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On the Banks of the Jabbok With Chet Baker

By Published: September 30, 2012
Chet Baker was light on a lot of things. He did not have formal musical training or an expansive musical vocabulary, he did not have a high range in his trumpet playing, he did not have vibrato in either his singing or blowing. But worst of all, he totally lacked the good fortune to die young, leaving a spectrally vibrant Romantic image. Instead, Baker showed us ourselves in a decades-long slow-motion train wreck, falling down the stairs of a burning building, highlighting the results a life of taking the long slide: rootless, baseless, and alone.

But what about the music? Ah, there is the quandary. While Baker went all Dorian Gray before our eyes over thirty years, from the almost feminine matinee idol beauty to the desiccated, shabby Baroque death mask, he remained, at a very high level, capable of producing compelling jazz, that complex and often densely improvisational art. It is an enduring dilemma that we often consider Baker only in the context of himself, comparing the different performances, both live and recorded, across the expanse of his 40 performing years. Baker attracts positive and negative criticism like a celebrity black hole— the artist as hero and antihero. When considering Baker, you consider no one else.

However, the view from 30,000 feet (and 25 years since his death) reveals something much different. In reality, Baker was something more than a footnote and something less that a seminal artistic force in jazz. His narrative has provenequally as important and compelling as his music, something that the similar chemically- circumstanced Art Pepper
Art Pepper
Art Pepper
1925 - 1982
sax, alto
was able to escape, if only partially, in the period before his death in 1982. For good or bad, Baker's repertoire and approach changed little over his career and that seemed okay as he always maintained a core following (particularly in Europe) that were ready to eat him with a spoon on the off chance, specifically at the end, that Baker had a "good" night.

Since the turn of the century, there have been three biographies of Chet Baker, not counting his "memoire" As Though I had Wings (St. Martin's Press, 1997). Jeroen de Valk published his near hero- worship Chet Baker: His Life and Music (Berkeley Hills Books, 2000), providing a good survey of Baker's discography, which was no easy task considering the profligacy with which Baker recorded to continue his lifestyle. De Valk's notes on Baker's more important recordings, particularly those recorded shortly before his death, are excellent.

The second biography to come along was James Gavin's Deep In A Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker (Knopf, 2002). Gavin chose to focus on celebrity and its cost for the unprepared. Deep In A Dream deals very little with Baker's musical legacy, while focusing on the evolution of his visual and behavioral image as a modern day morality tale gone very, very wrong. Gavin has been roundly criticized for being hateful to his subject and rendering a one sided account of his life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Baker made his bed, not Gavin. What Gavin did was to compose a Late Romantic tone poem to the dark heart of the American Romantic Dream, that dream that houses the myths of John Henry, "Doc" Holiday, Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Foster Kane. Should one want an example of wanton character savaging, I direct them to Albert Goldman's Elvis (McGraw Hill, 1984) and The Lives of John Lennon (William Morrow & Co., 1988). Those were, in the words of Greil Marcus, cultural genocide.

One of the results of Gavin's biography was a push by other writers to provide more balance to Baker's life picture. One such effort is Matthew Ruddick's excellent Funny Valentine: The Story of Chet Baker (Melrose Books, 2012). In his prologue, Ruddick noted that one editor's response to Lisa Galt Bond's proposed (and never published) Baker biography, Hold The Middle Valve Down was that Baker's life was "too much of a downer to make a commercially successful book." Television, like the aforementioned Intervention and Addiction, would indicate otherwise if his media was expanded (the consuming public's practical illiteracy and allergy to reading is a matter for another time). The word for this behavior is schadenfreude, pleasuring one's self with the misfortunes of others. And, Baker had many of those.

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