As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoir
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.