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Chet Baker
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Chet Baker
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Chet Baker
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Historical Profile
1 January 2012

Chet Baker

His technique was said to be terrible, it was rumoured he could barely read music, but it didn’t matter, nothing mattered, because when Chet improvised he was in every moment.

Written by Ruby J Murray

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Not many people came to Chet Baker’s funeral. The outskirts of LA, a cemetery near the airport. Chet’s daughter Melissa hissed obscenities at her father’s last lover over the lowering coffin. Melissa’s mother, the wife Chet hadn’t lived with for fifteen years, stood up front in the beating Southern California sunlight with her arms clamped over her chest.

The thrill is gone, my funny valentine, that smooth, softly smoked voice, the lament of his trumpet. You fall in love with it. It’s sound, though, not something you can hold. For as long as his pure note lasted, everything Chet said was true. But the music and the life don’t fit. And no matter whose version of his life you believe—because everyone wants a piece of him—the gap between the song and the facts sinks a hole in your heart.

Leaving the funeral, one woman warned a future biographer: “Chet can hurt people even after he’s dead. Remember that.”

He was born in the tiny oil town of Yale, Oklahoma, in 1929, an unlikely home for one of the world’s most famous jazz musicians. His father, also a musician, gave up music as he struggled to get his young family through the depression years, before joining the Okies fleeing for golden California.

In an attempt to make a man out of his softly-sung choir son, Chet’s father bought a trumpet in a pawn store. Took it home, put it silently on the table. Chet picked it up and took it away, enraptured. Not long after, as he practiced in the street, another kid threw a rock at Chet’s head, chipping his front tooth in half. What would have been fatal for another trumpet player didn’t stop Chet, though, who was besotted, in love in a way that only junk would ever transport him again.

In California Chet lost his virginity. ‘Got his first pussy’, as he would later describe it. Started siphoning gas from cars. His parents struggled to make ends meet. In 1946 he lied about his age and enrolled in the army. Either: it was his mother’s idea, like she says. Or: Chet thought of it himself, because when Chet tells it he always made his own decisions.

In a devastated Berlin, he begged his way in to the army band. On and off over the next four years, in and out of the army, it was always the music. When he was finally discharged, deemed unfit for military service after faking a breakdown (was it really faked? He says yes. No one else is sure), he was drawn back to the West Coast clubs and bars, to the music, the stage, the lights, the high, and to his first wife, Charlaine. Women came in to his life dramatically, decisively, but they didn’t leave it that way. They lingered, fading.

Then Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker drove in to Los Angeles, and Chet ended up on stage beside him.

How he got on that stage no one seems to agree. As Chet tells it the room is dark. Bird is jamming on stage, a press of tens of other eager horn players waiting to audition, and Charlie Parker puts his horn down from his mouth to ask simply if Chet Baker is there, in that crowd. Yes, Chet replies, walking in to his destiny. All the other horn players are sent home.

Chet somehow climbed the barrier, from the ‘privileged’, white, West coast scene to the edge of the hard, passionate, black ‘East Coast’ scene. No one else remembers an audition. Likewise, it’s unclear whether Parker really did drive back East and call up Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davies, and Lee Morgan and say: “You better look out, there’s a little white cat on the coast who’s gonna eat you up.” A decade before the civil rights movement it was a story Chet liked though, and a story Chet told.

Over the next three years his success blazed a track across musical history. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Charlaine faded. He won awards, hearts, was plastered over magazine covers; his angelic, sad face with that sweet mouth forever closed against the broken tooth. His technique was said to be terrible, it was rumoured he could barely read music, (or he could, but didn’t need to, and his tone was clear and true) but it didn’t matter, nothing mattered, because when Chet improvised he was in every moment. He was himself, and no one else. He was an artist.

And he was only twenty-three. With the Gerry Mulligan Quartet he swept America. The contrapuntal call from Chet’s trumpet to Gerry’s baritone saxophone seems natural today, but it was a revelation then. While their music has endured, the quartet itself lasted twelve months before falling apart when Gerry Mulligan was arrested on drug charges.

No one knows when Chet first started using. Chet himself doesn’t even seem to know—sometimes it’s before Bird, sometimes it’s after. But as fast as he went up, he came down. By the late 1950s, Chet was sliding deep in to the crystalline anti-glamour of a heroine addiction. Every few weeks he was arrested, pulled over, stripped down, and after doing four months in Rikers Island jail, he fled to Europe with his second wife Halema.

In Italy in 1959, his veins collapsing, he met Carol, his third-wife to be. Halema faded, taking his first child with her, Carol came in with a cymbal roll. And then Chet was arrested again. The tabloids took to it with a vengeance, the American Adonis and his beautiful lovers.

Either: he was on the way to a treatment unit, and stopped to innocently shoot up in a petrol station bathroom only to be accosted by police as he left. Or: the police had to knock down the door, and found him on the inside, the walls covered in blood, his veins opened.

After six months in an Italian jail Chet’s career began a long, sliding decline. He married Carol, went from country to country, was pushed back from every border, and finally ended up in America again. Through the 1960s he struggled on, until one night in 1966, outside a club (or in the stairwell of a hotel) he was attacked by five men, beaten to a pulp. His mouth collapsed. Either: his teeth were punched out. Or: someone pulled them out, one at a time. The sparkling promise of the early years were well and truly over.

His troubled embouchure slowly collapsed. One of the most lyrical musicians of the twentieth century started pumping gas, and then moved his young family in with his mother in Oklahoma, where he spent the next five years on welfare and methadone.

In the early 1970s he slowly began to play again. The music was a catalyst, as soon as he played, people came. He met the young, rich, beautiful Ruth Young in a smoky bar, left on tour, and never came back. From 1974 to his death in 1988, he pulled himself across stages. He was either better than ever, or he was a staggering junkie, riding the audience’s memories of what he used to be. His final love affair, with Diane Vavra, was obsessive, burning. When he hit her, she came back, drawn by his music. In early 1988, he died falling from the window of an Amsterdam hotel. Either: he was thrown from it. Or: he jumped.

Or: he really did fall, thinking he could fly.

Chet Baker made over 900 recordings during his career, a career that spanned two continents and—along with Louis Armstrong and Miles Davies—defined jazz trumpet in the twentieth century. But none of his music sounds like the thrashing noise his daughter Melissa made ransacking his home, her cackle as she took away his lover’s ‘sexy clothes.’

When the pianist Hal Galper was asked what he thought of one of the many attempts to recount Chet’s life, Bruce Weber’s 1988 Let’s Get Lost, he laughed and said: “I thought it was great, because it was so jive. Everybody’s lying, including Chet. You couldn’t have wanted a more honest reflection of him.”

Ruby J Murray

Ruby is an Australian writer, journalist and copywriter based in San Francisco, USA. Her 2012 novel Running Dogs is based in Indonesia and looks at the fraught relationship between Australian aid workers and Jakartan culture. Read more: rubyjmurray.com

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