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Friday, January 9, 2015

And Then God Created Chet

One thing I can say about James Gavin's Deep In a Dream: Hagiography, it ain't. In fact, it can stand as testament to Chet as the poster child for "the music is not the musician;" the ultimate example of the wrong-headedness of imputing personality or character traits on the basis of someone's music. Gavin makes sure we understand that the only mistress Baker was ever faithful to, the only friend he ever made any sacrifices for, was dope; that the people who bought into Baker's good looks, sweet sound and romanticized presentation were all played-big time. 

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. 


Steve Provizer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Provizer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brew said...

Chet was all ears, a natural improvisor, like Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bobby Hackett, or Charlie Parker.

It's true that he didn't care for keys; but it's definitely not true that he was a lousy sight-reader.

This picture from ca. 1947 proves it:

He was playing in the army band then, in Berlin. So, if you want to play in a service band, you have to be a good reader.

Maybe he was just too lazy from a certain point on, 'cause everything you'd learned to play by ear, you won't forget so easily.

Chet's sound is unique, and he surely had chops. The dope? Well, he didn't need it to get high, he used it because otherwise he wouldn't have functioned.

We all know Bird's tragic recording of "Lover Man": He used booze because he had no heroin; and that's exactly like he sounded: Completely loaded.

If he had used heroin, nothing like that would have happened. It's an addiction, a sickness, like alcoholism.

But the music? OK, there are many Chet Baker albums on the market; some are great, especially the early ones with Gerry Mulligan, or Art Pepper, his big band (no gigs, just a studio group), "Chet Baker with Strings", "Chet Baker Sings", his lightly swingin' recordings in Paris with the ingenious Richard Twardzik (also a heavy addict who died with 24 from an overdose in a Parisian hotel room) ... all unique, super-hip, and cool, but also very emotional.

Many of his later albums from the 1970's & 1980's are above average, most of them - mostly the weaker ones - have been released without Chet's permission (but maybe he just didn't care).

Then, towards the end of the 1950's, the drugs took over more and more, Chet's boyish image slowly but steadily faded, the descent began, which ended with Chet's silent death in the wee small hours, when he eventually fell out of an hotel window in Amsterdam.

Tragic, but inevitable.

We can be glad we have all those great albums; we don't need any sensationalizing biographies; and we also won't need any biopics.

Chet's music, his incredible solo flights, the power and the sadness of his expressive ballad-playing, all those beautiful trumpet sounds speak for themselves.

Feel free to click on my name, and read a personal story on my encounter with the late Chet Baker, which happened in Cologne, 1987, a few months before his death.

May he rest in peace, this trumpet angel with "Broken Wings":

Steve Provizer said...

Brew-Thanks for contributing. Let me just note that Gavin says Baker flunked his army sight reading test and that other section mates said he could listen to a part once or twice and know it. In other words, he could get by without reading.

Brew said...

You're welcome, Steve --

To make it easier for the customers, here are clickable links:

The picture: Chet Baker, Marching Band, Berlin, 1947.

The video: Broken Wing.