The Thrill Is Gone | The Nation


The Thrill Is Gone

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It's easy to rephrase Tolstoy's opening to Anna Karenina so it describes junkies, who all share an essential plot line: Who and how to hustle in order to score. But in the world of postwar jazz, Charlie Parker gave junk an unprecedented clout and artistic aura. Bebop, the convoluted, frenetic modern jazz he and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, formulated, demanded intense powers of concentration. Bird played so far out of nearly everyone else's league that his heroin habit seemed to explain his godlike prowess. So heroin became an existentialist response to racism, to artistic rejection, a self-destructive way of saying Fuck You to mainstream America's 1950s mythologies. Parker warned everyone from young Miles Davis to young Chet Baker away from smack, but few heeded him. In 1954 Davis weaned himself from a four-year addiction; in 1988 Baker died after decades of living in Europe as a junkie, found in the street below his Amsterdam hotel window. (Did he jump? Was he pushed?)

About the Author

Gene Santoro
A former working musician and Fulbright Scholar, Gene Santoro also covers film and jazz for the New York Daily News...

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Oklahoma-born and California-bred, Baker had one amazing artistic gift: He could apparently hear nearly any piece of music once and then play it. He intuitively spun melodies on his trumpet with a tone critics compared to Bix Beiderbecke's, and spent his long and unbelievably uneven career relying on that gift and coasting on his remarkable early breaks. In 1952 Charlie Parker played with him in LA, giving him instant cachet. When Gerry Mulligan hired him for the famed pianoless quartet that is the quintessential white West Coast Cool band, it made him a jazz star. After a drug bust broke the group up, Baker began singing; his wispy balladeering and Middle American good looks gave him entree to a broader public. During his early 1950s stint with Mulligan, he unbelievably beat Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to win critics' and fans' polls; his first album as a vocalist, which featured "My Funny Valentine," got him lionized on the Today and Tonight shows and in Time. From there on, his life took on a downward bias within a junkie's relentless cycles.

Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker aims to synthesize all the information about the trumpeter and try to interpret him within the broader contexts of popular culture. Author James Gavin had access to unpublished autobiographical notes and interviews with Baker's erstwhile memoir collaborator Lisa Galt Bond, and also draws extensively on books like Jeroen de Valk's Chet Baker: His Life and Music and Chet Baker in Italy; he apparently scoured archives for interviews, profiles, pictures and video and audio materials as well, stirring in dollops from Bruce Weber's overripe 1989 movie about Baker, Let's Get Lost. Gavin has tracked Baker across Europe and America, distilled the wildly divergent attitudes toward him and his work, and attempts to make a case for what endures while not flinching from calling clunkers. He confronts black jazzers' resentment of Baker's playing: Most heard him, with excellent reason, as a paler, milder Miles Davis, yet he won polls and looked like he was making big money. As Gavin points out, Baker's lilting lyricism and even his demeanor owed almost everything to Davis's, but Baker wasn't raking in sales like Dave Brubeck, though he was churning out streams of highly variable product. In fact, Gavin explains the popularity of the sappy Chet Baker With Strings album, the trumpeter's bestselling 1954 disc (which sold an uncharacteristic 35,000-40,000 copies the first year), by comparing it to popular contemporary mood music--an apt and telling linkage.

Gavin's discussion of that record strikes one of his leitmotifs, Baker's charismatic visual appeal:

William Claxton's cover photo was so dreamy that record shops all over the country put the LP on display. Claxton showed Baker at his peak of beauty, staring out wistfully at the session, cheek resting against his horn's mouthpiece.... Many of the buyers were young women with little interest in jazz, who bought the LP for its cover. They were surprised to hear music as pretty as Baker was.... It was his looks, more than his music, that the Hollywood crowd cared about.

He's shrewd about Baker's singing:

[Record producer Dick] Bock listened in alarm as [Baker] struggled to sing on key, pushing the session into overtime.... Baker's dogged persistence didn't impress the musicians, who were reduced to near-invisible accompanists, tiptoeing behind his fragile efforts.... But as people stared at the cover and listened to Baker's blank slate of a voice, they projected all kinds of fantasies onto him.... Baker became the first jazz musician to attract a strong homosexual following.

Gavin is quite good at debunking longstanding myths about Baker, many of which Baker started himself. He didn't beat out loads of trumpeters to play with Bird in LA; a studio pianist, not Parker, hired him. It's highly unlikely Bird told East Coasters like Davis and Dizzy Gillespie that "there's a little white cat on the coast who's gonna eat you up." For Gavin, this self-mythologizing is a key to Baker's recessive, almost invisible character: "Just as he discovered how to seduce the camera lens into depicting him in make-believe terms, he learned to glamorize the truth into a fairy tale of romantic intrigue."

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