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Book Reviews

As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoir

By Published: March 4, 2004
As Though I Had Wings:
The Lost Memoir
By Chet Baker
St. Martin's Press, 1997

Baker, Chet - Chesney Henry Baker. Born Yale, Oklahoma, December 23, 1929. Died Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 13, 1988. Trumpeter and singer.

Chet Baker was both an original jazz artist and a cultural icon. His early trumpet playing was (no pun intended) instrumental in establishing the genre of "West Coast Jazz," and he went on to do recording dates, nightclub gigs, and concerts with many of the jazz greats of the ‘50's through the ‘80's, for example Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, and Stan Getz, to name but a very few. The quality of Baker's playing may have varied, but he always displayed a unique style, a keen awareness of melody, chord structure, and timing, and an ability to sense the meaning inherent in the lyrics and the tunes. As Charlie Parker noted when he recruited him into his group in L.A. in 1950, Chet played with admirable simplicity and in the tradition of Baker's idol, Bix Beiderbecke. As a singer, what he lacked in voice he often made up for in a laconic and rather sexy style all his own.

Beyond his music-making, Baker achieved the status of a cultural icon somewhat unique in jazz annals. He evolved from virtually a sex symbol to a representative of a lost generation seeking to be themselves yet never finding themselves. Increasingly addicted to opiates, and having a string of wives, girlfriends, and prison sentences, he drifted around Europe and the United States in a rather aimless way, but always striving to sustain his unique counterculture identity while being faithful to his art. Finally, he died a tragic death, falling from a hotel window in Amsterdam for reasons no one has yet been able to discern. His persona was captured in Bruce Weber's film, Let's Get Lost, which presents Chet in vivo, his history, and the moments he passed with significant others, rather candidly and yet with a certain post-romantic, even cult-like aura.

Recently, a notebook written by Baker containing casual writings about his life set in more or less chronological order, was unearthed by a magazine writer and guided to publication by his last wife, Carol. To call these musings "memoirs" seems a bit of an exaggeration (the book is only 118 pages chronicling a life of some fifty-eight years- that's about two pages a year!) More accurately, they are a series of brief reminiscences of experiences that, taken together, capture in "snapshot" form something of how it must have felt to be in Baker's shoes day after day, year after year, as he approached adulthood in the Army, played his music, met various and sundry examples of humanity at its best and worst, used copious quantities of drugs and alcohol, detoxed himself in jails and drug treatment programs, etc. This is a minimalist autobiography, embodying the narrative of a life in a sparse series of recollections. Remarkably, the book succeeds in going beyond its obvious egocentricity to something that touches the tragedy of all human life, and it holds ones interest from beginning to end.

It would be easy to pan this book. In fact, Charles Taylor, at the "Salon" Website, does just that. He points out the lack of details and the apathetic "ennui" of the writing while being critical of the way Baker lived as well as pointing out his very real musical shortcomings (which would be obvious to anyone who listened to his recordings- one can enjoy and admire Baker's work while one is also aware that he had genuine limitations as an artist.) On one level, As Though I Had Wings represents a has-been's cheap thrill of writing down a few memories, the "What I did Last Summer" of a confirmed opiate addict. Tantalizing vignettes about Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and other musicians comingle with tedious items about jail terms, detoxing at Lexington, his several wives, problems with the authorities.To quote Taylor:

"‘As Though I Had Wings' ambles along in a lackadaisical ‘and then I did this ...' groove (and then I got my first trumpet, joined the army, got a girl pregnant, etc.) whose standard show biz bio surface is disturbed by the occasional inclusion of obscenity or the tossed-off revelation that Baker was chipping around with heroin."

True as far as it goes.Yet, despite the book's superficiality and banality, there is a certain bathos and genius in these pages which endows it at times with magnetic and lasting significance. For instance, early on, Baker, inducted at age 16 into the armed forces, travels to Germany and joins an army band there. He buys a boat and spends many hours sailing on the beautiful Wansee, a lake outside Berlin. He has a daydream about a beautiful woman appearing on the shoreline. He is convinced she will appear and that they will become lovers. She does- and they do! But sadly, her motive in the relationship is to obtain help to get out of Germany, which she eventually accomplishes with another cohort. This memory, and the style in which Baker writes about it- with a certain tenderness and appreciation of lost youth- expresses the dreamlike, fantastic quality inherent in much of jazz and particularly in Baker's own playing and vocalizing. And it captures the irony of loss characteristic of the blues and other jazz-related idioms. Such moments that display a certain sensitivity of feeling consistent with the music are for this reviewer the high points of the book.

Without fanfare, Chet also makes a powerful statement about the futility and inhumanity of law enforcement efforts to control the small-time addict, among whom was Baker as well as so many fine jazz musicians. Much of Baker's life was spent coping with the law and spending months in drab prisons. In this, he was far from alone among the jazz artists of his generation. (Coinicidentally, there were at one point so many top jazz instrumentalists in San Quentin, that then-Governor Jerry Brown staged a chic concert there, with the prisoners/performers in tuxedos!) What a cruel waste of a precious national and international resource.

I doubt if the Baker afficionado will find anything new or revealing in this book. We eagerly await James Gavin's upcoming biography of Chet to fill in the details and perhaps give us some new insights. Nor will As Though I Had Wings become a literary classic. However, I do recommend it as interesting reading for jazz fans while hanging out at a capuccino joint, or late at night while listening to some of Chet's recordings. Enjoy the blues!

Vic Schermer is a psychologist and jazz aficianado in Philadelphia, PA. He is a regular contributor to All About Jazz and other jazz venues on the Worldwide Web. Vic welcomes thoughts from readers and will respond. Contact Vic.

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