Chet Baker was a legendary jazz trumpet player from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. His legend is paradoxical. He was a romantic artist, breathtakingly handsome, enigmatic, and mercurial. He was gifted with an intuitive knowledge of music and the ability to play his instrument in beautifully melodic and inventive ways that affected the emotions of his audiences. His beauty and charisma attracted almost everyone who knew him, including three wives, his children, many musicians, and a great many girlfriends. On the other hand, he was an ill-educated, unreliable, childish, and totally self-centered man. He became addicted to all sorts of drugs: marijuana, cocaine, heroin, codeine, alcohol, tobacco, and more. Although Baker used drugs to enable him to make beautiful music, it is almost as accurate to say that Baker played music in order to get money to buy drugs.
To tell Baker’s story, there cannot be many sources in the United States and in Europe that James Gavin has not consulted: recordings, films, television programs, magazines, newspapers. People who knew Baker were still alive to interview, and the biography is laced with remarks by these people, mainly two of his three wives and a number of his girlfriends. The result is a solid biography that gives both the facts and a number of perspectives. Gavin includes a detailed discography.
Chesney Henry Baker, Jr. (later known as “Chettie” and then “Chet”) was born on December 23, 1929, in the small town of Yale, Oklahoma. His father was a guitar and banjo player who idolized Jack Teagarden, the jazz trombonist, and Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz trumpeter (whose life Chet’s would resemble). The older Baker’s career was thwarted by the Great Depression, which began about the time of Chettie’s birth. Gavin emphasizes the bad effects of Baker’s childhood. His father was distant and beat him; this, combined with his mother’s suffocating love, produced a trauma that drove the young Chet Baker, even though he could not talk about it. Fortunately, Gavin does not pursue this theme too stridently.
When he was ten, Chettie and his mother traveled by bus along fabled Route 66 to join his father in Glendale, California. There Baker blossomed. Although he was small for his age and looked very young, he was very handsome. His loving mother made sure he was well dressed. He was good at sports such as swimming, basketball, and track. His sports performance set a pattern that would last his entire life: he excelled apparently without trying. His mother taught him erotic popular songs of the day (“I Had The Craziest Dream”) and entered him in a talent contest as a boy soprano. He almost won.
More important, when he was twelve his father bought him a trumpet at a pawnshop. Within two weeks, his mother claimed, Chettie was playing along with the famed trumpeter Harry James’s solo on the record of “Two O’Clock Jump.” Whether or not this is true, it is consistent with the way Baker played in later life. He could hardly read music, and he did not know many chords. He just played.
An important setback dates from this era. One day after school, someone threw a rock that accentually broke off one of Chettie’s front teeth. Without that tooth, Baker found it difficult to play the high screaming notes that have produced big effects for other famous trumpeters. Baker’s mature style would necessarily be softer and lower than the others (and tooth troubles were to dog him in later life). Nonetheless, he took up the trumpet with a passion. Instead of reading music, he memorized it after hearing it once. He played in school bands and played along with pop records. He idolized James’s flamboyant style.
Baker was growing up. His sexual initiation was quick and ugly. He became wild and rebellious. To escape his parents, he joined the army. He was eventually sent to Berlin, where he joined army bands and discovered Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie on the radio. He fell in love with a German girl and was betrayed, causing (according to Gavin) his paranoid mistrust of women.
Out of the army and back in the United States, he returned to high school. Like almost all the jazz musicians of the day, he smoked marijuana; he tried heroin. He became known for driving fast and stealing. When a judge gave him the choice of jail or going back into the army, he reenlisted and was sent to San Francisco. He married Charlaine Souder. For trying to deceive the army into letting him out, he spent time in the stockade before being discharged again in 1952.
All this while, Baker pursued his musical dreams. He sat in on jam sessions, even with such a famous man as piano player Dave Brubeck. From being an aggressive trumpet player, he gradually became more “cool.” He admired the melodic style of Paul Desmond, Brubeck’s alto sax player. His big break came when he played with...
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