The Thrill Is Gone

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?)

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 Author James Gavin had access to unpublished autobiographical notes and interviews with Baker’s erstwhile memoir collaborator Lisa Galt Bond, and also draws extensively on books like Jeroen de Valk’s Chet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.”

Naturally, the biographer seeks the man behind the layered tales. Here Gavin circles a black hole, because Baker was, as one witness after another testifies, nearly completely unrevealing. He didn’t read, or speak, or otherwise express: He was “cool.” Longtime junkiedom only hardened this character trait into manipulative blankness. So Gavin looks at Baker’s doting, pushy mother and his violent failure of a father, checks out Baker’s high school beatings for being a pretty boy, intimates that Baker’s brief and harsh version of heterosexual sex may have covered for repressed homosexuality, and links him to the waves of rejection, from the Beats as well as Hollywood types like Marlon Brando and James Dean, rippling the 1950s. It’s suggestive, though not necessarily convincing, since unlike other jazzers–Davis and Charles Mingus, for instance–Baker had no real contact with or interest in other artistic subcultures.

Baker’s critical reputation kept crashing after the Mulligan quartet disbanded in 1954, and his drug use continued to escalate after that time, when his heroin addiction began. By 1966, he had hit bottom: He was badly beaten, probably because he ripped off a San Francisco drug dealer, and his upper teeth had to be pulled. His embouchure wrecked, his career, already smoldering, looked like it was finally in ruins. He worked in a Redondo Beach gas station and applied for welfare. Against the odds, record-label head Bock bought him dentures, and for more than a year he worked–probably harder than he ever did before or after–to rebuild something of the limpid trumpet sound that once made girls shudder.

In 1959 he had relocated to Europe, where he stayed for the rest of his life (except for a couple of brief homecomings) to avoid prosecution for drug busts. Inevitably, he got busted in Europe instead. Gavin rightly notes that the Europeans, especially the Italians, adopted Baker as a damaged genius, an artist in need of understanding and patronage. It didn’t help. His trajectory careened mostly down; upward bursts of musical lucidity flashed against a churn of mediocrities and an ever-more-snarled life. His talent languished: He never expanded his musical knowledge, nor did he really learn to arrange or compose or even lead a band. He relied on producers and agents to direct his musical life; he didn’t bother conceptualizing his own creative frameworks. He always demanded cash payments–no contracts, no royalties–on his endless scramble to score. And as women revolved through his life or fought over him and were beaten by him, he tried a few bouts at detox but compressed even further into a junkie’s two-dimensionality. By the time he died, most American jazz fans thought he was already dead.

For this last half of his book, Gavin, even buoyed by research, swims upstream against the cascading flow of a junkie’s essential plot line. For decades Baker is mostly chasing drugs, screwing anyone within reach, tumbling downward creatively and personally, and alternating manipulatively between victim and abuser. Except as a voyeur it’s hard to care, especially since, with exceptions I think even rarer than Gavin does, Baker’s music was generally worthless. Junk didn’t make him a musical superman; it simply drove him to make fast, sloppy recordings with under-rehearsed bands, playing horn that was so unpredictable in quality it could sound like an abysmal self-parody. Sympathetically balanced as he tries to be, even Gavin can only cite a handful of ex-sidemen as Baker’s musical legacy of influence. Instead, he depicts Baker as a kind of cultural icon rather than a cultural force.

It is one of history’s ironies that Baker was resurrected after his death by a film made shortly before it. Bruce Weber, a fashion photographer famed for his homoerotic Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren ads, has a sharp eye for the scandalous, and decided to make Let’s Get Lost when he saw Baker at the trumpeter’s brief fling at an American comeback in 1986. He fell for what an associate described as “beauty that looked kind of destroyed.” Weber bought him a French beatnik wardrobe from a Paris designer, and paid him $12,500 for a performance that Gavin describes: “eyelids sagging, slurring his words, all but drooling…. Unless he got what he needed, [Weber’s assistant] said, ‘he wouldn’t have sat still a minute for us.'” The documentary refired interest in Baker among boomers and Gen Xers, who responded to the bathetic junkie glamour of his apparent frailty, personal and artistic, just as their 1950s avatars had. Reissues of Baker’s albums on CD have gathered mass and sales since.

Which leaves us with Baker’s mysterious death, long haloed by a host of theories. Gavin rejects accident, reporting that “the window [of the hotel room] slid up only about fifteen inches, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a grown man to fall through accidentally.” Dismissing speculation that Baker might have lost his room key and tried to climb the hotel’s facade, Gavin says it’s unlikely he could have gone unnoticed on such a busy thoroughfare. He dismisses homicide, as did Baker’s remaining friends and the Dutch police, and concludes that Baker was shooting his favorite speedballs and committed a sort of passive-aggressive suicide by “opening a window and letting death come to him…. [He] had died willfully of a broken heart.”

That’s a pretty sentimental final fade for a hard-core character like Baker, who for all Gavin’s determined nuance ultimately seems less rebel than junkie. Maybe Gavin should have pondered Naked Lunch. Then he might have ended his book with, say, Steve Allen’s take, since Allen was one of the many Baker burned: “When Chet started out, he had everything. He was handsome, had a likable personality, a tremendous musical gift. He threw it all away for drugs. To me, the man started out as James Dean and ended up as Charles Manson.”

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