On the Banks of the Jabbok With Chet Baker

C. Michael Bailey By

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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.

Ruddick agreed with the editor, regarding Gavin's book. While admitting that "The book was very well researched, drawing on a large number of original sources...it was ultimately a depressing story, a tale of squandered talent and a harrowing descent into drug addiction." Well, that is exactly what Baker's story was and is and Gavin never claimed to capture anything else but the very public celebrity and its necessary downhill tumble. Ruddick goes on to defend his intentions, "Whilst there is no denying the tragedy in Chet Baker's life, I felt that Deep In A Dream focused more on Chet's lifestyle, rather than the music he left behind. I wanted to paint a more balanced portrait." Ruddick did exactly that, but not at the sacrifice of the hard story.

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).
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