Gavin on Chet Baker -- tortured soul, wailing

May 19, 2002|By Richard M. Sudhalter | By Richard M. Sudhalter,Special to the Sun

Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, by James Gavin. Knopf. 416 pages. $26.95.

For a while, at the start of the 1950s, jazz fans couldn't stop talking about Chet Baker. Clean-cut, handsome in a sulky James Dean sort of way, he played trumpet with an economy and fragile lyricism far removed from the fiery utterances of Dizzy Gillespie and his myriad modern jazz disciples. All but illiterate musically, Baker seemed a creature of divine instinct, drawing on some inexhaustible fount of poised serenity. And, as friend and fellow-trumpeter Jack Sheldon put it, "he was always in command, so hip, slick and cool."

Perhaps even more than his trumpet, Baker's singing caught widespread fancy. Devoid of vibrato or nuance, his high, pure tenor voice conveyed innocence and vulnerability, qualities countless women found irresistible. Even with rumors circulating widely about his heroin addiction, about coldly manipulative and duplicitous behavior that belied any suggestion of innocence, female admirers still lined up.

"The has the charm of the devil," an ex-girlfriend recalled. But, "I thought, 'This man is a presence -- something you don't meet often in your life.' "

The Baker presence emerges vividly from James Gavin's new, painstakingly documented biography. With an eye for telling detail, Gavin recounts the tortured odyssey of a musician who remains every bit the contradiction today, 14 years after his death at 58, that he was in life.

Born in rural Oklahoma and brought up poor in Southern California, Chesney Henry Baker took up trumpet as a teen-ager, soon winning a chair in a high school dance band despite an inability to read music. A school chum and fellow-trumpeter remembered him listening to an arrangement, then flawlessly reproducing the lead part even though "he never once pushed the right valves down."

Baker made his first jazz world impact in 1952, as a member of the pianoless quartet led by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who recalled him as "a freak talent. I've never been around anyone who has a quicker relationship between his ears and his fingers."

He had admirers (among them bebop hero Charlie Parker) in plenty. But almost from the start, Baker's playing also drew criticism. Some ears, used to the headier sounds of brilliant, short-lived Clifford Brown, heard it as an affectless echo of Miles Davis, a Baker hero. To others, his effortless lyricism seemed puerile beside solos by Brown, Davis or such melodically rich trumpet improvisers as Bobby Hackett and the lesser-known Johnny Windhurst.

By the mid-1950s, Baker's popularity had peaked, and the narcotics habit that was to shadow the rest of his life had taken hold. Gavin, author of Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, draws widely on primary and secondary sources in laying out a chilling account of trusts betrayed, chances muffed, lives used and ruined. As the facts, and the victims, accumulate, it's hard to resist record producer Orrin Keepnews' characterization of Baker as "an evil junkie and a whining, devious young man."

No scheme, nor lie or outrage, seemed too much for a remorseless addict whose need to "score" drugs trampled every human consideration, including, ultimately, his own musical gifts.

Was Baker truly the "evil force" so many remembered, or did his playing and singing represent, as Gavin suggests, "A door thrown open on some dark night of the soul, then pulled shut as the last note faded?" Perhaps neither, perhaps both. Readers of this harrowing biography will have to decide for themselves.

Trumpeter and historian Richard M. Sudhalter's latest book, Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Charmichael, was published in March by Oxford University Press.

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