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Book Reviews

The Heart of Darkness or Die Leiden des jurgen Chet Baker

By Published: March 8, 2004
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.

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