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Book Reviews

The Heart of Darkness or Die Leiden des jurgen Chet Baker

By Published: March 8, 2004
Deep In A Dream
James Gavin
Alfred A. Knopf
2002, 430 pages
ISBN: 0-679-44287-1

Early in James Gavin's finely crafted biography of the brilliant and troubled trumpeter Chet Baker, the author quotes long- time Baker associate Enrico Pieranunzi opining,

"For American people, Chet was just a drug addict...[In Italy] we felt he was a great artist with a great problem. He was a man who needed help. He found a lot of friends here who felt his fragility, his shyness, his inner drama. He was so sweet when he played, so mysterious. Somehow he was able to express the question mark of life with so few notes. In Italy, we're more sentimental, and we felt that very much."

A bit earlier, former Baker employer Gerry Mulligan framed the trumpeter's Messianic appeal in Europe in this way: "It was a case of worshipping the self-destructive artist who dies young in a garret full of unpublished music or unsold paintings or something...It's a Christ-like image of self-immolation. That's something you encounter a great deal. You don't find it a lot in America."

These attitudes somewhat sell short the Romantic American spirit, a spirit that tends to the darker side of Romanticism. One needs only to consider our country's preoccupation with the Wild West gunslingers of the late 19th Century and the Midwestern gangsters of the early 20th century to identify the American Romantic Ideals of rebellion and contradiction. Both are in our blood. The dark American Romantic archetype is that of the beautiful, talented, and doomed. Two splendid examples are that of John Henry "Doc" Holliday, the consumptive dentist, taro dealer, gunslinger, and associate of Wyatt Earp who roamed the Western United States creating myths and legends. The second is author Edgar Allan Poe, who's brilliant and dissolute life and strange death are still the topic of historical conversation. Add to this esteemed list perhaps the life most representative of the dark side of the American Romantic Myth, Chet Baker.

It is difficult to read Deep In A Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker and consider the life of Chet Baker without having mixed feelings. Gavin takes a black and white snapshot panoramic view of Baker's dissipated life and presents it in a savagely honest manner, as if under bright lights. From this biography, this critic can conclude that Chet Baker was a typical compulsive substance dependant who was only interested in getting high and all else (including music) was secondary to that desire. Baker's behavior can easily be explained and defined by what William S. Burroughs referred to as "the algebra of need." In that same breath, this same critic can look upon Baker as every Romantic invention applied to him: Dorian Grey, Jesus Christ, Werther— The tortured artist, flaming out into nothing, leaving only his art. Furthermore, Baker represents the archetype for the American Byronic Hero, that individual with abundant natural good looks and unrefined talent who touches culture in some fundamentally positive way. But, in this scenario, this hero possesses a fatal character flaw, leading him to his death earlier than necessary and in a squalid and pathetic manner.

Author James Gavin is previously best known for his book Intimate Nights: the Golden Age of the New York Cabaret, which won ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award. His liner notes for Ella Fitzgerald: the Legendary Decca Recordings received a 1996 Grammy® Awards nomination. In Deep In A Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, Gavin provides an unflinching portrait of opiate addiction and all of its ramifications. Better than Art Pepper's Straight Life or Hampton Hawes' Raise up Off Of Me, Dream is fully engaged in describing drug seeking behavior at its most desperate. If is fair that Gavin spends so much time on Baker's addiction because it is that addiction that defines the trumpeter so completely and confounds his ardent listeners so fully.

But Baker's opiate addiction is not all Gavin addresses. In an immediately engaging, straightforward style, the author tells of Baker's confused childhood, son of an alcoholic musician father and doting mother, his teenage years in Southern California, where the family moved from their Oklahoma home, and Baker's two stints in the military. Gavin details Baker's emergence as a professional musician in the early 1950s with a complete account and miss-account of Baker's performances with Charlie Parker during the latter's stay in Los Angeles in April of 1952. With a workman's detail, Gavin highlights Baker's principle relationships: with Gerry Mulligan, Manager Richard Carpenter (composer of "Walkin'"), and all of the Baker's wives and principle loves. To the end, all relationships were fractious and damaged by Baker's chemical proclivities.

The most crystalline writing in the book surrounds the period of Baker's first European tour and his arrest and incarceration in Italy on drug charges between 1955 and 1962. Baker's troubles in Italy juxtapose ironically against that country's adoration of the him. His substitution and acquisition of dextromoramide, a synthetic opiate related to methadone, for heroin provides a substory replete with textbook case studies in scamming doctors, forging prescriptions, and breaking and entering into pharmacies to obtain the drug.

Emphasized also was Baker's habit of accepting a flat fee for recording in lue of future royalties, a decision that would dramatically affect him and his burgeoning family. It was all chickens or all feathers for Baker, who either possessed a considerable amount of money or none at all at any given time. The latter was true more often than not, due to his considerable drug consumption.

The biography ends with Baker's mysterious and sordid death from a fall from an Amsterdam hotel window followed by his body being embalmed too late, and being badly decomposed by the time it made it to Southern California for burial.

An absolutely perfect companion to this fine biography is Blue Note Record's release with the book of Deep In A Dream: Ultimate Chet Baker Collection, a clever compilation of Baker diamonds from his years at Pacific Jazz, Fantasy Records, Blue Note, Riverside, Jazzland, and World Pacific. Listening to the disc is like hearing in black and white through cigarette smoke and compliments the same tone the biography takes. Chosen for the collection are many of the songs discussed in the book as standard of Baker's. The disc is bookended with perhaps his most famous song, "My Funny Valentine." An Instrumental version from 1952 opens the disc and a vocal version from 1954. Between the seams are previously unreleased vocal "Let's Get Lost," the theme song from Bruce Weber's 1988 bioptic of the same title and a 1956 Italian television performance of the Billie Holiday gem, "You Don't Know What Love Is," presented starkly with no hope. But, perhaps most outstanding is the stunning unreleased a cappella renditions of "Blue Room" and "Spring Is Here" from 1953. Here Baker's perceived innocence is almost perfect. After having read the book, hearing Baker sing from "Blue Room" how ..."everyday is a holiday since you married me" comes off as down right chilling.

With Baker's overall discography is out of control, this collection is an excellent place for the uninitiated to begin an acquaintance with Chet Baker and his music. It offers as excellent examples Baker's largely untrained vocal and trumpet style and is not unlike considering Bix Beiderbecke's genius in light of his lack of formal music education. The release of Deep In A Dream: Ultimate Chet Baker Collection marks a trend of releasing a disc with the biography of a musician. The same was recently done with a recent Hoagy Carmichael biography (Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael, Richard M. Sudhalter, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002: ISBN 0195131207 and Stardust Melody: Beloved and Rare Songs of Hoagy Carmichael, Challenge Records, 2002).

Finally, Bruce Weber's Let's Get Lost is considered at length in Deep In A Dream. Weber, most famous for his homoerotic depictions of men for Calvin Klein clothing ads, could be found guilty for a complex and obsessive voyeurism regarding Baker. Shot in black and white, Let's Get Lost definitely shows Chet Baker at the end of the road. Baker was to die while the documentary was being edited. Obsessive or not, Let's Get Lost, remains compelling. Most striking are the comparisons of the young and old Baker, in appearance and vocal style. On Deep In A Dream: Ultimate Chet Baker Collection, Baker sings in his flat, angelic, vibratoless style, typified by a very tight vocal tone. In Let's Get Lost, Baker's voice is a husk of what it once was, though it is still compelling. It would be easy to compare the late Chet Baker with the late Billie Holiday, but this critic considers Baker at the end as parched art, used up and exploited to the point of nothingness while Holiday was indeed a cry from the wilderness on Lady In Satin.

In the end, Chet Baker may best be summed up as a 20th Century Richard Wagner. Unsavory, self- indulgent, and densely amoral, yet capable of the most sincerely beautiful and innocent music one can imagine. It is true that chemical dependency will ultimately force the afflicted to behave in unsavory, self-indulgent, and densely amoral ways and that can ultimately be forgiven. But often this memory of selfishness that is all we are left. Extending that philosophy, Chet Baker cannot be held responsible for his bad behavior because of his illness. It is always the message and never the messenger, but somehow this line is still blurred with Baker, who we can't see as anything other than the complex and tragic figure he is.

But regardless of all, I can never hear "My Funny Valentine" any other way.


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