September 5, 2011

WHEN THE CLOTHES HAVE NO EMPEROR:

The Long Night of Chet Baker: Deep in a Dream By JAMES GAVIN (Greil Marcus, 8/30/11, Barnes & Noble Review)

To put it another way: except in the rare cases of those strange creatures who, like T. E. Lawrence, create themselves to such a degree that it becomes nearly impossible to imagine that they ever experienced a trivial or even workaday moment, the dramatic sweep we find in novels or movies is not really the stuff of anyone's life. No matter how the writer may try to have it otherwise, most biographies are simply one thing after another. The life of a junkie is not just one thing after another, it is the same one thing after another -- and yet there is not a page in Deep in a Dream that is not engaging, alive, demanding a response from a reader whether that be a matter of horror or awe, making the reader almost complicit in whatever comes next, even when, with the story less that of a musician who used heroin to play than that of a junkie who played to get heroin, it seems certain that nothing can.

Born in Oklahoma in 1929, Chet Baker grew up in Los Angeles. He had a deep and instinctive ear for music, playing trumpet in high school, army, and junior college bands; in 1949, when he heard the Miles Davis 78s that would later be collected as The Birth of the Cool, Baker "connected with that style so passionately that he felt he had found the light." That same year he was present at all-night sessions in L.A. to hear Charlie "Bird" Parker, and was shot up with heroin for the first time. He sat in with Dave Brubeck in San Francisco; in 1952 in L.A. he was called in with others to make up a group to back a wasted Parker.

That gave Baker an instant credibility in jazz. Ruined or not, Charlie Parker, with Dizzy Gillespie the progenitor of bebop, was the genius, the savant, the seer, the stumbling visionary who heard what others could not and could translate what he heard into a new language that others could immediately understand, even if they could never speak it themselves. If Parker said that Baker's playing was "pure and simple," that it reminded him of the Bix Beiderbecke records he heard growing up in Kansas City, that made the perhaps apocryphal story of Parker telling Gillespie and Davis, "There's a little white cat on the coast who's gonna eat you up" almost believable. But it was Baker's face -- as much or more than his joining in a new L.A. quartet with Gerry Mulligan, the baritone saxophonist and junkie who had played on the Birth of the Cool sessions, or Baker forming his own group and then headlining at Birdland in New York with Gillespie and Davis below him on the bill -- that made many people want to believe it.

Well before the end of his life, after he had lost most of his teeth in a drug-related beating in San Francisco, after he had turned into as charming, self-pitying, manipulative, professional a junkie as any in America or Europe, where for decades he made his living less as a musician than a legend, Baker wore the face of a lizard. In some photographs he barely looks human. But at the start he was, as so indelibly captured in William Claxton's famous photographs, not merely beautiful, not merely a California golden boy -- in the words of the television impresario and songwriter Steve Allen, someone who "started out as James Dean and ended up as Charles Manson." He was gorgeous, he seemed touched by an odd light, and he did not, even then, look altogether human -- but in a manner that was not repulsive but irresistibly alluring.

His legend -- the way in which, with the clarity and ease of his tone as a trumpeter, and the preternatural calm, quiet, and reflectiveness of his singing, the way in which he could, "somehow," as Gavin quotes the Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, "express the question mark of life in so few notes," the way in which Baker was a cult in and of himself -- was as the years went on not just a Johnny Thunders death watch, a spectacle of self-destruction, the face of the monster slowly grinding down the memory of the angel. Rather it was, through all the years of working less as a musician than as his own pimp ("One uninspired night at the Subway Club in Cologne yielded three albums"), of a self-degradation so extreme it had to be, in its way, its own reward ("Waking from a nod...he found his face crawling with cockroaches..."), the chance that the pure talent, as a thing in itself, might still be there, might still emerge on any night, in any song, and then, again, vanish, humiliating the man who could not find his voice at will or even refused to, and mocking the memories of those who could not admit that they had not heard what they thought they heard.

Behind its own face, the legend was that of the solitary betraying his own talent, his own gift, and that solitary betrayal raising the specter of the smaller but no less real betrayals of anyone in any audience, one man standing for, and exposing, the self-betrayal of everyone else. "All this criticism," Gavin writes of Baker's crash in the then all-important jazz polls in 1959 -- after a phony cure at the federal facility at Lexington, in 1950s jazz lore almost as storied a place as any nightclub in Manhattan, after four months at Rikers,

implied Baker had let everyone down, dragging an American dream through the mud. 'Chet had the world at his feet in the fifties,' said John Burr, one of his later bassists. 'He consciously turned his back on it, and used drugs as a means of doing it. That's what he said about it.' Baker made no apologies. 'All the attempts to get him off heroin -- he didn't want to get off heroin,' said Gerry Mulligan. 'That, of course, is heresy in the modern world. You're supposed to be going, "Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, oh God, help me." Chet didn't give a damn.'

MORE:
The Monster in the Celebrity Machine (JAMES GAVIN, September 22, 2002, NY Times)

IN ''Let's Get Lost,'' his 1989 documentary about Chet Baker, the fashion photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber shows a photograph so erotic that his camera all but drools over it. There stands Baker, the jazz trumpeter and singer who was one of the first beautiful 1950's rebels, captured at his peak of allure by another photographer, William Claxton. Tanned, athletic and 26, Baker poses shirtless beside his wife, Halema. His cool half-smile seduces the viewer.

No one seemed to notice the rest of the contact sheet from which the 1956 photograph was taken, even though the sheet was scanned in the film. Several images show Baker glaring out demonically. He had just started a heroin habit that would keep growing until 1988, when he landed, dead, on the pavement below an Amsterdam hotel window. That mysterious end -- suicide, accident or murder? -- added one more romantic touch to the mythology of one of the most unromantic men who ever lived.

Before Baker's death, Mr. Weber had spent a million dollars chasing an illusion that the trumpeter's photos and records still inspire. In so doing, Mr. Weber, whether intentionally or not, made a powerful statement about the dangers of idol worship. Seeing a rare screening of ''Let's Get Lost'' at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month was a reminder of just how prophetic it had been about today's pop culture. We live in an age of worshiping glossy surfaces, of pretending that beauty itself signifies some profound human dimension. Interviewers vie for access to the latest movie hunk, desperate to uncover the mystique they find in his handsome face on screen. He offers only rigidly controlled, vapid responses. The less he reveals, the more he convinces us of hidden depths that may not be there at all.


Chet Baker, Jazz Trumpeter, Dies at 59 in a Fall (JON PARELES, May 14, 1988, NY Times)



Posted by Orrin Judd at September 5, 2011 5:25 PM
  
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