Pop & Jazz: As though he had wings
Chet Baker's drug addiction destroyed his looks and his life. Yet through it all, he created the most moving music. By Phil Johnson
Friday 21 May 1999
More than 10 years after his death at the age of 58, the jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker's legend lives on, and as well as the film, a biography is on the way. A recent CD box-set collection of Baker's first and most affecting recordings will also help to ensure that his music continues to attract new listeners whether the Hollywood movie gets made or not, for it contains some of the most beautiful music ever produced.
It's also some of the most melancholy, which is part and parcel of its appeal. Professor Lewis Wolpert's recent definition of depression as a kind of "malignant sadness" suits Chet Baker's art to a T. It's even possible to see him as the forerunner for a whole genre of introspective, clinically- depressed music that includes not only Leonard Cohen, but also Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Jackson Browne and a swathe of sad, self-regarding singer- songwriters. That Baker didn't write his own songs, but re-interpreted the "standards" that have nourished jazz for most of the century, only makes the appeal of his performances all the more timeless.
The planned film of Baker's life is to be based on his own "lost" memoir, entitled, after a line from the song "Like Someone In Love" (which Bjork covered on her Debut album as a notable act of homage), As Though I Had Wings. The manuscript of this very slim volume, which was published in the United States by St Martin's Press in 1997, and here by Indigo in 1998, was discovered by the US magazine Spin, and then sent to Baker's widow, Carol, who authenticated it.
Baker's alarmingly changeable handwriting records, in a very fragmentary style, episodes from his life up to 1963, including reminiscences of his time in London in 1962, when he was prescribed heroin and cocaine by the society doctor Lady Isabella Frankau. Some of the details in Baker's story seem a little unreliable, however: could anyone go through 100 grams of cocaine in an afternoon's binge with just a couple of friends? Even for so hardened an addict as Baker, this still seems rather excessive.
All the same, Baker did love his medicine with a passion that eclipsed the regard he held for his many female companions, or even his equally numerous sports cars. When an earnest reporter once asked him what was the main problem with drugs, Baker replied: "The price." As he recalled for the camera in Bruce Weber's fascinating documentary on his life, Let's Get Lost, Baker's injection of choice was a "speedball", a cocktail of heroin and cocaine that is notoriously unstable. Given his preferences, the wonder is not that Baker died so relatively young, but that he continued to live so long.
In Weber's film, not even Baker's mother has a good word to say about him, but the combination of his less-is-more trumpet style, his seemingly artless but ineffably moving singing voice, and the many unconsciously homo-erotic photographs by William Claxton portraying a young Chet as the James Dean of jazz, are sufficient to keep his flame alive for a good while yet.
Baker's addiction was, given his trade, almost institutional. For many American jazz musicians in the Fifties, dependence on heroin wasn't just an occupational hazard: it was both a rite of passage and badge of honour. Although Baker was clean when he was chosen by Charlie Parker, at the precocious age of 23, as his trumpeter for a West Coast tour, soon afterwards he was supplementing his enjoyment of pot by frequent "chipping" - the occasional, non-dependent, use of heroin. After he joined the famous piano-less quartet of Gerry Mulligan - the group that was to make him a star - Baker gradually followed Mulligan on the path to fully-fledged addiction.
You could almost say it came with the turf, and that the consequent tragedies were therefore inevitable. In 1955, on Baker's first visit to Europe with his own group, his pianist Dick Twardzik died from an overdose as the rest of the band waited for him in a recording studio. Later, he claimed to have had all of his teeth knocked out in a squabble with dealers, something of a setback for a trumpet player.
The last 30 years of Baker's life were spent largely in Europe, especially in Italy, where he appeared in films and was adopted as a star. Criss- crossing borders in a series of Alfa Romeo sports cars in order to retrieve his medicine, he perfected a kind of hip, improvised version of life-on- the-run, playing gigs and making albums with local rhythm sections in order to finance the next connection.
Incredibly, given the circumstances, almost everything he recorded is worth hearing. However flawed the band, hackneyed the material, or stoned the soloist, Baker's gift remained with him until he died. Even near the end of his life, as in Bruce Weber's film, when the once-gorgeous beauty of his face had become a contour map of wrinkled lines like a death-mask of WH Auden, he still had something. In what was billed, posthumously, as his last concert (and there are many supposed "last" recordings), on a date with a Danish Big Band, he sings and plays two versions of "My Funny Valentine" that are not only incredibly moving, but also technically superb.
However, the best of Chet still remains the early recordings that he made for the Pacific Jazz label in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, and which have now been collected in the box-set released by EMI. Although Baker's singing began as a commercial gimmick intended to cash in on the success of Nat "King" Cole, and he remained a trumpeter who occasionally sang rather than being a dedicated vocalist, his tremulous, vulnerable- sounding voice helped to project a little boy lost quality that chimed with the times.
In an era when masculinity in America appeared to be in crisis, and when the voices of artists as diverse as Johnny Ray, Frank Sinatra, and the rockabilly singer Charlie Feathers all seemed to be choking with tears, Chet's smacked-out, emotionally deadened, high tenor struck a powerful chord. On "Someone to Watch Over Me", Chet is that little boy lost in the wood; his creamy crooning of the corny sentiments of "My Buddy" make it into an unintentional gay anthem, and when he sings "Let's Get Lost", the listener is transported into a kind of dreamy, narcotic haze. Like heroin, it's powerful stuff.
Despite having more albums in print than any other jazz artist, alive or dead, Chet Baker has never been given the credit that he deserves by hardcore jazz critics and fans, for whom almost all vocalists are disdained as unreconstructed softies. It's a matter of sexual politics as much as music. While he was alive, Baker's androgynous voice, recessive trumpet style and dreamboat looks all seemed too feminine to count as "real" jazz for macho commentators. Even today, his entry in the reference work, Jazz: the Rough Guide, is derisively short for such an important figure.
The lack of respect also seems wilfully wrong-headed. In his prime, Baker was a killer trumpeter whose lack of interest in creating impossibly high notes or show-boating speed-of-light runs, was a mark of taste rather than any kind of technical deficiency. He could also play a ballad better than anyone else, with an ability to communicate the meaning of a care- worn tune or lovelorn lyric that should count as among the highest achievements in any art during this century. And then, almost as an afterthought, he sang. Thirty years later, we are still crying in response, and rather enjoying the experience.
The 3-CD Box-Set, 'Chet Baker: Romance' is out now at mid-price on EMI's Pacific Jazz label
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