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Funny Valentine - The Story of Chet Baker

Chris May By

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Funny Valentine: The Story of Chet Baker

Matthew Ruddick

828 pages, softback

ISBN: 978-1-907732-71-3

Melrose Books

2012

Grippingly written and meticulously researched, Matthew Ruddick's 828-page opus is the definitive biography of trumpeter and singer Chet Baker. More than that, it is a vivid account of the junkie subculture that ran through mid-to-late 20th century jazz, as seen through the incident-packed life of one of its most spectacular participants. The book combines some of the best qualities of saxophonist Art Pepper's unflinching autobiography, Straight Life (Schirmer Books, 1979), and Ian Carr's scholarly musical biography Miles Davis (Quartet, 1982). It is a compelling and authoritative page-turner in the highest rank of jazz biographies.

Baker, born in 1929, found fame early, in 1952, as a member of baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan's piano-less quartet. The affecting romanticism of Baker's trumpet playing was matched by his movie star good looks, and when, in 1954, his record company discovered he was also a proficient ballad singer, his future looked assured. But during the second half of the decade, Baker became a slave to heroin, effectively sabotaging his progress; other than during periods in jail, first in the US, later in Europe, he continued to use heroin and its various substitutes until his death in 1988, when he fell out of an Amsterdam hotel window. From 1959, Baker spent much of his time living in or making extended tours of Europe, and his mid-1970s US "comeback" was shortlived. But he could still, intermittently, turn the magic on: the 1987 album Chet Baker in Tokyo (Evidence)—which was recorded on methadone rather than heroin to avoid falling foul of Japan's strict drug laws—is amongst the best he ever recorded.

Ten years in the making, Funny Valentine: The Story of Chet Baker is informed by close on 200 interviews Ruddick conducted with Baker's surviving fellow musicians, partners, friends and associates. It also draws on Baker's As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoir (St Martins Press, 1997) and the previously published biographies Chet Baker: His Life and Music (Berkeley Hill, 2000), by Jeroen de Valk, and Deep in a Dream (Vintage, 2003), by James Gavin. Interviews with or articles about Baker in newspapers and jazz magazines are also quoted. All sources are noted. There are some great (and little seen) photos, and the book includes an 81-page discography with album commentaries. The only criticism that can be made of the book is that the copy editing could have been more consistently eagle-eyed, but that can be fixed in a second edition.

The success of a jazz biography can be measured by the degree to which it leads the reader to revisit the subject's recordings and, perhaps, hear some of them in a new light. In that, and in the way Ruddick deals with Baker's lifestyle, without either romanticizing or sitting in judgment on it, or shying away from the damaged lives it left in its wake, Funny Valentine: The Story of Chet Baker is as good as it gets.

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