Chet Baker: His Life and Music
Jeroen de Valk
Paperback; 296 pages
Berkeley Hills Books
The legacy of jazz trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker, particularly that developed after 1980, has largely evaded detailed analysis. In the 25 years since Baker's death, following a fall from an Amsterdam hotel window, May 13, 1988, a clearer picture of the artist has emerged in the form of two excellent, yet whole disparate biographies, James Gavin's Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker (Knopf, 2002) and Jeroen de Valk's earlier Chet Baker: His Life and Music (Berkeley Hill Books, 1989, revised 2000). Much ink has been spilled supporting the "more balanced treatment" of de Valk and denigrating the "hateful" Gavin account. If telling the truth is "hateful," then Gavin is guilty as charged. What he cannot be held responsible for was the train-wreck-of-a-life Baker led, providing the subject matter for the biography: every promise broken, every responsibility not met. This is a case where these two biographies together tell a more complete story than either separately.
De Valk's book has a considerably different focus than Gavin's, whose was necessarily social observation and commentary oddly detached from larger movements in art. Where Gavin focused on what William H. Burrough's referred to as "the algebra of need," laying bare the logistics of heroin addiction, De Valk instead honed in on the specific recording landmarks, in their environs, produced by Baker from the wasteland of his addiction. Valk dwells less on the nitty-gritty of Baker's addictive behavior and more on the afflicted artist, who had more bad days than good, but when good, was sublime.
De Valk is reverent of his subject, possessing the characteristic European view of Baker (as well as many other expatriate jazz musicians) as a very great artist with a very great problem. His attention to Baker's discography is a welcome addition to the Baker bibliography. De Valk provides two chapters devoted to "a selected discography" of essential or near-essential recordings for the Baker-phile. In the following chapter, the author addresses Baker's entire catalog, replete with one-to-five star ratings. These chapters go a long way to bringing order to a discography as confused and confounding as its subject's life.
Where de Falk fails in this biography is as Baker's apologist. There is too much discussion of emotional intensity in Baker's playing and singing alongside such observations as, "Chet expresses himself within the limits of a restricted emotional span. It is a theater, from which all passions are banished, an art with a prohibition of all vibrant colors..." It is a bit had to reconcile the two, and in fact, no reconciliation is necessary. Baker played and sang as he played and sang, sometimes very well, worthy of all the attention he continues to receive. But more often, particularly from his comeback until his death, he was merely mediocre, if not downright bad. Baker spent a life flying under the radar culturally, thereby defining his subculture, where he became what he lived, a cliched icon, the poster-child of the jazz life years after it ceased to be stylish to be so.
In the final Chapter, entitled "Quite a Regular Guy," de Valk quotes Italian photographer Cecco Maino:
"We cannot judge Chet's behavior with normal human values. He lived his own life in his own world. He didn't consider his junkie life a tragedy: he injected heroin the way we would drink a cup of coffee...as long as he could play his trumpet and have his heroin, Chet was happy. His only tragedy was a loud drummer, or a pianist who was too personal. He didn't care about anything else: parents wives, girlfriends and friends came after the above two essentials..."
Quite a regular guy?
This is so much of that beautifully European Romantic nonsense that elevated Baker to the status of sacred ruins. "He lived only for his art...all else was collateral damage." It is the total ignorance of this collateral damage, even to those willing to enable Baker, that proves this otherwise engaging biography's major shortcoming. It borders on the cult of personality. It is particularly insulting to read the circumstances surrounding the financing of Baker's funeral by director Bruce Weber, noting that Baker's family did essentially nothing, and ultimately faulting them for it. The author and those interviewed were never on the dirty end of Baker's stick of neglect as his family was.
De Valk's biography remains essential for the author's keen criticism of Baker's many recordings, as well as, identifying the best of Baker's late recordings. Chet Baker will remain that clouded figure, defying on every front any attempt to capture his legacy in prose. The greatest tribute to Baker is that his life and music continue to spark much pathos and analyses.