The Magazine

West Coast Cool

The failure of Chet Baker.

Sep 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 02 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."

One has to ask how much of Baker's lyricism was really lyrical. It was easy to like West Coast jazz in 1961, when the whole world looked youthful, optimistic, and cool. Once the world began to look uncool, Baker, assisted by opiates, withdrew into total alienation. Thus the upbeat, cocktail jazz Mulligan and Baker began turned into the tormented, weird style which Baker carried on. California cool turned Arctic cold.

BAKER'S RANGE--which, in the end, isn't very great--may be sampled on the CD that accompanies Gavin's "Deep in a Dream." The centerpiece is "My Funny Valentine," first in Baker's trumpet version with Mulligan and others, and finally sung without accompaniment. The effect is pretty strange. The trumpet performance, which Baker's fans praise beyond reason, could better be entitled "My Fatal Valentine" or "Music to Stalk By." Baker's vocal solo on "My Funny Valentine" is not merely oppressive, but maddeningly bad. Rock music made a virtue of the affectless monotone as a vessel for irony: Lou Reed, David Byrne, Ric Ocasek of The Cars. But these individuals know that they're singing. Baker's style is that of a revived corpse attempting to figure out what music is. His disembodied singing has been compared to a whisper in a lover's ear--if your paramour is a serial killer.

But in its masturbatory vacuity, Baker's singing found a new audience in the early 1980s. Punks, postmodernists, and gender-benders loved the Baker effect, describing it as "eerie" and "otherworldly." Baker couldn't get the stake out of his heart or the needle out of his arm. It somehow made sense that in the 1980s the fashion photographer Bruce Weber, famous for his sexually ambivalent images selling Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, would make a decadent documentary about Baker called "Let's Get Lost."

CALIFORNIA, right after World War II, saw a series of cultural novelties that contributed to the state's rise in influence--and that appeared, for a time, to drive the United States, and sometimes the world, in new directions. These included abstract expressionist painting, film noir, Hollywood realism, beat writing, and certain schools of experimental music, of which West Coast jazz was a tangential variety. Baker stood at the center of more than the West Coast jazz scene; for a time he appeared to inhabit all scenes at once.

He even acted in a "B" movie, "Hell's Horizon," released in 1955. Maya Angelou, well traveled in the same circles, recalls that she swore off marijuana after getting high and riding home in Baker's car--which he drove like a maniac, even when he hadn't been smoking pot.

But none of California's movements was fruitful, and none of them survives. Abstract expressionist art moved to New York. James Dean died in a car crash, and Kerouac drank himself into the grave. Baker made a show of his dissipation over thirty-five years, to no lasting effect. Yet even after the collapse of his American career, Baker remained popular in Europe, especially in Italy, where the cliche of the doomed jazzman had enormous staying power.

The story is told that saxophonist Charlie Parker, "Bird," warned Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and other black jazz stars in New York, "You better look out, there's a little white cat on the coast who's gonna eat you up." Notwithstanding Bird's blessing and the enthusiasm of voters in the Down Beat polls, the presumption that a surfer in a pompadour like Baker, or the feckless Mulligan, or Getz, could outperform the giants of bebop was ludicrous.

BAKER PLAYED THE TRUMPET as if it were an easier version of the saxophone. Compare the "sad clown" saccharine of Baker's "My Funny Valentine" with Coltrane's classic rendition of "Lush Life," and Coltrane walks away with it all. Better, compare the dippy, Catalina Island soda pop of Mulligan and Baker on "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" with Coltrane's versions of "My Favorite Things." Mulligan and Baker never got beyond the froth, while Coltrane didn't know what froth was. When I was a Baker fan, I considered his performance on "Summer Sketch," a composition by pianist Russ Freeman, to be an extraordinarily hopeful anthem. It seemed promising, Californian, merging with a solitude as wide and deep as the Pacific Ocean. Now it seems as thin and insubstantial as all the other false California amusements of the 1950s and 1960s.

Chet Baker sells far more records today than he did while alive, and he is an established icon of 1950s nostalgia. As a cautionary tale, if nothing else, Gavin's brilliant book is a major contribution to the historiography of an era filled with happenings where, in the end, little or nothing really happened.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.