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Bill Moody's Looking for Chet Baker
By Neal Shaffer

Well, he should have died as he lived—quietly, in shadow, but with an open-ended intensity that all the heroin in the country couldn’t eradicate. Chet Baker wouldn’t have made it simple. We know he fell from that Amsterdam window, but why? Perhaps he was pushed. Jumped? Maybe he was asleep. He might have thought he could fly. The official word is he simply fell. No evidence of foul play. And what difference, really, does it make? Certain lives conspire to infuse their conclusions with mystery, whether it belongs there or not. But that leaves us, his fans and, to some degree, his descendants, in a bind. We want to know, and we know we never will.

Anybody can piece together a portrait of his life. Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost is not only a moving portrait of Chet’s final years but an excellent documentary. J. De Valk’s Chet Baker is a thorough, if spotty, biography. And Chet told his own story, or part of it, in As Though I Had Wings, a sort of impressionistic memoir. Until now, however, there has been no widely available account of his final days.

Bill Moody has taken a shot at changing that. The author and musician has given Chet’s death the deluxe treatment in his new novel Looking for Chet Baker (Walker Books, 2002). The book is the fifth in a series, and in it he weaves the facts of Chet’s life and death in Amsterdam with the fictional adventures of private eye/jazz pianist Evan Horne. The end result reads like a medium-boiled pulp as filtered through Downbeat. There’s enough mystery to satisfy fans of the style, and enough Chet that even fans might learn a thing or two.

Mysteries are a tricky genre. At their best—think Ross Macdonald, Richard Stark, Raymond Chandler—they hover just below the existential terror of Camus or Sartre and just above the pure dimestore of the Erle Stanley Gardner variety. It’s a nearly impossible balance to strike, as evidenced by the dearth of credible examples from the present and recent past. Moody’s book doesn’t quite get there. But he’s got something else going on that puts his book in another class. He’s got, however precariously, Chet Baker.

"I think Chet, maybe more than anybody, kind of transcends the jazz world. You know, when he came out and was very young, he was compared with James Dean." This is Moody speaking, reached recently by phone at his San Francisco home. He’s made an impressive, if small, name for himself as a kind of jazz jack of all trades. His writing credits are varied (he’s also a noted critic), and he’s a well traveled musician who’s played with Lou Rawls, among others. "A lot of people who don’t necessarily know anything about jazz have heard of Chet Baker."

It’s this fact that sustains the interest of Looking for Chet Baker. It’s nearly impossible, if you possess an interest in Chet’s life, to not get caught up in Evan Horne’s quest to find out exactly why and how he died. Moody takes the reader through the back streets and hash cafes of Amsterdam with a familiarity that shows he’s been there himself, without ever getting too cozy. It’s a nice balance, and one that makes for a quick read. Along the way he drops a litany of facts about Chet that he gleaned from serious journalistic research. The end result is as definitive a version of Chet’s last days as will ever be published. But it’s not exactly satisfying.

"My belief is that he really did just nod off and fall out the window." This is Moody’s conclusion, and it jives with everyone else’s. Hell, it’s probably the truth. It’s not Moody’s fault that it isn’t sexy, it’s simply his burden in publishing a work such as this. It would be very, very nice to find out at some point that Chet’s death had a hidden excitement, a conspiracy of pushers and thugs, to vault his legacy that much higher. One never knows, but we must be content for now. It isn’t likely to change.

And that’s OK. Chet’s music will never cease to amaze, and neither will his life. If his death never quite satisfies it’s a small thing that needn’t cause much worry. Moody’s book remains a quality read. It’s not one of the best mysteries out there, but it’s by no means one of the worst. For Chet devotees it’s worth a look, ditto mystery lovers. For everyone else it’s a footnote to a long and vexing story with no clean end in sight.

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