Chet Baker: The Missing Years by Artt Frank

C. Michael Bailey By

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Chet Baker: The Missing Years
Artt Frank
234 Pages
ISBN: # 978-0-9887687-4-1

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. From "On The Banks of the Jabbok with Chet Baker," All About Jazz, 2012.

Since his death in 1988, trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker has been the subject of three biographies that when taken together, provide a temporal account of the musician's often turbulent life. The biographies must be considered together because each possesses a different goal in telling Baker's story. Jeroen de Valk, in his 2000 account, Chet Baker: His Life and Music (Berkeley Hills Books), focuses almost exclusively on Baker's music, providing an impressive, if necessarily incomplete, discography, with each recording rated one- to- five stars. As a resource on what Baker to listen to, it is excellent.

Author James Gavin's Deep In A Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker (Knopf, 2002) rather than addressing Baker's art (though the book does contain a discography and an accompanying compact disc representative of Baker's early work), focuses on Baker's life and behavior as a testament to burden of celebrity and its cost for the unprepared. It is a dire story criticized for being hateful to Baker's memory. Gavin's approach casts Baker in the landscape of the dark heart of the American Romantic Dream, the same dream housing the myths of John Henry, "Doc" Holiday, Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Foster Kane. It is not a pretty story.

The most recent and well-balanced of the biographies is Matthew Ruddick's superb Funny Valentine: The Story of Chet Baker (Melrose Books, 2012). Ruddick, writing in Funny Valentine, cites three elements 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 (Ruddick also provides a well-considered discography with ratings); and third, Baker's "stay[ing] true to his principles from a musical perspective, no matter what misfortunes he suffered in his personal life." Indeed, Baker has been viewed, largely in the American press, as a cultural artifact almost completely separated from his music, which is less than fair.

Baker has also been viewed too often from a new millennium perspective (looking backward through a prism of "reality television") rather than as a product of his time. With advances in understanding the chemical dependency disease concept and its treatment, allowing that Baker never had the opportunity for progressive or truly effective treatment, it is time that the obvious be acknowledged and the revealing light of biography focused in a different direction. Baker deserves an account of his more personal aspects sans the voyeurism of schadenfreude clotting our American "reality" psyche.

That said, James Gavin in Deep in a Dream further sharpened the contrast between Baker supporters and opponents with two quotes, the first from Italian pianist and Baker accompanist Enrico Pieranunzi:

"For American people, Chet was just a drug addict... [In Italy] we felt he was a great artist with a great problem. He was a man who needed help. He found a lot of friends here who felt his fragility, his shyness, his inner drama. He was so sweet when he played, so mysterious. Somehow he was able to express the question mark of life with so few notes. In Italy, we're more sentimental, and we felt that very much."

Baker's early collaborator, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, buffered this difference between American and European attitudes in more romantic terms:

"It was a case of worshiping the self-destructive artist who dies young in a garret full of unpublished music or unsold paintings or something... It's a Christ-like image of self- immolation. That's something you encounter a great deal. You don't find it a lot in America."

What the complete biographical picture of Baker has been lacking is a personal recollection of the artist, one detailed from ground level, close up and in real time. Until now, Baker's life has been viewed from 30,000 feet in panoramic fashion where day-to-day detail is lost in the biographic minutiae of dates, people and places. This deficiency is at least partially addressed in the first volume of drummer and actor Artt Frank's memoir, Chet Baker: The Missing Years.

Frank, an aspiring bebop drummer, then in the armed services, first encountered Baker through the trumpeter's early recordings on Armed Forces Radio in 1952 or '53. He was completely taken with Baker's purity of sound and innate understanding of swing. Frank first made Baker's acquaintance in- person in 1954 while Baker was appearing at the Boston jazz club Storyville and Frank was living a couple of hours away in Maine. Frank drove from his home in Westbrook to see Baker perform. The two men met and made plans to perform together, a plan that never occurred. The two men went their separate ways only to meet again several years later, while both were living in the Los Angeles, Frank in Culver City and Baker in Redondo Beach.

Frank's memoir is delivered as a conversational narrative more intent on telling a story than weighing down that story with academic and biographic minutiae. I have filled in the dates of certain events for perspective and clarity. The first of these dates was a Monday, July 25, 1966 when, while Baker was performing at the Trident Club in Sausalito, was assaulted by a group of men, sustaining damage to his teeth and face, affecting his ability to play. It was about a year later, in late June or early July 1967 that Frank happened to pass the Los Angeles jazz club Donte's (a favorite of Art Pepper's) and saw that Baker was appearing. Frank went to the club, reintroduced himself, finding Baker in desperate straits. Baker was just being let go by the club because of a lack of business. Flummoxed, Frank began his sojourn, the center of this story, to help Baker that in the present volume would last until late summer 1971.

The central plot of the remainder of the memoir is a detail of Baker's and Frank's intersecting lives during 1967 and early 1968, when Frank was able to secure Baker a three night ride at West Hollywood's Melody Room, located on Sunset Boulevard across Sunset from the Whiskey A Go Go. Historically, the Melody Room would later be transformed into the famous Viper Room on whose front sidewalk a 23-year old, polyintoxicated River Phoenix would expire October 31, 1993. In the period between their initial re- meeting at Donte's and their appearance at the Melody Room is detailed by Frank, a period consisting of Baker and Frank painting houses, Baker practicing and rehabilitating his chops as well as warding off opiate withdrawal with all of the attendant events accompanying such a life.
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