When Yale professor Harold Bloom was interviewed by NPR shortly after publication of Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine
(Riverhead, 2005), he was quite candid about his relationship with his own Judaism and Yahweh: Bloom:
... I may, as I say, lack trust in the covenant, but though I keep asking Yahweh to go away, I say so many times in this book, he won't go away. He haunts me. NPR:
You really want Yahweh to go away? Bloom:
Yes, I would love him to go away, but he won't. NPR:
He wakes you up at night. Bloom:
He wakes me up at night.
I suffer from the same suspicion and want of a cut-and- dried understanding of trumpeter/singer Chet Baker
(1929 -1988) as Professor Bloom did of his Yahweh. I want to simply dismiss Baker as a self-indulgent hack who recorded so much music, for so long, supporting of his famous heroin addiction that at least
some of it had to be good if not exceptional, while the vast majority was marginal if not downright bad. There exist legions proclaiming Baker as that wounded bird, pouring out his emotions through his trumpet or singing; a poor reader, he simply grabbed musical pathos from thin air by his sheer will and spun gossamer tales of loss and longing and was a pretty decent guy to boot. Conventional wisdom assumes the chemically dependent, and, be sure, Baker was
chemically dependent, with no emotionsonly that hard calculus of synthetic need with little or no capacity for empathy outside of that. These disparate views cannot possibly reconcile, can they?
In a media world where reality TV shows like VH1's Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew
and Sober House
, and A&E's Intervention
portray chemical dependency intervention, treatment, and recovery in discreet bundles, 44 minutes each, Chet Baker would stick out like poorly plumbed needle marks. A modern Werther, beautiful and doomed, Baker was a recalcitrant junkie, resistant to any type of rehabilitation, save for methadone (and that's not rehabilitation). He unfortunately outlived his youth and the era it existed in to become a musical coelacanth, floating through time-out-of-mind like smoke from a cigarette.
Baker was the poster child for the stereotypical addict: selfish, untrustworthy, reckless, and rootless. He was at it so long and paid so much dues for his lifestyle that he lost the spoiled, self- indulgent whining that made Celebrity Rehab de rigueur
opiate addicts Tim Conaway, Steven Adler, and Mike Starr so unsympathetic. On that note, forget about Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen, a junkie of Baker's caliber should give Drew Pinsky sugar-plum dreams of the perfect media patient for his above mentioned cotton- candy carnival show, to which Baker would have laid waste and Pinsky, spinning his hypothetical failure his way, saying "It's a consequence of the disease; they cannot all be saved."
In a disease characterized by dishonesty, in a very strange way, Baker found an honesty about himself and his furtive demand for the acceptance and enabling by others that most junkies never achieve because they don't live long enough. The people who dealt with Baker were those in complete acceptance of his addiction and its consequences (and their endurance of same): the trumpeter showing up late or not at all; the threat of marginal or even bad playing; and all of the other baggage that goes along with the yen. These people would have been labeled "enablers" or "codependent" or some other pop A&D contrafact from the 1980s. Yet, Baker's keepers accepted it all as fixed overhead. The thing that made Baker the object of such dense codependency was what filmmaker Bruce Weber called his "damaged beauty," an absolutely pregnant metaphor too big for this tome. And then, of course, there was the music.
A (mostly) functional heroin addict from the early 1950s until his death at 58 in 1988, Baker was able to do as he pleased, which was mostly get loaded, by always adopting a path of least resistance and learning never to get attached to anything, except temporarily to those benefactors who gladly enabled him. At the end of his life, Baker performed and recorded just enough, with anybody in any venue and for anybody to stay flush in his medicine. Because it is the nature of addiction, Baker had little regard for anyone or anything, save for the drug. Heroin, and not musicand certainly not his familywas the driving force that propelled him at the end of his life. To consider anything else is both romantic and naive, and there were many who embraced this.
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
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.