Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Drug cops are dummies

The great American trumpet player, Chet Baker, might have been celebrating his eightieth birthday today had he not been so addicted to drugs, and had he not fallen out of a window a few months before his sixtieth birthday. He left behind a skimpy diary, apparently, which was tailored, by his estate, into a memoir - but not a very good one by many accounts!

Baker was born on 23 December 1929 - eight decades ago today - into a musical family. He left school at 16, inducted into the army, and was posted to Berlin where he joined a military band. He left the army for a short time to study music at El Camino College in Los Angeles but re-enlisted before leaving again to pursue a career as a professional musician in San Francisco. There he also played for an army band, but appeared in jazz clubs too. In 1952, he played with Charlie Parker in a series of concerts, and then joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. That band became popular very quickly, partly thanks to how Baker’s trumpet playing counterpointed Mulligan’s saxophone playing so well. Wikipedia says the Quartet’s version of My Funny Valentine, with a Baker solo, was a major hit.

The Quartet floundered before long thanks to Mulligan’s arrest and imprisonment on drug charges, but Baker’s career continued apace, not least with his 1953 record Chet Baker Sings. Thereafter, Baker formed various bands, and his 1956 release, The Route, with Art Pepper, helped popularise the West Coast jazz sound, later becoming a staple of so-called cool jazz. Indeed, Baker, with his good looks and singing talent, became something of a jazz icon.

However, thereafter Baker’s career was interrupted by a series of drug-related incidents, including a year-long term of imprisonment in Italy. Other incidents led to him being expelled from European countries, and eventually deported back to the US, where he settled in Milpitas in northern California. A problem with his teeth - possibly as the result of a fight, or of drug-taking - also affected his trumpet-playing. He learned to play with dentures, but most of the time between 1966 and 1974 he used the flugelhorn and stuck with smooth jazz.

Subsequently, though, he returned to the trumpet and his previous style, playing a lot with guitarist Jim Hall. From 1978, he lived and played mostly in Europe. This is a period in which he recorded many albums for many labels (since he was always in need of money to fuel his drug habit), and, according to some, played the best music of his life. He died in 1988 after a fall from a second-story hotel room in Amsterdam. An autopsy found heroin and cocaine in his body. There are several biographies scattered around the web, try Allmusic, Chetbakertribute, or the Chet Baker fan site.

Ten years later, in 1997, St Martin’s Griffin in New York published Chet Baker: As Though I Had Wings - The Lost Memoir. A few pages can be read at, and although it doesn’t appear to read like a diary, Amazon says this about the book: ‘Chet Baker, poster child for West Coast Cool Jazz and patron saint of its notorious lush life, kept a diary. Published by his estate and introduced by his widow, his entries have been tailored to a memoir of his life from 1946 to 1963. These are the years of his rise to stardom in music and movies - and his tumble into the trenches of incarceration and drug abuse. The book is divided into 13 quick-reading chapters in which Baker writes of his life as a musician, all seasoned with tales of drugs, prison terms, and a laundry list of romances.’ The term ‘diary’, though, might not be so accurate. Allaboutjazz calls it a notebook that was unearthed by a magazine writer and that it contained ‘casual writings about [Baker’s] life set in more or less chronological order’.

The book did not garner the best reviews. Kirkus says it is a ‘sliver of autobiography’ and that ‘even when discussing his peak years, Baker concentrates more on drug busts than music’. Still, it concludes, ‘this is a morbidly fascinating window onto his hobbled genius’. Dwight Garner at Salon listed it as one of the worst books of 1997: ‘From its first banal sentence . . . to its last (including the phrase ‘we were so stoned and so sleepy’), it never comes close to the blue velvet of Baker’s singing voice or the sheer breathiness of his trumpet playing.’

Here are a few extracts:

‘I felt uncomfortable and very nervous as Bird asked the crowd if I was in the club, and would I come up and play something with him. . . After Cheryl he announced that the audition was over, thanked everyone for coming, and said that he was hiring me. . .’

‘Moving quickly toward the noise, as did everyone else, I saw Dick lying on the floor. He had passed out cold, and several people were trying to figure out what was wrong with him. We located a doctor and cleared the stage area. I should point out that Dick had always taken care of business; always at work on time and always playing exceptionally.’

‘The cops who busted me were complete dummies who loved to harass and bust musicians, actors, and celebrities of all kinds; people who were an easy bust, and who would get their names in the paper. They never arrested the pushers or anyone who might be really dangerous. It wasn’t their style.’

And again of drug cops: ‘I hated those bastards and all they stood for.’

No comments: