Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker

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Overview

This first major biography of the most romanticized icon in jazz thrillingly recounts his wild ride. From his emergence in the 1950s—when an uncannily beautiful young man from Oklahoma appeared on the West Coast to become, seemingly overnight, the prince of "cool" jazz—until his violent, drug-related death in Amsterdam in 1988, Chet Baker lived a life that has become an American myth. Here, drawing on hundreds of interviews and previously untapped sources, James Gavin gives a hair-raising account of the ...

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Overview

This first major biography of the most romanticized icon in jazz thrillingly recounts his wild ride. From his emergence in the 1950s—when an uncannily beautiful young man from Oklahoma appeared on the West Coast to become, seemingly overnight, the prince of "cool" jazz—until his violent, drug-related death in Amsterdam in 1988, Chet Baker lived a life that has become an American myth. Here, drawing on hundreds of interviews and previously untapped sources, James Gavin gives a hair-raising account of the trumpeter's dark journey.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Jazz musician Chet Baker (1929–88) was the stuff of legends. In the '50s, this Oklahoma-born singer and trumpeter gained a worldwide reputation as a giant of "cool" jazz. His fragile, intimate tenor voice and the melancholy lyricism of his playing made him a cult figure to devotees of the new American art. But almost from the start, Baker's career was plagued by drug addiction. His penchant for heroin undermined his artistry and exposed him to legal prosecutors, cynical nightclub owners, and manipulative managers. (Baker, who never learned to read, was often unable to decipher their swindles.) In 1968, the horn player was forced to retire after losing his teeth in a brawl with fellow junkies. Within a few years, he was back playing and in the last decade of his life undertook an extended tour of Europe. His jagged career ended with apt abruptness: Just weeks after one of his most astonishing performances, he mysteriously fell to his death from an Amsterdam window. Gerry Mulligan called Chet Baker "the most talented trumpet player I ever played with or ever heard." Certainly, though, he wasn't the most lucky.
Publishers Weekly
There's a point at which the reporting of salacious or sadistic behavior overwhelms more important aspects of a person's life. Gavin (Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret) comes perilously close to crossing that line in this biography of jazz trumpeter Baker, whose drug-addled life is well known to music fans. Often, Gavin examines the minutest details of Baker's heroin abuse at the expense of detailing his musical triumphs. While he provides valuable information on Baker's neglect and bad treatment of family and friends, as well as his European and Japanese tours, he fails to demonstrate an understanding of his subject's music, which demands respect. Art Pepper's Straight Life is still one of the best examples of jazz biographyautobiography; it not only conveys the toll that heroin took on Pepper (one of Baker's contemporaries) but also gives a good feel for the music. Readers looking for a less commercial (though slightly more fawning) biography are directed to Jeroen de Valk's Chet Baker. Recommended with reservations for academic and public libraries. [This month, Blue Note Records will release Deep in a Dream: The Ultimate Chet Baker Collection, produced by Gavin. Ed.] William G. Kenz, Minnesota State Univ., Moorhead Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
There's a point at which the reporting of salacious or sadistic behavior overwhelms more important aspects of a person's life. Gavin (Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret) comes perilously close to crossing that line in this biography of jazz trumpeter Baker, whose drug-addled life is well known to music fans. Often, Gavin examines the minutest details of Baker's heroin abuse at the expense of detailing his musical triumphs. While he provides valuable information on Baker's neglect and bad treatment of family and friends, as well as his European and Japanese tours, he fails to demonstrate an understanding of his subject's music, which demands respect. Art Pepper's Straight Life is still one of the best examples of jazz biographyautobiography; it not only conveys the toll that heroin took on Pepper (one of Baker's contemporaries) but also gives a good feel for the music. Readers looking for a less commercial (though slightly more fawning) biography are directed to Jeroen de Valk's Chet Baker. Recommended with reservations for academic and public libraries. [This month, Blue Note Records will release Deep in a Dream: The Ultimate Chet Baker Collection, produced by Gavin. Ed.] William G. Kenz, Minnesota State Univ., Moorhead Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The grim life of cool jazzman Baker, told with relish and a firm grasp of the material by Gavin (Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, 1991). Baker epitomized detached hipness: he was handsome and dangerous, above it all, a natural lyrical trumpeter with a bell-clear tenor, and a true bad boy. As bebop was making its presence felt, with all its dissonant chords and chromatic solos and unusual rhythms, its improvisation and intimidation, Baker started making his name as a horn player, but in a more fluid style, running from brash and spirited to playing that was "as graceful as poems." Gavin tells Baker's story with excitement, a torrent of images and associations on a par with the trumpeter's own far-flung ramble through the jazz world, working with Charlie Parker (whose praise rocketed him to stardom), his extraordinary early musical rapport with Gerry Mulligan, and his own low-key West Coast groups. But, as Gavin explains, he was also one troubled man, mistrusting, needing to be mothered, vulgar, reckless, and irresponsible. Derided by East Coast critics for his mildness and accused by black jazz players of lifting their material and commercializing it, Baker still had a tremendous following, though Gavin allows that it was as much for his looks as for his pearly trumpeting and androgynous voice. Dope took him down. Grass gave way to painkillers, then heroin, and Baker turned himself into a walking ghost. Gavin does a cringingly fine job of detailing these personal travails, Baker's desperate womanizing, and his musical persona, which made nickel-and-dime clubs feel as natural for Baker as the big jazz festivals, or more so. Yet, doped and pathetic, even his last Europeangigs were found to have a "broken, lonely, but at the same time endlessly sweet and emotional sound." Not just a pitiable waste of luminous talent, but a really scary story. Narrated by Gavin with gingery discernment. (24 pp. photographs)
The Barnes & Noble Review

James Gavin's book about Chet Baker, the jazz singer and trumpeter who first gained fame in the early fifties and who, only a few years later—and for the rest of his life—was better known as a heroin addict as unregenerate any in the history of the music, was first published in 2002, fourteen years after Baker's death in Amsterdam, at fifty-eight, almost certainly by suicide; it has only now appeared in paperback. This long lag is hard to fathom. As evidenced most strikingly in the portraits of Baker in Geoff Dyer's 1995 But Beautiful and Dave Hickey's 1997 Air Guitar, and in the response to Bruce Weber's 1988 documentary film Let's Get Lost, released just after Baker's death, and screened in a restored version at the Cannes film festival only three years ago, there has always been a Chet Baker cult.

But more than that, Deep in a Dream—named for a particularly affecting, cloudlike Baker recording from 1959—is not an ordinary biography, though there is nothing unusual about its form (from birth to death and aftermath) or style (direct and clear). It is a singular work of biographical art that makes most studies of, as Hickey's essay on Baker is so wonderfully titled, "A Life in the Arts," seem craven, compromised, or dishonest, with the writer falling back before the story he or she has chosen to tell, for whatever reasons offering excuses or blame in place of a frank embrace of the unresolved story each of us leaves behind, producing less any sort of real entry into the mysterious country of another person's life than a cover- up. To put it another way: except in the rare cases of those strange creatures who, like T. E. Lawrence, create themselves to such a degree that it becomes nearly impossible to imagine that they ever experienced a trivial or even workaday moment, the dramatic sweep we find in novels or movies is not really the stuff of anyone's life. No matter how the writer may try to have it otherwise, most biographies are simply one thing after another. The life of a junkie is not just one thing after another, it is the same one thing after another—and yet there is not a page in Deep in a Dream that is not engaging, alive, demanding a response from a reader whether that be a matter of horror or awe, making the reader almost complicit in whatever comes next, even when, with the story less that of a musician who used heroin to play than that of a junkie who played to get heroin, it seems certain that nothing can.

Born in Oklahoma in 1929, Chet Baker grew up in Los Angeles. He had a deep and instinctive ear for music, playing trumpet in high school, army, and junior college bands; in 1949, when he heard the Miles Davis 78s that would later be collected as The Birth of the Cool, Baker "connected with that style so passionately that he felt he had found the light." That same year he was present at all-night sessions in L.A. to hear Charlie "Bird" Parker, and was shot up with heroin for the first time. He sat in with Dave Brubeck in San Francisco; in 1952 in L.A. he was called in with others to make up a group to back a wasted Parker.

That gave Baker an instant credibility in jazz. Ruined or not, Charlie Parker, with Dizzy Gillespie the progenitor of bebop, was the genius, the savant, the seer, the stumbling visionary who heard what others could not and could translate what he heard into a new language that others could immediately understand, even if they could never speak it themselves. If Parker said that Baker's playing was "pure and simple," that it reminded him of the Bix Beiderbecke records he heard growing up in Kansas City, that made the perhaps apocryphal story of Parker telling Gillespie and Davis, "There's a little white cat on the coast who's gonna eat you up" almost believable. But it was Baker's face—as much or more than his joining in a new L.A. quartet with Gerry Mulligan, the baritone saxophonist and junkie who had played on the Birth of the Cool sessions, or Baker forming his own group and then headlining at Birdland in New York with Gillespie and Davis below him on the bill—that made many people want to believe it.

Well before the end of his life, after he had lost most of his teeth in a drug-related beating in San Francisco, after he had turned into as charming, self-pitying, manipulative, professional a junkie as any in America or Europe, where for decades he made his living less as a musician than a legend, Baker wore the face of a lizard. In some photographs he barely looks human. But at the start he was, as so indelibly captured in William Claxton's famous photographs, not merely beautiful, not merely a California golden boy—in the words of the television impresario and songwriter Steve Allen, someone who "started out as James Dean and ended up as Charles Manson." He was gorgeous, he seemed touched by an odd light, and he did not, even then, look altogether human—but in a manner that was not repulsive but irresistibly alluring. His legend—the way in which, with the clarity and ease of his tone as a trumpeter, and the preternatural calm, quiet, and reflectiveness of his singing, the way in which he could, "somehow," as Gavin quotes the Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, "express the question mark of life in so few notes," the way in which Baker was a cult in and of himself—was as the years went on not just a Johnny Thunders death watch, a spectacle of self-destruction, the face of the monster slowly grinding down the memory of the angel. Rather it was, through all the years of working less as a musician than as his own pimp ("One uninspired night at the Subway Club in Cologne yielded three albums"), of a self-degradation so extreme it had to be, in its way, its own reward ("Waking from a nod...he found his face crawling with cockroaches"), the chance that the pure talent, as a thing in itself, might still be there, might still emerge on any night, in any song, and then, again, vanish, humiliating the man who could not find his voice at will or even refused to, and mocking the memories of those who could not admit that they had not heard what they thought they heard.

Behind its own face, the legend was that of the solitary betraying his own talent, his own gift, and that solitary betrayal raising the specter of the smaller but no less real betrayals of anyone in any audience, one man standing for, and exposing, the self-betrayal of everyone else. "All this criticism," Gavin writes of Baker's crash in the then all-important jazz polls in 1959—after a phony cure at the federal facility at Lexington, in 1950s jazz lore almost as storied a place as any nightclub in Manhattan, after four months at Rikers—"implied Baker had let everyone down, dragging an American dream through the mud. 'Chet had the world at his feet in the fifties,' said John Burr, one of his later bassists. 'He consciously turned his back on it, and used drugs as a means of doing it. That's what he said about it.' Baker made no apologies. 'All the attempts to get him off heroin—he didn't want to get off heroin,' said Gerry Mulligan. 'That, of course, is heresy in the modern world. You're supposed to be going, "Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, oh God, help me." Chet didn't give a damn.' "

In Gavin's hands this is a long, long story of infinite shadings, where every incident that is formally the same as every other nevertheless has its own color, tone, and sound. He never attempts to ingratiate himself into the story, to wrap himself in its putative hipness when Baker seemed the epitome of cool; he never preens in knowingness, or feigns intimacy with Baker when Baker is the epitome of everything desperate and sordid. He places hip words or drug language in quotes or follows them with explanatory parentheses ("His arms and legs were full of bloodied 'tracks' "), at once establishing his own distance from the story and refusing to allow the reader any false empathy or easy identification—to strip the reader of his or her own putative hipness, the hipness of anyone cool enough to want to read a 400- page biography of Chet Baker.

Gavin seems to hold all of Baker's music, piece by piece, song by song, phrase by phrase; every show, every recording, in his head, all at once. He doesn't give the sense of merely knowing everything—while some people in Baker's life, such as his mistress Ruth Young, plainly opened up to Gavin with extraordinary candor and perception, not everyone would speak with him—but, through imagination as well as research, to have witnessed everything, even to have experienced everything. This is Gavin on Baker's first recording of "My Funny Valentine," by the sixties a jazz standard and "a pop cliché," but in 1952 a Rodgers and Hart obscurity, recommended, in the Mulligan group, by the bassist Carson Smith.

None of Smith's bandmates knew it, so he scrawled out the chords, then sang them the melody. Rodgers had stated a haunting theme in the first phrase, then explored it over and over, changing it subtly each time. The melody kept ascending, creating a tension that built to a soaring climax under the words "Stay, little valentine, stay!"

Mulligan and Smith threw a chart together that spotlighted Baker. Here the trumpeter had no clever arrangement to hide behind, so he played the tune as written, stretching out its slow, spare phrases until they seemed to ache. His hushed tone drew the ear; it suggested a door thrown open on some dark night of the soul, then pulled shut as the last note faded. Smith countered the rising melody with a descending line of quarter notes, ominous as a clock ticking in the dark. He ended by mistake in a minor key instead of the major one in the sheet music, giving the record one last chilling touch.

The song fascinated Baker. It captured all he aspired to as a musician, with its sophisticated probing of a beautiful theme and its gracefully linked phrases, adding up to a melodic statement that didn't waste a note. "Valentine" became his favorite song; rarely would he do a show without it, or fail to find something new in its thirty-five bars. At the same time, the Baker mystique—a sense that "cool" was a lid on an explosive jar of emotions—had its roots in that performance.

The description is so complete that when Gavin quotes Ruth Young on the 1956 album Chet Baker Sings, with "My Funny Valentine" at the heart of it—"None of these songs had any meaning for him, truly. He could have been singing Charmin commercials. He was coming from a musical place, and the words were mere notes to him" —the view of an essential emptiness behind the creation of beauty takes nothing away from it.

There is Gavin's ability to put the reader in a room—sometimes a room so archetypal it seems less to have been constructed for any practical purpose than to have been called up by the American imagination, as when, for Baker's monthlong engagement at Birdland in 1954, Charlie Parker, "banned from the club that bore his name," would stand out front telling customers what a wonderful musician they were about to see, and how then—like Hurstwood haunting Carrie's backstage door, only to be chased away to wander the streets of New York, "losing track of his thoughts, one after another, as a mind decayed is wont to do"—Parker "would sneak behind the building, walk through a back alley lined with trash cans, and knock on a door that opened into the dressing room. Baker or Carson Smith would let him in, and he and Baker would play chess until showtime. Then Parker would sit alone, keeping the door ajar so he could hear the music."

In this book, heroin, as it takes over one musician after another, one scene, one city (Gavin quotes the pianist René Urtreger estimating "that by the midfifties, 95 percent of the modern jazz players in France—himself included—were hooked") is more than a plague, more than an endless horror movie, the reels running over and over, out of order, back to front ("It was like the Night of the Living Dead," one fan tells Gavin of a Baker show in Paris in 1955. "Dark suits, gray faced, stoned out of their minds. Everything seemed strange to me, unhealthy. They were playing the music of the dead"). By the end—"Baker filled the syringe, then held it up. 'Bob, you could kill a bunch of cows with this,' he said. He plunged the needle into his scrotum."

"The man was a walking corpse," the Rotterdam jazz hanger-on Bob Holland told Gavin. "He was living only for the stuff. Music was the last resort to get it'"—it's as if heroin itself has agency, and seeks out bodies to inhabit, colonize, and use up, not a substance but a parasitic form of life whose mission is to destroy its host, knowing that it can always leap to another. But the essential humanity of the host—his or her actual reality as someone who planted a foot on the planet before he or she left it, to be forgotten along with almost everyone else—is, in these pages, never reduced, whether it is that of Baker, or any of the musicians, friends, wives, or lovers trailing in his wake, those he knew and those he didn't (from one dealer's client list: "Bobby Darin, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Anita O'Day, Lenny Bruce, and the rock star Dion"), by 1981 "a growing trail of corpses." In this book, like Baker's fans, listening to a radio broadcast from Hannover, Germany, on April 29, 1988, where Baker was to recreate his 1954 album Chet Baker with Strings, only days before playing in the street in Rome for drug money, they are somehow all present in the audience as Baker played. "With every defense shattered," Gavin writes, "he lived the songs with a painful intensity. The concert peaked with an epic nine-minute performance of 'Valentine.' Baker opened it with a trumpet chorus backed by guitar only, a chillingly stark musical skeleton; from there, his hollow, otherworldly singing drifted on a cloud of strings." And then, less than two weeks later, in Amsterdam, he propped open the window of his third-story hotel room, and crawled out.

Greil Marcus is the author, most recently, of The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice (Picador USA). He lives in Berkeley.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781569767573
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 7/1/2011
  • Pages: 440
  • Sales rank: 365,856
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

James Gavin

James Gavin is the author of Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne and Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. His journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Time Out New York, and the Huffington Post.

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Read an Excerpt

1

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.

Copyright 2002 by James Gavin
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2002

    The Tragic Life of Chet Baker

    This book was a tragic portrait of a man who loved his drugs more then his music yet he continued to make beautiful music throughout his life. Chet Baker was a tragic soul who only lived for one thing and that was his high for the day. For thirty-five years, he constantly abused himself with cocaine and herion. It was amazing he did not die sooner in life. James Gavin really goes into two sides of who Chet Baker was. The musician and the junkie. From his early poster-boy years in the 1950's to the hollow faced-man that he ended up as, Gavin balances the two and goes into detail about how Baker was raised and the problems he constantly had with relationships. Through it all, Baker still emerged as a inovator of "cool" jazz and a well respected jazz artist. Today he is more popular then he ever was when he was living.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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