Éditions Fayard, Paris
Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing to piece together a documentary film about the life of jazz trumpet player Chet Baker? You say there's already a film about Chet? OK, but what if this film were to use testimony from his musical colleagues, rivals, family members, fans and others to weave a portrait of his life from start to finish? You say that many of those people, notably Chet himself, are dead? As a second-best arrangement, then, how about gathering what all of those people wrote or told an interviewer at some point in the past about Chet, and compiling a book? What? A lot of them didn't record their thoughts about Chet? OK, then, how about asking one of France's most celebrated novelists, with a profound knowledge of and sensitivity toward jazz, to make up all that stuff? That sound good?
It doesn't? It should; in fact, Alain Gerber's Louie (2001), which was told entirely in the voice of Louis Armstrong in his early thirties, showed that having a masterful novelist speak through Louis, while it doesn't match the virtuosity of a Hot Five recording, does sound better than Louis's own autobiographies. (Who knew that a boyhood in New Orleans could be treated as a Garcia Márquez novel? When the awful images of Hurricane Katrina were broadcast, my first thought was of Armstrong's/Gerber's surreal evocation of bodies floating in a flooded New Orleans around 1905: Katrina was another, awful, Garcia Márquez novel come to life in New Orleans.)
Chet (2003) substitutes thirty voices for Louie's one. It's an artful move because one of the novel's themes is the fundamental elusiveness of Chet's character (so unlike the magnanimity of Armstrong in this regard). Everyone here talks about Chet, including Chet himself, they talk a lot, they say a lot of things but once those words have quieted, Chet remains very enigmatic. He slips through your fingers. (Is it any coincidence that the first witness to intervene is nicknamed "Slipper"? It is, you say?) This is deliberate on Gerber's part: he presents this as the key to Chet's musical objectives as well: to be sufficiently light, light enough to fly.
Gerber's Chet is in this respect like a melancholy short story called "El levee Pedro," by the Argentine cuentista Enrique Anderson Imbert. In that story, the titular Pedro is thought to have escaped death early on, but it turns out that he hasn't after all; over the course of the rapid narration, he becomes less and less substantial, floating in between the sheets at night, waking up in the morning scraping against the roof, until at last a sudden current of air sweeps him out the window, "like a feather." This is like Gerber's novel in a lot of ways, but what I want to point out is that Chet seems to want to be like Pedro, or at least wants his music to be like Pedro, to have the same leve corporeidad, "slight corporeality."
This is not altogether fanciful speculation, in terms of Chet or Gerber's characterization of him: Chet's real-life autobiography was called As If I Had Wings (presumably a reference to the lyric of "Like Someone in Love," sung so wistfully by Chet with pianist Russ Freeman in Los Angeles in 1956); in Gerber's novel there is a wonderful, completely imagined, sequence late in the book in the Italian countryside where Chet actually flies with the help of some man-made wings. And of course there was his final "flight," like leve Pedro's, out the window of an Amsterdam hotel.
Along the way there are several extraordinary characterisations. In keeping with the slightly elegiac tone of the book, perhaps the best are tragic early deaths, like Chet himself: Dick Twardzick, the superb pianist and composer with whom Chet recorded in Paris in the mid-1950s (these are considered by many to be Chet's finest recordings); Serge Chaloff, the West Coast lion of the baritone saxophone (check out Blue Serge in the cut-out bins if you can find it). Some are fictitious: Oscar Greenspan, Chet's gay army buddy and a classically-trained musician; Jean-Philippe Coudrille, the fan who follows Chet during decades, revelling in the obscurity of the object of his devotion. In addition, Dizzy, Bird, Paul Desmond, Jimmy Rowles, Riccardo del Frà and a host of others make cameos.
For the jazz fan, there are many felicitous moments, things that people might not have said in fact, but should have. Early on Chet grouses that the problem with Dizzy Gillespie's soloing is that he insists on being eloquent even when he has nothing to say: how succinct, how apposite! Chet's life-long obsession with Miles Davis, is there, in the background, throughout. And there are drugs, of course, Herculean quantities; Jean- Louis Chautemps, the musician and writer whose words in the novel are genuinely his (Gerber interviews him in the middle of the book), tells us baldly that "the question of drug addiction is completely unavoidable." Indeed, the book begins with the awful 1966 assault ordered by a dealer that hadn't been paid. For years, Chet simply could not play, but he doggedly worked to get his chops back. Looking back on the episode, Gerber's Chet says ruefully, "To play the trumpet, you need mysteries, fears, illusions. Also, you need your teeth...." The contrast between Chet's gee-whiz pragmatism and the details of his increasingly sordid existence is the crux of Gerber's portrait, the source of the tenderness that endeared him to so many people he knew, and that informed his musical conception as well.
Gerber's novel is not a novelisation, it's a novel: there are all kinds of plot elements that please devotées of novels, including several denouements near the end of Chet's life. One, involving a Los Angeles judge on the stage of a dive on the Lower East Side, redeems the otherwise clumsy elaboration of the character (who furthermore has links to the tough who beats up Chet in 1966the interconnections are a tad too Robert Altman-esque among this subset of characters.)
Since Chet, Gerber has produced two further novels in the same format: one on Charlie Parker (2004) and one on Billie Holiday (2005). You can listen to his moving radio program, Le jazz est un roman, on France-Musique.