Shooting stars 

Chronicling the tragic arc of jazz great Chet Baker

One thing to take away upon reading Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker is the consolatory thought that no matter how desperate, drugged, lawless or lamentable you may become, you can say, “Well, at least I’m not Chet Baker.”

The choice of song title as book title by James Gavin is fitting, as “Deep in a Dream” was one of Chet Baker’s standards during his long career in jazz. It also sums up the way he spent over half of his life—34 years, give or take an innocent or wasted year—as a high-functioning heroin addict. Arguably, a biographer’s focus on a musician should be bent toward music. But in viewing the front- and back- photos of Baker on the book jacket, a trumpet-wielding matinee idol and a drug-ravaged scarecrow, respectively, one suspects there is more in the interval that is just plain bent. Author Gavin has the delicate task of taking an already highly publicized and sensationalized life and presenting it in such a way as to not drown the reader in the pathos of junkiedom. On the other hand, he can’t just head in the opposite direction toward a sterile, clinical analysis of Baker’s jazz. What Gavin is able to do is tread the line between legend and reality, letting us view the man as we are able.

Chet Baker’s youthful success seems a perfect combination of gift and timing. Nothing spectacular defined his birth; no star formed above the dustbowl in 1929. Yet everyone who remembers “Chettie” saw something related to providence. Truth is, Baker grew up poor, moving from shack to tract as his parents struggled through the Depression. What set him apart from his fellow Okies was his looks. The hollow-cheeked, square-jawed features that made all the girls swoon would one day turn heartthrob into walking cadaver, but the small-town Romeo story that could have unfolded was to be blown away by the intervention of a pawned trumpet.

Like the Joads, the Bakers moved west to California, and this proved particularly fortuitous for Chet. California was culturally much more alive than Oklahoma, and bebop jazz was beginning a groundswell in the ’40s that would influence him greatly. Yet Baker was not simply pretty, he was delinquent. Arrested for stealing cars and given a choice of the army or jail, he enlisted and made his first real musical progress while in the infantry band. He immediately distinguished himself from his fellow musicians, as he would time and again, as something rare: a natural musician who couldn’t read music but played by pure instinct. It would make him the object of envy and scorn, as some said he made a practice of ripping off the well-established styles of other trumpet players, most notably Miles Davis.

Baker’s ascent to stardom was amazingly fast. A brief appearance with Charlie Parker in 1952 opened a door into the prestigious Gerry Mulligan Quartet. When Mulligan’s animosity (some would say jealousy) drove him away, he formed the Chet Baker Quartet and began to record on the fledgling Pacific Jazz label. The first albums were heralded by Down Beat magazine as the height of California Cool with Baker as the great white hope, claims that further distanced him from any credit or respect from the primarily black East Coast jazz community. The pictures didn’t help: Baker in a white T-shirt, head down, leaning on his horn; Baker lying across the lap of exotic girlfriend or loving wife. William Claxton, in the ’50s a novice photographer, began to photograph Baker almost exclusively in tableaux that would pave the way for the likes of Bruce Weber, the moody model mentor who would later film the Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost.

Playing with Parker and Mulligan, Art Pepper and Stan Getz, all heavily entrenched in their own addiction, also influenced Baker. Always self-possessed and self-involved enough to have flashy cars, beautiful women and almost everything else on his terms, Baker leapt into the seamy side of jazz as though to prove himself. It proved fateful. Baker’s optimal combination of appeal, talent, and opportunity was at that moment willfully dismantled by Baker himself. From then on, life became purely about survival—though it never ceased to be about Chet.

It’s hard to say which is more peculiarly commendable: that Baker first played paying gigs at the age of 20 and continued to tour virtually non-stop until his death at 58; that his discography numbers well over 100 albums; or that his holdover jazz of the hip ’50s survived and even flourished well into the insipid ’80s. Commendable that he returned countless times to Europe, where fans seemed to have the greatest appreciation for his work; peculiar that his consistent touring was predicated on his ability to consistently score. Commendable that his back catalog reads like a Who’s Who in Jazz History; peculiar that he signed away every right of ownership of that catalog for the more immediate need to buy drugs. And commendable by all accounts that Baker only improved his art and became more emotive as he grew older. Peculiarly enough, he didn’t seem to enjoy it at all.

Though the stories of how he got his teeth knocked out and of his shooting up into jugular or scrotum are particularly memorable, there is more to Baker’s existence than heroin. There are the musicians and fans who helped him record and continue to work. There are the women who were terribly important in keeping him alive, even when he tried to kill them. There are his children, admirers of their father who never really knew him. All changed by It—by him, as an extension of the drug. The only thing that really does prevail is the music. And there’s a point where you cease to look for an explanation and chalk it up to free will.

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