And yet, while here's not much reason to respect or like Baker, it's odd that Gavin doesn't seem to particularly like or respect his music, which he often describes as cold and devoid of emotion. It's as if he's set out to save his readers from becoming zombie dupes of the Chet Baker mythology.
But, the fact is, Baker's stature as a musician was not cut from whole cloth. Yes, the music mutated into "phenomenon," working its way outward, amplified until the layers of bullshit overwhelmed the musical core-and Baker was completely complicit in this process. Still, when self-abuse hadn't gotten the better of him, there was always something magnetic in Baker's music and to the degree Gavin doesn't recognize that, the book is out of balance.
I'm not saying cut back on the gruesome tales of collapsed veins, violence and pathologically selfish, destructive behavior. We're reading for that, too. But the author's ambivalence about Baker's music leads to contradictions and unanswered questions:
- His description varies from one page to the next about the quality of the music, with no explanation of a change from one performance to the next-such explanation as we would naturally expect to be about whether or not he scored what he needed. Along with this, there are inconsistencies about whether, at a given time, he was strung out on heroin, coping with methadone, strung out on methadone, coping by substituting cocaine, etc.
- The author can't give us a clear picture of the degree to which Baker had musical knowledge, apart from his uncanny natural talent. He describes Baker's picking out melodies on the piano when very young; not being able to sight read and picking up parts by hearing them just once or twice; pushing people off piano benches to show them the right chords, but then taking a long time to find the chords; finally, not being able to tell people what key he wanted to play a song in.
- When he quotes reviews, they're almost always slams of Baker's playing or bad reviews of his records. When he does quote something favorable, it's likely to be by musicians with whom Chet was getting high which, Gavin implies, undermines their credibility as witnesses. Many musicians in the book describe their time playing with Chet as life-changing, but such declarations always seem buried by Gavin in a context detailing Baker's pathological behavior.
Ironically, Gavin's approach is comparable to the infatuation he imputes to Bruce Weber, who made the film "Let's Get Lost." Aren't infatuation and dismissal just opposite sides of the same coin? Both Gavin and Weber short-change the music. Weber gives us a lovely and compelling portrait, with dark undertones and very little air time devoted to the up-tempo, dextrous trumpet player Chet Baker. Gavin gives us a dark portrait, unrelenting diss, with little energy spent on the music. For Weber, the music meant that all sins could at least be understood, if not forgiven. For Gavin, the sins meant that the music could not be trusted. Either way, both the book and the film are obsessed with Chet The Image.
I'm not asking for transcriptions of solos. That's a different book. I'm trying to deal with Gavin's book on its own terms. He's written a juicy tome, but in not believing in the music enough to dig more into it and ask more questions about it, Gavin has me backing away from the descriptors of Baker and his music that riddle the book and to the psychological insights he offers. This makes his book shade too much toward the Kitty Kelley school of biography.