpet player shoots up once every paragraph, and takes longer and longer to get through "My Funny Valentine."

Gavin has done his research, seeking out those left alive in Baker's toxic wake. He has coaxed the grim stories from them, the tales of the wicked seductive angel not content to destroy only himself. Baker was out to bring everyone down. It would not surprise me if just to get through the labor Gavin needed an hour or so every night listening to something as cleansing, explosive, and hopeful as Louis Armstrong, Lee Morgan, or Clifford Brown, or anyone who knew how to pick up a trumpet and blow, as opposed to using the instrument to enlarge an exquisite, maudlin, and grisly sigh. No, I do not like Chet Baker, but I honor the patience, the method, and the fidelity of James Gavin's book. We will see how many people can get through it.

Chesney Henry Baker was born in Yale, Oklahoma on December 23, 1929: a bleak place, an inauspicious time. The father was weak, alcoholic, a failed musician; the mother was manipulative, devoted to little Chettie but likely to turn on him for disappointing her. The boy had a knack for singing sweet sentimental songs before his voice had broken, and the mother found the shy drone so pretty that she dragged him to local talent shows. The mother thought that it was cute to have the child singing sexy lyrics. Other children called him a sissy. What did this mean or do to Chet? Well, go easy on the meaning. As one later girlfriend noted: "You gotta realize, Chet was not that intelligent. He did not know what he was doing, on that level, ever. He just did it."

Later in the book it will be observed that Chet really had only two things in life: playing the trumpet and doing drugs. He noticed or registered very little else, and though he craved a certain kind of adoring female company women he could beat up sometimes and share heroin with he was essentially unaware of their lives or their needs. That may have been hard, but it was hardly unfair, for he had no real life of his own. Indeed, he threatened suicide and lived as perilously as he could, not just by constantly using drugs but by choosing to drive at reckless speeds any car in which he found himself. You have to wonder whether, with a few more smarts, he wouldn't have managed an early death. If Chet Baker had died in, say, 1955 James Dean died that year, and he was only two years younger than Baker then the musician's legend would now be close to untouchable. Maybe it is a lesson in how providence preserved Dean from his own confusion or boredom.

The family moved to California as war loomed, and Chet seemed like a bright kid. He was a good athlete, and when he acquired his first trumpet in 1943 he showed (without any lessons) a rare, mindless talent. He could hear a tune and copy it. At Redondo High School he got into the band by turning up and listening to the audition piece from Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla. "It's the most incredible thing," said the first trumpeter. "The first time through, the guy hardly played a note. The second time he cut my ass. But the worst thing is, he never once pushed the right valves down."

Not that this odd skill drove him. By 1946, he was a difficult kid, flunking out of school, a pin-setter at a bowling alley, a boy known for driving cars wildly on the beach and having girls in the backseat. So he joined the Army, and got posted to Germany. In fact, he re-enlisted after a first eighteen-month tour, and then got out on the grounds of being psychologically "unadaptable." Much the same verdict covered his first marriage, to a forlorn pick-up named Charlaine. So by 1952 he was on the loose, a bit of a doper already, a conniver, with a front tooth missing that hurt his technique, but still this phenomenal moony romantic trumpet player. Another musician watched him and heard him and remarked: "I've never been around anybody who had a quicker relationship between his ears and his fingers. I believe Chet was kind of a freak talent. There's no figuring out ... where he learned what he knew."

That speaker was Gerry Mulligan, who was set to launch Baker on the three unmistakably great years of his aimless life. These years are also, not surprisingly, the high point of this book, a vivid, exhilarating, but ironic account of the great shining moment of West Coast jazz. (Gavin does so well with it that I suspect he could handle and enjoy a life with less monotony and more energy than little Chettie's.) Mulligan was white, insecure, pretentious, desperate for respect, and nearly as ponderous as his chosen instrument, the baritone saxophone. But he had ideas, one of which was a pianoless quartet. Mulligan heard of Baker because the trumpeter had shared a date at the Trade Winds Club in Inglewood with the declining Charlie Parker: a weird pairing, the broken genius and the magical amateur. The event was much decorated by Baker in later stories; but on the recording of the date he is evidently out of his depth, though learning.

Anyway, Mulligan hired Baker into an all-white quartet that tended to play shuffling, romantic versions of standards with a hushed, husky intimacy. They seemed to be recording into the bottom of a glass more than into a mike. Yet the result was a sensation: best-selling records, dates everywhere, girls lining up at the club's back door, heroin. It was all as white, druggy, and stricken as Marilyn Monroe's blonde hair in her last years. Listening to the stuff again, I think the best to be said for it is the sweet simplicity, and the degree to which Baker's striving, plodding sincerity is a large part of the musical effect. He was trying, in the way we all try to sing in private. He had a cunning skill at copying things that he heard, but technically he was hobbled, and close to idiotic if he risked more than teenage dreaming.

But then there was the way he looked. Truly I think that the Chet Baker story was, from start to finish, based on his appearance. He was pretty, he was handsome, he was cute. If you know actors of the time, he had a little bit of Dewey Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Tab Hunter. And he had one of those pronounced jaws that boxers love to hit. It looks like hewn rock at first, but killer fighters know that the chin is made of glass, or confectioner's custard. In other words and I think this is vital to all of Baker's life his look held extraordinary hints of strength and weakness. Girls were drawn to him in hordes, and so were gays. For that latter section of the crowd, there was no doubt about what was "funny" about the valentine though Baker seems to have been as vigorously homophobic as 1952 itself. Gavin finds no evidence of homosexual relationships, though he seems to guess that many men were drawn to Baker and enthralled by him based on very mixed emotions.

At first, that was secondary. Gerry Mulligan (who fancied himself a ladies' man) was miffed that the girls wanted Chettie's autograph on their album covers. And those first records were an international fad. Gavin marvels that they seem to have sold no more than ten thousand copies each. That doesn't seem right, and I would politely propose further inquiry into the files of Joe Glaser, Baker's manager then, and the man who carried Louis Armstrong through his great career on an easygoing fifty-fifty basis. But Baker never noticed such things. The money went through him as fast as the smack. He never practiced and he never rehearsed; he never learned how to manage a group and pay the guys and do the taxes. His fiscal sense was no more or less than needing a quick twenty for a fix before he could play.

Yet the image was his guiding light. Early on, a young photographer and jazz fan named William Claxton took some pictures of Baker. It was only as the photographs developed, swimming into life in the tray, that Claxton saw what he had:

Without the photograph Chet was sort of a nice-looking, athletic guy; he kinda looked like an angelic prizefighter. He had one tooth missing, so he looked a little dopey, and a sort of fifties pompadour in his hair, but then you put him in front of a camera and he became a movie star. He knew instinctively what to do ... he could concentrate on his music and still turn into the light, away from the light and all that, knowing that he was being photographed. So I think he was very, very shrewd.

Claxton erred in only one detail. There were a few attempts to put Chet in a real movie. The problem was that he could not move, talk, or act. He was an Adonis of the still photograph. (Again the comparison with Marilyn is interesting, for she had a radiance when she was still, a self even, that she often lost in movement.)

Claxton posed Baker with a new girlfriend named Hallema Ali, and the pictures became icons for an age edging into a kind of sexual ambiguity that it could not yet explain. The record sleeves and their images of Chet Baker were essential to his success and his cult. He was a star in that he was pasted up on kids' walls. And it was that personal stardom that encouraged the looniest tune of all: Chet Baker Sings, that sublime contradiction, and the ultimate protection for his fragile technique and his limited repertoire. He could not sing, of course, and this was quite different from his genuine, if narrow, range on the trumpet. When he sang, though, he was the voice of every aspiring adolescent. It was the sound of wanting to be Chet Baker. It was like Bill Clinton wanting to be president.

There was another thing to be said about this West Coast jazz, and its projection of a few white kids as symbols for the age. There, in the early 1950s, it spelled out a degree of racism that must have been ruin for so many great black musicians, some of them with a talent, a character, and a passion that daunted little Chettie. It was said to have been one of the reasons why he needed so much smack. If you want one piercing detail of that tendency, the statistic that explains why great blacks couldn't get work, try this: in the 1955 poll of readers conducted by Down Beat magazine, Baker won with 882 votes, while Clifford Brown, dead very soon after in a car crash and a genuinely magnificent artist, scored 89 votes. It is rather like preferring Danny Ainge to Magic Johnson.

Smack was only a half-step behind the beguiling light of the photographs, and it was the fate of many jazz musicians of that era. Gavin is very fair on the ways in which drugs came as a natural aid to the unstable touring life of the musician. I wish he (and other people) had noticed, though, the odd way in which jazzy inspiration is automatically linked to drugs, while the transcendence or the concentration or the "zone" of great classical musicians somehow seems to avoid such things. Of course, the legend fosters the reality, and just as the jazz life had managers such as Joe Glaser and groupies such as the chicks who gaze at Chettie in photo rapture, so it had suppliers and dealers, and also the larger vacancy of mind that believes that drug-taking is a freedom instead of a prison.

Gavin is just as clear on the way heroin is like sex or guns or language: it reflects the nature of its user. Stan Getz and Art Pepper (white, too, and pretty good-looking: Getz was once called the Montgomery Clift of the tenor sax) were both heroin users. And with both of them you may hear the drug in the sheer ecstasy of the music. I hate to admit it, but I suspect that they played better because of it. Getz in the early 1950s, his worst days as an addict, is chronically inventive, elegant, and energetic. Chet Baker used drugs, I think, to mask his limitations as a musician.

He was in serious trouble by 1955. It was in that year that his friend and co-player, the pianist Dick Twardzik, died of an overdose. He was found in a Paris hotel, bright blue, with the needle hanging from his arm. Gavin explores this event in powerful detail. The two men had been very close: some speculated that if there ever was a gay episode in Baker's life, Twardzik was it. Moreover, it is possible that when Twardzik overdosed, Baker abandoned him, ran away, did not go for help, did not want his own career put in jeopardy. There is no proof for such callow behavior, but no reader of this book can come away struck by Baker's moral courage. There are all too many instances of his sudden, chilling indifference to people who had been close to him. There were some who felt that Baker's lavish mourning for Twardzik was a sign of guilt, and one more reason for plunging deeper into heroin.

There were always Chet Baker fans able to separate the "art" from the life. They said to themselves, and to him, that the ruin and the damage to others (including his own children) were offset by the beauty of the music. And there were always some people who found the keening sound of the man beautiful and important, as opposed to just unique and eerie. Gavin steers a sane middle course, and it is only gradually that a reader plucks up distaste. There is no stronger moment than when Gavin quotes the flat-out moral disapproval of Art Pepper, from his remarkable memoir Straight Life, which appeared in 1979. Pepper gives Baker a fictional name:

Billy Wilson plays like he is. When I knew him, when he was young, he was a real warm, sweet, loving person. And he plays just that way. But if you listen to his tone, it never was very strong; it's pretty and kind of cracking. It's weak. And when he was faced with prison because he got busted for using drugs he couldn't stand it. He couldn't go because he was afraid, and when they offered him an out by turning over on somebody he couldn't help but do it. He's a weak person. That's the way he plays. That's the way he sounds.

Baker became entirely unreliable. On one date, the singer Annie Ross recalled, "he went to the loo and never came back." He was arrested and did time on Riker's Island. But thereafter he seldom got more than probation, which was a sign that he was informing on others. Withdrawing to Europe, he got in more court trouble in Lucca in Italy. And then, in San Francisco, he was beaten up one night so that he lost his teeth. Again accounts vary, depending on how people viewed Baker. (It is striking that hardly anyone ever thought to trust anything he said.) He claimed that a gang of blacks jumped him in the Fillmore district, but others believed that he had been savagely rebuked for trying to defraud his own drug dealers. It is likely he no longer really knew what had happened. But he was a physical wreck with another twenty-five years or so to go.

The pretty kid became a famous walking corpse. He lost weight. His skull shone through his papery skin. He moved and played with a fatal slowness. He sang more and more to excuse himself from playing. Yet I am sure there were nights often in Europe when some high, some upward swing in his amazing constitution, some flicker of happiness, made him play well for ten minutes. Or better than well. He believed in inspiration, and so he deserved his moments.

You could not behold this Chet Baker without imagining every terrible story of the ruin and the depravity of the jazz life. I saw him twice in San Francisco in the 1980s, playing to full houses, and many in the audience whether they would have admitted it or not were there wondering if they might see him drop dead. He was a "survivor," it was said; but he was also a death in progress, and the atmosphere was hideously morbid. He might just as well have shot up on the stand, for that was the secret message to the whole act.

Still, until I read this book, I never knew how hard he worked. Even in the 1980s he could be earning $200,000 a year, which was a huge sum as jazz declined. Of course, he spent every penny on smack. He was always traveling to a new date, and on many occasions he would insist on driving himself he loved driving, and he terrified the other members of his bands who had to go along. There were women, several of them uncommonly intelligent, and they all contribute to this book, while wondering why and how they stuck it as long as they did. It is clear that Baker was a very clever, devious man, a natural seducer, and a master of cunnilingus (another part of the legend of young men with a horn).

Toward the end, his other lover, the camera, came back. Richard Avedon did a shocking series of pictures on the living corpse, and then Bruce Weber arrived in 1987 to make a lovely and fatuous documentary film called Let's Get Lost, the fascination of which is undeniable, even if you want to wrap both the camera and its subject in shrouds. For there is a stardom, too, in being a ghoul. This helps to explain the worst part of the whole thing. As a man and as a musician, Chet Baker had settled for the ennoblement or the glamorization of self-pity. You can see why that worked for him. He was weak, and he made weakness seem beautiful. But years later, having grasped the curiosity of the man as a musician, do we still have to be as feeble and as necrophiliac as those Down Beat voters?

I have a final point. I do not mean to suggest here that white people cannot play jazz. I have praised Stan Getz and Art Pepper, and there are hundreds of others I might have mentioned. Baker, in my view, could not play jazz, and did not play it. He did torch songs on dead batteries. And I think that there is a link to his regard for blacks. He was an Okie and to the end of his days he seldom chose, or enjoyed, black sidemen. More than that, he felt overshadowed by the force in black music. There is a fabulous passage in this book in which Gavin tells how Baker was routed in a perverse double-billing with Miles Davis in New York in 1954. It was not a fair fight, and I daresay its humiliation affected Baker all his life. But he never got over the way in which life was not fair, whereas that harsh truth is the condition that inspired jazz to make up its music, just as it is the drive that makes the blues blue.

David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film will be published by Knopf in October.


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