Of heroin and horn

If you’ve never really had an ear for jazz, perhaps it’s because you’ve never listened to the late Chet Baker. A trumpeter whose popularity peaked in the 1950s, Baker’s sparse, beautiful melodies helped define West Coast jazz of the era. The style was known as “cool jazz,” meaning that it was, like the post WWII Southern California lifestyle that helped inspire it, laid back, easier to listen to and to play than the “hot,” challenging music being generated on the East Coast by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, et al.

While most critics would argue that Baker never had the chops of Dizzy or Miles, he had other things going for him. He was white and good looking to name two qualities that, when combined with the more accessible West Coast sound, gave him something few jazz artists before or since have possessed: crossover potential with mainstream audiences. A natural musician who played by ear and rarely practiced, Baker won the hearts of fans if not the critics, and after repeatedly being named “best trumpeter” in jazz magazine reader polls during the mid-1950s, there appeared no place else for him to go but up.

Instead, by the time the ’50s had ended, Chet Baker had already begun the long fall that eventually ended on a dark street in 1988, when the 58-year-old musician was found dead beneath the window of his third-story Amsterdam hotel room. Author James Gavin captures Baker’s rapid rise and spiraling, heroin-aided descent with intimate and intricate detail in this thoroughly researched and engaging biography of the fallen jazz star, Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker.

As is the case with most celebrity junkies, a lot of people who knew Chet Baker have survived him. It’s a fact that works in favor of Gavin, who during the course of researching the book interviewed literally hundreds of Baker’s acquaintances—lovers, estranged wives, abandoned children, fellow musicians, etc.—and against Baker, who managed to alienate just about every person he ever met with a cold aloofness that belied the beautiful music he was capable of making.

The bad man/good music dichotomy has been exploited by other Baker biographers, most notably filmmaker Bruce Weber in Let’s Get Lost, the 1987 movie that introduced the musician to a new generation of listeners just a year before his death. While growing up in the ’50s, Weber had become enamored with photographer Will Claxton’s androgynous black-and-white images of Baker, and later Weber used the starkly beautiful images as inspiration for his famed homoerotic Calvin Klein underwear ads featuring the exposed abs of teen heartthrob Marky-Mark. When Weber tracked Baker down in the eighties to do the film, he was shocked to discover his idol had been transformed into a shriveled, drug-addicted gnome.

Perhaps due to Weber’s fondness for Baker and the limitations of film, what exactly happened to the fallen idol was never adequately explained in Let’s Get Lost, which can be viewed as a tribute to lost youth—Baker’s and our own. Those are shortcomings Gavin doesn’t have to deal with as he meticulously deconstructs Baker’s life, from the trumpeter’s humble 1929 birth in Oklahoma, to his meteoric rise to the top of the jazz charts, to his three-decade slide into chronic heroin addiction.

Gavin’s Baker comes off as a man who reduced life to a singular equation, a homeless, wandering troubadour with a golden trumpet and a sign hanging around his neck saying, “Got dope?” That’s what Baker did in Europe for 30 years, playing for cash that was immediately exchanged for whatever opiates might be on hand. But even though Baker’s best work was behind him, Gavin concludes that he remained true to his own musical vision, continuing to push himself creatively to the very end.

No doubt, Baker fell far short of his original promise. But in Gavin’s book, at least, his tenacity and single-minded sense of purpose come off as redeemable qualities in a character many might otherwise find beyond redemption.