The Magazine

West Coast Cool

The failure of Chet Baker.

Sep 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 02 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Deep in a Dream
The Long Night of Chet Baker
by James Gavin
Knopf, 416 pp., $26.95

AT THIRTEEN, living in Marin County, California, I worshipped Chet Baker, the trumpet star of "West Coast" jazz. I also idolized the saxophonists Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, and Lee Konitz, a sax star I saw repeatedly in an obscure restaurant where underage kids were admitted. There was something that appealed to adolescents in their music; they often favored upbeat melodies like "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me" that weren't far in spirit from mushy pop ballads.

But Mulligan, Baker, and Getz were also victims of heroin, and as I got older I watched them fall apart (like Baker), or fall away (like Getz, who became world famous playing another form of pop jazz, bossa nova), or merely fall off the horizon (like Mulligan and Konitz). I already knew, as a teenaged jazz fan entering the 1960s, that there was a difference between West Coast cool and the East Coast styles of Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Ahmad Jamal, and Yusef Lateef. I had to live a few years more to understand the meaning of the difference, which naturally had to do with race.

California cool, invented by white boys, was a simulacrum of jazz. Real jazz, even at its most exhilarating, was a product of deeper, more despairing forces. As a trumpet player Baker tried to bridge the gap, gravitating between pretty songs in the picnic idiom of 1950s Southern California (he even recorded mood music with strings) and his own obsessional form of musical melancholia. But his art failed appallingly.

Baker lived in Marin County for a time. After a disastrous series of European tours, he returned to San Francisco in the mid-1960s, where he became famous for blowing off club dates and getting his mouth messed up by a beating, probably the outcome of a bad drug deal. Then it was back to Europe and more junk. His career, but not his reputation, was revived again in the 1980s, when his creepy, inept singing drew attention from the punk generation, and people in San Francisco went to see him on the presumption he might drop dead on the stage.

Who would care? At the beginning, in the early 1950s, Chet Baker seemed extraordinarily gifted. His trumpet style was glossy--so glossy, it often seemed soulless. He was a natural prodigy with no training, and his work with other musicians was complicated by the fact that he did not know what key he or they were playing in. He had the unique gift of virtuosity on a musical instrument at first contact and an ability to reproduce a song almost perfectly after hearing it a couple of times. And, except for a missing front tooth, he was ravishingly handsome, with a fetching pout, chiseled cheekbones, and a pompadour. Luck was generous to him; early in his career he was elected the world's top trumpeter by the Down Beat readers' poll, beating Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis by a wide margin. His bizarre talent and the acclaim that greeted him meant he had never had to pay any dues learning his craft. Called the "James Dean of jazz," he pursued the role with enthusiasm.

"Deep in a Dream," James Gavin's biography of Chet Baker, is a troubling document. It chronicles Baker's relentless descent from Californian godhood to utter ruin. When Baker was found dead on an Amsterdam sidewalk in 1988, a lot of people were glad to see the last of him. Detail upon detail in this volume reveals the full round of his junkie vices: idiotic lies and fabrications, endless petty scams, wife-beating, abandoned offspring, corruption of the impressionable young by turning them on to heroin. He was also an ignorant, arrogant racist. Chet Baker was born in Oklahoma, and his family's peregrination from there to California reminds one of "The Grapes of Wrath" as it might have been if Jim Thompson had written it.

And yet, every once in a while, his music has its attractions, and Gavin's biography swings back and forth between undiluted praise for "Chettie" and a palpable loathing. Gavin writes of Baker's 1968 appearance on Steve Allen's television show, "When he played a song he knew well, 'These Foolish Things,' he embarrassed no one. His lyricism had mostly returned, though he had to focus with all his might to make it safely to the next note, like a child taking his first steps. With Vietnam War reports following on the eleven o'clock news, Baker's performance seemed like a quaint trip back to an era of taffeta prom dresses and kisses stolen inside Dad's Chevrolet."