The Magazine

West Coast Cool

The failure of Chet Baker.

Sep 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 02 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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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.