"Deep in a Dream"
The Long Night of Chet Baker
Biography by James Gavin
430 pp with photographs, discography and bibliography
edited by Alfred A. Knopf, N. Y. 20002, $26.95
The Dream's on You
by John Farris
Since its humble beginnings in New Orleans at the turn of the last century, Jazz music had always implied certain release--the abandon of unfettered expression free of the constraints of a social construct that strictly controlled the movement of the black people with whom it originated. Prohibited from the drawing room couture of the white population, it would wind its raucous, syncopated way from the burial plots of the recently deceased to the brothels and blind pigs of the red light district known as Storyville. Taking with it the infectious appeal of the forbidden, the cachet of the demimonde, a smoky, boozy, and ribald license that promised itself to all who would go this route. Attracting the attention of the general population with its insistent rhythms and strident melodies that had no concern for proper harmonics, it was soon presented to the world by a recording industry that just happened to have its nascence almost simultaneously with the birth of this music, immediately commodified and co-opted by an RCA Victor (then Victor) whose promotional material in 1923 had assigned the sobriquet"King of Jazz" to a white Coloradan named (ironically enough in the context of the situation) Paul Whiteman. In 1929 Hollywood produced the first commercially viable talkie--a film titled "The Jazz Singer" that starred one Asa Yoelson, a Russian American who had changed his name to Al Jolson. In 1930 Universal Studios followed with a film titled"The King of Jazz" a collage in early form of color centered around Whiteman. Making an appearance is a young Bing Crosby, who for decades to come would present Louis Armstrong on television and in film in a way that can only be described as patronizing, an arm thrown paternalistically over Armstrong's shoulders.
Whiteman's move to San Francisco and formation of a big band made him one of the first leaders of a large aggregation presenting what was being called"jazz" when it suited him, a band whose personnel included a lyrical trumpeter named Bix Beiderbecke and a gifted alto saxophonist named Frankie Trumbauer. It can be argued that West Coast jazz has its antecedents in this organization, while in Kansas City, Missouri, in another twist of irony something else was going on, set in motion in large part by one Andy Kirk who having gone to school in Colorado, had been trained in music by the same man who taught Whiteman, a gentleman named Wilburforce Whiteman and Paul's father; the irony being that due to a severely segregated society with each side of the divide forced to distinctly different cultural mores, Paul Whiteman could only produce what was a wistfully pale facsimile of the new music while Kirk, settling in Kansas City with a band called The Clouds of Joy could make a major contribution to the mainstream of the music with a new genre that was being called"swing" by it's practitioners. Illustrating this irony is that it would be certain members of this band who would later both befriend and bedevil a young white Oklahoman that in 1953 was named best trumpeter in jazz in a Down Beat reader's poll--over Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, to say nothing of the brilliant virtuoso, Clifford Brown. It is this Oklahoman that is the subject of a biography titled Deep in a Dream, the Long Night of Chet Baker, by James Gavin, winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for his Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, and a frequent contributor to The New York Times.
Commencing with a prologue detailing Baker's sparsely attended funeral, Gavin allows us a portrait of a man whose death was as controversial as his life. It is a well-researched book which despite a few flaws--some obvious, others not so obvious--is very revealing about what fate would have in store for those who in mid-century America would heedlessly attempt to hurl themselves across the cultural divide.
Chesney Henry Baker, Jr., known to the world as"Chet", was born in Yale, Oklahoma in 1929. His father had been a reefer-smoking guitarist who while playing hillbilly music himself and that not very successfully, had been taken enough by the playing of Jack Teagarden and Bix Beiderbecke to provide his thirteen year old son with a trombone and to begrudgingly replace it with a trumpet when he realized the boy was too slight to manipulate the slide. Relocated to Southern California by this time via Route 66 that Gavin notes"spans the the whole United States" in spite of the song in which Nat King Cole informs us"it winds from Chicago to L. A.", and in fact no longer exists at all, the young Baker--having been coached to sing tunes from the Hit Parade and taken to all the kiddy talent shows by a doting mother who romanticized her son's placement in these contests by later claiming to pianist Jimmy Rowles with whom he would study that the boy always placed first though Baker would say he never did, but had managed to come in second once, losing according to his account--to a little ballerina who did a split. It was also claimed by his mother that it had taken him only two weeks to learn to play along with the Harry James solo on"Two O'clock Jump", delivering it with lightning speed. A trumpeter who had been with the Whiteman band, James employed a sweet tone decorated with a frilliness budding beboppers eschewed as being corny, but which Baker loved for its big bright sound, studying James' solos until he could copy them almost exactly. He had already lost a front tooth by then, a disaster in the case of the embouchure of a trumpeter, though his tenacious practice allowed him to make the resultant gap a signature part of his technique. The lost tooth limited his range in the upper register, though this was not important to him as he had decided high notes were for showing off where jazz was concerned, and he wasn't interested in that. He had a removable tooth which he seldom wore, instead hiding the space by keeping his lips closed in public, creating the Mona Lisa half-smile captured by photographer William Claxton that made him appear inscrutable. This lost tooth was important at a later situation in which he would lose all of his others in a Haight-Ashbury heroin buy gone bad. Meanwhile at Glendale Junior High, the teenager signed up for a basic instrumental training course that would bore him as he mastered his exercises in moments and had no patience for studying from a textbook. He was not interested to memorizing dots and curly lines on staff paper when he could pick up a song by hearing it once or twice.
Joining the army just before his seventeenth birthday, he managed to bluff his way through rehearsals of the 298th Army band before opting for a smaller dance band of which the conductor thought he had found a sight reading wonder in the trumpeter. It was here that he became familiar with the music of Stan Kenton, which he found hipper than Harry James, though it was the east coast trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and a new genre called bebop that both fascinated and confused Baker more than any other, and despite the fact that this new music was nothing like the lyrical playing that would gain him attention, he was thrown into the culture surrounding it, and though at that time he neither smoked nor drank, the compulsion to self-destruct. Back from a second stint in the army in 1949, Baker heard a set of Capitol 78's that starred Miles Davis--who in spite of his association with the pyrotechnical beboppers had evolved a cool, spare yet edgy style in these recordings known as"The Birth of the Cool". Included in this band was a red headed Irish American named Mulligan from Queens, a baritone saxophonist whose technical approach to the instrument yielded a sound that was impersonal even cold, with whom in 1952 Baker would be included in a pianoless quartet after having appeared at the Tiffany Club in Hollywood with Charlie Parker in April of that year.
"Jazz men throughout L. A.," Gavin states,"tried to make music with the same glossy perfection--to show how smart they were, how cool--which meant having the perfect intonations, the great execution, everything clean and neat." Drummer Shelly Manne is quoted from an article in Metronome:"four out of five musicians are writers..." That style defined West Coast Jazz. L. A. based saxophonist Teddy Edwards is quoted as saying,"The jazz out of the East is heavy and black and out of the West light and white". It boasted titles like Shorty Rogers'"Powder Puff","Bunny", and"The Pesky Serpent", tunes that were heavily scripted, with not a note out of place.
Gerry Mulligan had gone West in an attempt to rid himself of a heroin habit, and it was his lack of success in this that led to Baker's initial brush with the law, though he himself had as yet no involvement with it. That would come after having won the Down Beat poll and appearing at Birdland opposite an all-star quintet led by Mile Davis who had by then become his nemesis, saying to critics that Baker could not play as well as he could when he was on drugs. Later, in an autoriogbaphy Davis would say,"Both him and me knew that he had copied a lot of that shit from me".
Stung by critical response after that Birdland engagement, Baker soon left the U.S. for Europe with pianist Dick Twardzik. When Twardzik died there of an overdose, a devastated Baker returned to the states with a habit Gavin surmises was occasioned by guilt over Twardzik's death. Losing what had been schoolboy charm and good looks, Baker was now largely spurned by critics in the U. S., the same critics who had once sought to make him a poster boy for good living. Returning to Europe he would spend most of the rest of his life there, dying after a fall from a hotel room in Amsterdam that some deemed suspicious.
Despite such slippage as referring to Ornette Coleman as"a honker and a screecher," the repeated reference to trumpeter McKinley"Kinney" Dorham as"Kenny" and having Gerry Mulligan moving to New York when he was born there, Gavin has written a very informative book, and one that can be read as a cautionary tale.