Arts: Talent, addiction and all that jazz

James Maycock looks at the life of trumpet great Chet Baker, who died 10 years ago this week
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE question, "What's your favourite type of high?", asked by Bruce Weber of his subject, Chet Baker, near the end of Let's Get Lost, is followed by a disquieting reply: "Oh, the kind of high that scares other people to death. I guess they call it a speedball... It's a mixture of cocaine and heroin." It is the first time Weber directly confronts Baker about his lengthy addiction to heroin. With a languor and weariness that he exudes throughout the documentary.

Yet, in Let's Get Lost, there are two unintentionally prophetic comments that allude to Baker's imminent death. At the beginning, William Claxton, the photographer who captured Baker's photogenic qualities in the 1950s, is saddened at his physical decline and admits to Weber, "I thought, 'It's probably the last time I'll ever see him.' I hope it's not true." Towards the end, a young French man pleads with Baker to play one more song for the audience in Cannes, explaining tactlessly that they many not hear him again. Baker, with a slight sense of irritation, replies, "I'm not dead yet."

On 13 May 1988, just months before Let's Get Lost was to be unveiled at the Venice Film Festival, Baker died after falling out of a window of an Amsterdam hotel, clutching his trumpet. Whether he was pushed, fell or committed suicide has not been explained and his mysterious demise added to the myth that already engulfed him.

The relationship between the image and the music of Baker is an intimate one and those who seek to separate the two are misguided. His songs, especially his ballads, hinted at the sadness of the impossibility of recapturing the romance and innocence of one's youth. This emotion became more moving as he grew older and the tragedy of his life, physically etched onto his face, revealed itself.

Baker was modest about the praise bestowed on him. In the 1980s, he confessed that he had not been prepared for the adulation he had received in the 1950s. He also admitted that he thought his fame was unjustified and did, occasionally, agree with the negative criticism directed at him. It was at the end of the 1960s that his initial popularity faltered. Many of the jazz critics who had praised him now accused him of imitating the sound of Bix Beiderbecke and emphasised Baker's lack of range as a trumpeter. Yet, these critics failed to mention that within this range he excelled.

Baker could not read music, but in "Let's Get Lost" his mother recollects his phenomenal ability to play songs by ear as a child. At the age of 17, he played briefly with Charlie Parker, and Gerry Mulligan, whose quartet Baker joined for nine months in 1952, once described him as "the most talented trumpet player I ever played with". It was in this innovative quartet that Baker and Mulligan fluently complimented each other and gained considerable notoriety.

Baker's reflective, understated sound was partly inspired by Miles Davis' performance on the album The Birth Of The Cool. It was a sound that would epitomise Californian jazz in the 1950s. In 1953, he formed his own group with pianist and composer Russ Freeman and instilled his style of playing on Freeman's original compositions as well as the popular songs they recorded. The individual style of his trumpet playing definitely influenced the intimate quality of his singing, as he once explained: "If I hadn't been a trumpet player, I don't know if I would have arrived at singing that way."

In 1955, a year before he became addicted to heroin, Baker toured Europe for eight months. It was the longest period that an American jazz musician had performed there and he built up a considerable reputation, which helped him survive financially in the late 1970s and 1980s.

If the consistent quality of his musical output diminished in the 1960s, the myth surround ing Baker grew. In 1960, film director Dino de Laurentis wanted Baker to act in the film, All The Fine Young Cannibals, a film tentatively based on Baker's own life. This idea was thwarted because Baker wes imprisoned in Italy for 16 months for possessing and importing drugs. He was released from the prison in Lucca in 1962 and was, consequently, deported from Germany in the same year. In 1963, he was briefly imprisoned in Britain before, again, being deported.

In l968, another incident added to Baker's mythic status. He was performing in Sausalito and travelled to San Francisco to buy drugs from a man in a hotel. He was met by several men who hit his mouth so violently that all his teeth had to be removed. Baker did not play his trumpet for three years and it was another trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie, who helped him to restart his career in the early 1970s. Despite his continuing addiction to heroin, Baker's musical recovery increased steadily and he remained unexpectedly prolific until his death in 1988.

Ten years after his death, Let's Get Lost remains one of the most poignant, romantic portraits of a jazz musician and it made Baker as potent an icon of 1950s America as Marlon Brando or James Dean.

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