Chet Baker sings My Funny Valentine, theres
little choice but to stop and just listen. His
is the definitive version, and its infused with
the understated intensity that defined his style. When
Baker is at his best, which is often, nearly every note
is exquisitely placed and leads to a mosaic of textures
and sounds that only the most skilled and intuitive artists
can reach. Whats even more amazing is that Chet
Baker could do it with two instruments, his trumpet and
theres something decidedly enigmatic about the experience.
He doesnt knock you down with brilliant technique
like Sinatra or lull you to a dream state with restraint
like Stan Getz. He has an elusive quality, an ability
to express, that may best be called "soul."
To get to that point is not something one can set out
to do. There must be context, a set of circumstances that
shapes the work like practice and talent alone never could.
And with Baker, to start to peel back the layers of his
life is to get caught up in one of Americas most
fascinating and tragic hard luck stories.
Baker was born in Yale, Oklahoma on December 23, 1929.
After some school and a stint in the Army, he started
joining jam sessions in California while still a teenager
and was a full-time jazz musician by the age of 21. He
became a superstar while playing alongside Gerry Mulligan
and was a major force in shaping the "West Coast"
sound. After breaking with Mulligan, forming his own group
and spending some time in prison on drug-related charges,
he won the critics and readers polls in Down Beat
in 1953, at the age of 23. At this time, the only thing
that rivaled his talent was his good looks. A series of
photographs from his early years by William Claxton reveal
a camera-friendly star quality that no other jazz musician
could touch. And then there were the drugs. By all accounts,
Baker started early and had a voracious drug habit that
often threatened his livelihood.
to a point, his story was perfectly scripted. The jazz
James Deana talented kid from the Midwest with teen
idol good looks and a thirst for strolls on the wild side.
Dean is just one of a host of tempting comparisons. Theres
also Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Keith Moonany
one of them would seem to do nicely. In these cases, logic,
as shaped by tradition, dictates an early death. If that
had happened, there is no doubt that his place in history
would be with the others in the pantheon of fallen heroes.
But Chet Baker didnt die young. His death in 1988
at the age of 58 was nothing if not the fulfillment of
prophecy, but for the rest of the world it was too little
list of mishaps he compiled is staggering. He lost his
front teeth in a street fight in San Francisco and eventually
had to be fitted with a denture, usually a death knell
for horn players. He suffered through two broken marriages
and a concurrent string of unsuccessful relationships.
His inability to manage his financial affairs resulted
in minuscule one-time payments for recording sessions
that made far more for unscrupulous label executives.
His drug addiction dogged him constantly, to the point
where he not only spent time in several prisons and rehab
centers but was persona non grata in Italy due
to outstanding warrants.
fall, jump or push out of an Amsterdam hotel window that
marked his final tragedy was strangely, disturbingly,
fitting. Yet, right up to that time, he was prolific.
In fact, some of his best work was recorded in 1987. Despite
this, he had been an exile of sorts for nearly thirty
years, spending most of his time roaming through Europe
and Asia. The American audience had tired of him by the
late 50s, and although his albums continued to sell
well, he had been stripped of star status.
are tempting logistical explanations as to why this might
have been. Baker himself stated that he preferred the
European audience because of its respect for jazz as an
art, rather than a commercial exercise. And jazz in America
had moved into fusion, a style Baker never indulged. But
these fail to resolve the central question: how is it
that someone so perfectly American could produce such
marvelous work for such a long time and yet die practically
real reason is that Chet Bakers story is one of
profound sadness. Its simply too ugly, too sad,
to romanticize. His addictions never consumed him, they
were part of him. Thats the reason that a song like
My Funny Valentine belongs so specifically to him.
In his hands, its infused with an emotion and depth
no other singer or player, not even Sinatra or Miles Davis,
can match. He wore his heart on his sleeve in a body of
work that stands as one of Americas most impressive
jazz legacies. But the very thing that set him above his
peers and made him a superstar also eventually damned
him to obscurity.
the American audience to embrace tragedy, it has to be
coupled with innocence. James Dean remained a boy in death,
allowing the collective mothering instinct to kick in.
For the most part, that formula holds true across the
board. But Bakers story is more analogous to that
of Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs, or perhaps most
strikingly Marlon Brandomen who lived (or, in Brandos
case, continue to live) well into adulthood and, with
some exceptions, continued to do inspired work. But a
lack of repentance, or ability to repent, quickly makes
a tragic hero ugly and thus impossible to embrace. In
this process, some of our greatest creative artists get
cheated out of their due.
there are artifacts that shed light on the part of Bakers
life the broader culture chose to ignore. Late in life,
he attempted an autobiography that, although it was never
finished, has seen the light of day as As Though I
Had Wings: the Lost Memoir. And shortly before his
death, he was the subject of Bruce Webers documentary,
Lets Get Lost. Taken together, the two provide
an enlightening window into the life behind the work.
Though I Had Wings is surprisingly engaging. At roughly
100 pages, it reads with ease and interest. Its clear
from the quality of the writing that Bakers major
talent was for communication, and words were every bit as
much at his disposal as were his horn and voice. Theres
something eerie about the detached sadness with which he
tells his stories. It shows that for him these things were
not the product of narcissism or fame but were intrinsic
to his being; they came every bit as naturally to him as
his music. While he never addresses death specifically,
its clear that the potential haunted him at every
turn. After reading it, his music takes on still more depth.
If it werent beautiful, it would feel awkward, a glimpse
into someone elses problems that you dont feel
you deserve to get.
feeling is even more evident in Webers film. Its
one thing to read about Bakers tenuous grasp on
life and quite another to watch it unfold. Webers
use of black-and-white cinematography is stunning and
is a perfect complement to Bakers fragile physical
state. His face is wrinkled and worn far beyond his 57
years, and his energy is so low that he is barely audible.
On one hand, its amazingly sad and almost painful
to watch, but on the other, its quietly inspirational.
His beauty is intact despite his haggard appearance, and
he emits a quiet, dignified love of life and art. Its
impossible, really, to feel pity for a man who shows no
signs of feeling it for himself. Whats left, then,
is to marvel at the fact that Chet Baker milked his one
life for experiences and productivity, which would more
than fill two or three others together. The film has been
out of print for some time, and its doubtful that
itll ever come back. But there are copies around,
and its absolutely worth the effort to track one
funeral was sparsely attended and marked with little fanfare.
Of his old friends, only pianist Russ Freeman showed up.
And, with the exception of aficionados, his work is now
essentially a footnote. Tellingly, Ken Burns much-vaunted
documentary series Jazz makes little mention of
Baker, except in connection with Mulligan.
a few years of death generally do great things for a career,
there may never be a perfect time for a Chet Baker renaissance.
Nevertheless, Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio have both
been rumored to play him on film so the time will undoubtedly
eventually come. But before it does, there are ways to
get a more nuanced appreciation of Bakers life.
His music remains some of the finest jazz ever recorded,
and the memoir and film are valuable sources of context
that are also interesting on their own merits. Chet Bakers
legacy speaks volumes about the world around it and serves
better than any other to reflect our own values about
the nobility of the suffering artist.