On the Banks of the Jabbok With Chet Baker
Ruddick goes on to cite three things missing from previous Baker Biographies: first, identification of the "human" element, that Baker was more than his addiction; second, an appreciation for Baker's music; and third, Baker's "stay[ing] true to his principles from a musical perspective, no matter what misfortunes he suffered in his personal life." Gavin never intended to address the music. He left that for the reader to research as he or she saw fit. Jeroen de Valk had just published an excellent working discography that could be used with Hans Henrik Lerfeldt and Thorbjorn Sjogren Lerfeldt's exhaustive Chet: The Discography of Chesney Henry Baker (Jazzmedia, 1991) to further investigate Baker's music. The real bone to pick here is in the first and third items. Once Baker's addiction became full blown that was his focus, not his family, not his music... the addiction. It is the nature of the beast and trying to make it other than that is so much retro-hopefulness, readers and listeners today wanting some indication that there was something else good motivating Baker and his art.
Ruddick's biography is certainly definitive. It is well-plotted and easily read and followed. He is meticulous in following the itinerant Baker across four decades and continents, keeping the story in a chronologic order that can be superimposed over a sprawling discography, thereby giving structure to the structureless. His account of Baker's addiction is more bracing and stark than Gavin's, if anything. For the majority of the story, the middle sections, Baker is submerged in addiction, recording poor or uninspired music, only bobbing to the surface with exceptional musical statement a few times before fully springing up and treading water in the two or three years before his death.
Ruddick captures these highs as well as the lows and puts them fully in perspective, giving the reader and potential listener a roadmap to Baker's often confused late-period discography. While there were many, many bad nights, the good ones do warrant attention. Ruddick keeps his promise addressing Baker's music with a selected annotated discography that fills out de Valk's nicely. Both authors rate the Baker releases using five stars, with Ruddick being much stingier than de Valk, giving them to only one release, Chet Baker In Tokyo (Evidence, 1987). Curiously, de Valk calls this Baker's best release but gives it only 4.5 stars. The two writers fall into order if one equates de Valks 5-star rated releases with Ruddick's 4.5 star discs.
Baker's musical legacy early in his career is fairly well settled with his recordings with Gerry Mulligan and the piano-less quartet, his own Chet Baker Quartet: Featuring Russ Freeman (Pacific Jazz, 1953) and his Barclay recordings with doomed pianist Dick Twardzik noted as historic. Both authors agree on the importance of Baker's drummerless trios of the mid-1980s, with guitarist Philip Catherine on Chet' Choice (Criss Cross, 1985) and pianist Michel Graillier on Candy (Sonet, 1985), and Baker's final performance with the NDR-Big Band and Radio Orchestra Hannover, The Last Great Concert (Enja, 1988).
But I still lacked perspective regarding Baker. I have owned and listened to a pile of his music, often viewing him as a radioactive specter emitting musical waves toxic with the rest of his story. His trumpet playing was often pinched and tentative, and his singing was an acquired taste if there ever was one. But for all of these reservations, Baker's music has always remained compelling to me. Completely untaught and unable to read music, Baker had no business playing anything as well as he did, let alone jazz. But, this same could be said of other jazz autodidacts like Erroll Garner, Stan Getz, and Buddy Rich. In the end, Chet Baker was Chet Baker and no one else. How many artists can boast this?
Ruddick channels musician and writer Mike Zwerinmost notable as trombonist in Miles Davis' nonet on The Birth of the Cool (Capitol Records, 1957). From a 1983 article, Zwerin wrote: