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1Copyright 2002 by James Gavin
The Christmas season of 1929 arrived just weeks after the stock market had crashed. But that December, nineteen-year-old Vera Baker got the gift of her dreams. In her little Oklahoma house, she gazed down at the infant in her arms, an angel with alabaster skin and hazel eyes. When he smiled at her, she saw magic. The child would surely lift her above the cold realities of marriage to a frequently unemployed alcoholic; more than that, he would bring meaning to her life, supplying all the tenderness and excitement that were missing. He was named Chesney, after his father. But with his chubby cheeks and dark hair, the child seemed like a tiny replica of herself. From the time of his birth, "Chettie,"as she called him, was the center of Vera's universe.
Her obsession with him, and his father's response to it, had a darker effect on Chet Baker than he ever acknowledged; even he probably didn't understand it. Years later, he told Lisa Galt Bond, his collaborator on an unfinished memoir, "I had a very happy childhood; no problems."The tendency to keep things hidden had been ingrained in him from an early age. In 1954 he brought his French girlfriend, Liliane Cukier, to his parents' home during the first national tour of the Chet Baker Quartet. She observed the Bakers for three weeks. "This was a family where nobody hollered, didn't say what they had in their hearts or in their minds,"she noticed. "Everyone was just trying to be cool."
Cukier recalled Chesney and Vera as "Oklahoma peasants, ordinary white people from way in the center."Starting in 1946, Chesney drove a yellow cab, the only job he had held on to for morethan a couple of years. For a while in the twenties, he had lived his dream by touring as a guitar and banjo player. He worked mainly in hillbilly bands, but according to his son, Chesney had a feeling for jazz: he could whistle the licks of his hero, the Texas-born trombone master Jack Teagarden, while improvising on guitar.
Then came the Depression and the birth of his child, and he was forced to quit music and take a series of dreary survival jobs. He rarely mentioned his frustration, but it showed on his face: by his thirties he looked old and haggard, with crow's-feet spreading down his cheeks, pointing to a mouth that rarely smiled. He kept his sandy hair combed back, exposing a deeply furrowed brow. That prematurely ravaged look was inherited by his son, whose facial decay in later years would be commonly blamed on drug abuse. Chesney, though, aged far less strikingly. Bernie Fleischer recalled him as "very bland-looking,"a man who faded into the background: "He was one of those shadowy figures who was always away somewhere."In the forties, Chesney surfaced occasionally to brag to his son's musician friends about a night when the great Teagarden had come to the house to jam with him. Some of them would later suspect that the fabled meeting had never happened at all.
Liquor helped Chesney dull the truth, including memories of a grim childhood. His family had moved from Illinois, where he was born on January 24, 1906, to Snyder, Oklahoma. Life in Snyder seemed cursed–not just by the tornado and fires that had plagued the small town, but by domestic strife. Vera later explained that Chesney's father, George Baker, had deserted his mother, Alice, and their five children for another woman. Alice went on to marry "Grandpa Beardsley,"as the family knew him, a farmer with a bad leg and a nasty temper. Grandpa Beardsley seemed to hate his stepson on sight; Chesney told Vera that the older man beat him with his cane and badgered him to leave the house and never come back. Alice tried to protect her son, but Chesney fled before he was eighteen. For the rest of his life he hated his father and stepfather. Even after the latter had suffered a stroke and needed two canes to walk, Chesney had no sympathy; he grumbled to Vera that he wouldn't cross the street to see his stepfather even if the old man were on his deathbed.
It was in his teens that Chesney first found solace in the infant art of jazz. An improvisational music born of gospel, Negro spirituals, blues, and ragtime, jazz was all about letting the imagination take wing, molding split-second flights of fancy into personal statements of the heart. Chesney needed escape, and jazz seemed like the perfect vehicle. Besides Teagarden, whose ability to play trombone with endless invention defined the form, one other star fascinated Chesney: Bix Beiderbecke, a cornetist with a rich tone, a spareless, and a poignance seldom found in early jazz, which tended to sound like party music.
Chesney taught himself to play banjo, a popular instrument in traditional, or "Dixieland,"jazz, and thus wrote his own ticket out of Snyder. The still-tiny jazz circuit seemed out of his reach, so he joined a series of country-western bands that entertained at dances throughout Oklahoma and other Midwestern states. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, but never had he known such joy: he lived each day for music, then unwound at night by drinking and smoking reefer, just like his heroes.
In 1928, Chesney passed through Yale, Oklahoma, a small oil town between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Yale was so marginal that, in years to come, many state history books failed to mention it. The city's only claim to fame was Jim Thorpe, the American Indian whose 1912 Olympic triumphs in football and track had won him the title "World's Greatest Athlete"and inspired a Hollywood movie, Jim Thorpe: All American, starring Burt Lancaster. During the twenties, most of Yale's 2,600 other residents worked in the town's oil fields and refineries or as farmers.
One of the latter was Salomon Wesley Moser, a native of Iowa. In 1889, he had joined the legendary Oklahoma Run, in which white settlers charged in on horseback to drive Indians off the fertile land and claim it for themselves. Moser took eighty acres and started a farm. Around that time he met and married Randi, a young blind woman from Norway. The couple had seven children, who tended the farm. The next-to-youngest, Vera Pauline, was born there in May 1910. Vera grew into an unglamorous teenager. Short and stocky, she wore her mousy brown hair hanging down and parted in the middle. Her deep-set eyes were surrounded by little lines, deepened through years of exposure to the Oklahoma sun and dry winds.
At eighteen, Vera went to a Saturday-night barn dance where the young men and women of Yale gathered to find mates. She and the visiting guitar player, Chesney Baker, caught each other's eye. "He was such a handsome fellow!"Vera recalled. After a brief courtship they were wed by a justice of the peace, and found a cozy house at 326 South B Street in Yale. But any dreams Vera may have had for married bliss crumbled when Chesney skipped the honeymoon to go on tour, leaving her in Yale. Rather than live alone, she went back to her parents' farm, where she waited almost a year for her husband to return.
Their estrangement ended abruptly in October 1929, when the stock market crash wiped out people's entertainment budgets, along with Chesney's modest career. Just before Christmas, he came home broke and bereft of prospects to find his wife seven months pregnant, which only compounded his worries. On Monday, December 23, Vera gave birth to Chesney Henry Baker, Jr. Suddenly the disappointments of her marriage didn't seem to matter. Vera refashioned her life around Chettie. She bought a Brownie box camera and began obsessively photographing her beautiful son–one way she could possess his every move. She documented his infancy in a photo album called The Dear Baby. Under the heading "Baby's Most Cherished Playthings,"she noted the odd combination of a doll and a Tinkertoy car, a portent of the sexual ambiguity for which he eventually became known. When Chettie murmured "I ov u,"she wrote it neatly under "Some of Baby's First Sayings."
Vera's infatuation with her newborn son couldn't erase her fear of a bleak future. She fretted over how they would survive with no income. When Chesney finally found work, it was bitterly removed from the guitar strumming he loved: he smashed up old boilers with a sledgehammer in an oil field for twenty-five cents an hour. But even that job vanished as the Yale refineries fell victim one by one to the Depression. Life there seemed hopeless, and when Chettie was about a year old, his parents took him and headed for Oklahoma City, the state capital. Purely by chance, the town had escaped the worst effects of the crash: just months before, an oil well had been drilled there, setting off a thriving petroleum industry. Several public-works projects were launched, and out of them came the Oklahoma Arts Center and the Oklahoma City Symphony. All this cultural activity made Chesney think he might be able to play again.
He and Vera rented a small house downtown, on a street lined with shops and factories. Compared with Yale, Oklahoma City felt like a big-time metropolis. Pedestrians stared up in awe at the state's first "skyscraper,"twelve stories high; they streamed in and out of the First National Bank building, the Biltmore Hotel, the YWCA, and other modern structures. Steam trains puffed white clouds as they chugged along the Rock Island and Frisco railroad lines, which ran through the center of town. The city's sparkle filled the Bakers with hope. Vera found a job in an ice-cream factory, while Chesney joined a band at radio station WKY, opening the broadcast day at 6 a.m. with a half-hour of hillbilly music. Fiddle players, a drummer, and guitarist Chesney huddled around a stand-up microphone in blue jeans and vests, stomping out a backbeat with their cowboy boots as they played. Often Chesney brought his son, then looked after him at home until Vera returned, bearing quarts of ice cream. On weekends, the band gathered at the house and jammed all night. For Chesney, life was complete again.
According to Vera, jazz and swing played on the radio for just an hour a day. During that time, she said in Let's Get Lost, Chettie would climb onto a stool and listen with the burning concentration that one day would mark his playing. Sometimes she romanticized the memory by claiming that her two-year-old son used to jump off the chair and play songs on the trumpet; in fact, he didn't touch a horn for another decade. But he was already absorbing the music, and in 1980 he told Lisa Galt Bond that he learned his first tune, "Sleepytime Gal,"from his father before he was two.
As he also revealed, music wasn't the only thing Chesney exposed him to. In a 1960s tabloid article, "The Trumpet and the Spike: A Confession by Chet Baker,"he recalled lying in bed late one night and hearing his father gab with his buddies from behind the closed door of the living room. Curious, the child toddled over and peeked through the keyhole. His description of the event bordered on the surreal. "My old man and his pals were lying back in their chairs with their eyes closed,"he said. "They've gone to sleep, I thought, and they're dreaming strange, wonderful dreams. The room was filled with white smoke and its pungent smell reached me through the door and made me feel sick."One man, he recalled, wasn't smoking; instead he sat with his mouth wide open, inhaling smoke from the air. "They were almost in ecstasy,"Baker said. "I didn't say anything to my father, nor to my mother, feeling that those gatherings were something secret, forbidden. After that first evening I spied a lot of other times on my father and his friends from the keyhole, more and more impressed and frightened."
Once he became known as a junkie, rumors spread that Baker used to smoke pot with his parents. "I don't know how that story got invented and circulated,"he declared angrily to journalist Jerome Reece in 1983, after years of turning his life into a fantasy for reporters. "My father would smoke with other musicians a few times a week at the house, but I was very young at the time. What a ridiculous story–my mother was very strict and she was against all that."
For the rest of his life, Baker defended his father stubbornly, even though he had reason not to. Their relationship took a harsh turn when Chesney lost his radio job. He never played professionally again. A failure as a musician and, increasingly, as a breadwinner, he started drinking heavily. Chesney sat around the house with the radio on, hearing others play the music he no longer performed; his frustration festered until it exploded. His son was usually the target. Chesney started raising his hand or belt to Chettie anytime the boy made too much noise or wouldn't finish his dinner. "His father used to beat the shit out of him,"said Sandy Jones, a woman with whom the trumpeter shared heroin, sex, and some rare revelations in 1970.
Baker seldom mentioned those childhood beatings to anyone. Even Ruth Young, who drew the deepest confidences out of him, knew only the outlines of his early paternal relationship. "Chet always wanted to be close to the father, but he was afraid of him,"she said, adding: "They were divided by the mother's rein."Until Chesney died in 1967, Baker longed for his father's approval; with his own career seemingly finished by that time, he empathized all the more with the older man's pain at having to give up music.
Diane Vavra got an insight into Chesney's violence in 1986, when Baker took her on a visit to Oklahoma to see his mother. In a moment alone with Vera, Diane confided that Baker had been beating her. Vera was sympathetic. "My dear, why would you stay with a man who hit you?"she asked. "Let me tell you a story."She went on to recall a day early in her marriage when she and Chesney were in the car, with him at the wheel. He started accusing her of flirting with another man, and worked himself into a fury. The angrier he got, the more wildly he drove, until he made a bad turn and flipped the car over on its side. "After that,"said Vera, "I never felt the same way about him again."
Vera couldn't have imagined that this abusive streak, passed down from Grandpa Beardsley to her husband, would appear in her son as well, but eventually she found out firsthand. Vavra remembered hearing Baker snarl to her in the early seventies that he had just hit his own mother. That admission was echoed chillingly in Vera's comment, made in Let's Get Lost, that Chettie was "exactly like his father."
Even in hard times, Vera kept up appearances. Despite her new full-time job as a saleslady at F. W. Woolworth, she maintained an immaculate, well-ordered home. To her son's friends she seemed ever calm and maternal, with a doting smile. Nearly everyone described her as "sweet,"although when Bernie Fleischer met her in the forties, he saw a "very used, washed-out, thin little lady."
Her little boy remained her salvation. Every morning before he left for kindergarten and she for work, she dressed him fussily in clothes she had bought with her employee discount, including a sailor suit with a big white pointed collar. She made him stand still as she plastered his hair back and tied his shoelaces. Small for his age, he resembled a little doll as he walked to school along the railroad tracks.