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Passive Form: Don’t be fooled by those pulse-slowing tunes: self-destructive jazz prodigy Chet Baker — the most stylish man ever to not give a hoot about clothing — was a man of sheer, energetic brass
By Christian Chensvold
From The Rake, issue 23 (click here for PDF)
When Chet Baker burst onto the jazz scene in 1953, he quickly came to represent all the contradictions of this often oversimplified decade. Publicly Brylcreemed and clean-cut, Baker was privately addicted to heroin. He achieved popular success, but earned it by playing the hip new style of West Coast jazz and singing with a highly unconventional voice. His crash and burn — drugs, prison, and a savage beating in which he lost his front teeth, ruining his embouchure — only enhanced his legend, and today he is one of those rare men who seem to embody their era.
Bebop pioneer Charlie Parker gave Baker his first break, and when he later told East Coast musicians, “There’s a little white cat on the coast who’s gonna eat you up,” he may have known Baker had more than mere jazz chops. This young man with a horn was blessed not only with an impeccable ear for music (he never did learn to read very well), but with matinee-idol looks in an age that idolized the boyishly handsome but brooding personas of Montgomery Clift and James Dean.
Clothes are merely a frame for the man wearing them, and like all handsome men Baker looked terrific in anything he wore — convenient, since he had no interest in clothes. In 1952, while working in the Los Angeles jazz scene, Baker joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and achieved almost instant fame. When the band went east and landed at the legendary Boston jazz club Storyville, Baker met young jazz fan and Ivy League clothier Charlie Davidson (see our Emporium section profile on The Andover Shop, page T/K). “Later Chet came over to the shop,” Davidson recalls. “He knew nothing about clothes, but he had innate taste and everything looked great on him.” Baker was conservative by nature, so it didn’t take much coaxing to get Baker into a suit that wasn’t “Broadway or Hollywood,” says Davidson. When not suited up for performances, such as in the checked sportcoat he wears in this photo from later in his career, Baker favored simple things like crewneck sweaters and khakis. “He put on his girlfriend’s sweater once,” recalls Davidson, “and the goddamn thing looked great on him.”
Photogenic to the nth degree, Baker inspired many photographers, who found in him a faultless subject for portraiture. “Richard Avedon was with us one night,” remembers Davidson, and said, ‘It’s impossible to take a bad photo of this guy.” Later, in 1988, Baker served as the subject of photographer Bruce Weber’s documentary film “Let’s Get Lost.”
But it was a series of photos by jazz chronicler William Claxton that became the most iconic, revealing Baker in a white undershirt that emphasizes the vulnerable intimacy of his whispered singing voice and his dreamy looks. If the shots remind you of another t-shirted ‘50s icon, James Dean, that’s because they reminded everybody else of young actor who died tragically at the age of 24. “He had those looks that made him the James Dean of jazz,” says Davidson. “He was more James Dean than James Dean.”
Though it happened much later in life, at the age of 59, Baker died just as tragically as the young actor — in an act of self-defenestration that was either an accident or suicide. The mysterious death was a fitting finale to his troubled life and cemented his legendary status. Stranger still, Baker somehow knew “that his legend would grow after his death,” says sideman Bob Mover, a saxophonist who played with Baker during the 1980s. “He created the perfect PR story with the drugs and prison time,” says Mover. “The best thing he could have done for his career was have a tragic life, and he did. Creation and destruction are closely aligned, and his self-destruction created his legend.”
That wasn’t so easy to live with in the early days. Fame came to Baker so fast it made him spoiled and self-centered, says Mover. And sometimes the accolades left him sheepish. In the 1950s Baker won a series of reader’s polls in magazines such as Down Beat, Metronome and Playboy, beating out fellow trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, who was Baker’s idol. Recalling this in 1981, Baker told Mover he had wanted to send letters of apology. “He felt they were vastly superior to him at the time,” recalls Mover. “But he also felt that he had managed to catch up to them as a musician, and yet now nobody wanted to acknowledge it.”
Though his reputation in jazz centers on his trumpet playing, Baker’s mystique owes much to his intimate, unaffected and vulnerable singing voice (in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Matt Damon’s character plays a Baker vocal track and can’t tell if he’s listening to a man or a woman). It’s undoubtedly an acquired taste, but once listeners overcome the initial disorienting sound of his delicate delivery, they are rewarded with an approach to phrasing and lyrical content that perfectly echoes his light and lyrical style of trumpet playing. Albums such as “Chet Baker Sings” from 1956 is as indispensable make-out music for bachelor pads today as it was at mid-century.
Baker’s drug addiction lasted all his adult life, and run-ins with the law sent him fleeing to Europe, though like Oedipus, in trying to escape his fate he ran right into it, and spent over a year in an Italian prison. Davidson “never, never, never” suggested that Chet get himself clean, saying it would have been horribly intrusive to address such a private matter (contemporary attitudes to drug intervention may be different). “Chet was a very private guy,” says Davidson, “and drugs were notoriously popular among jazz musicians at the time. They knew it was illegal, and they knew it was destructive.”
The duality of Baker’s legend — handsome dreamboat and talented musician turned heroin junkie in exile— overshadows what a great person and friend he could be, remembers Davidson, whose memories include tossing around a baseball and noting Baker’s natural athleticism. “He was charming, polite, courteous and unaffected by all the fame and adoration,” says Davidson, “and the almost mystical presence he had for others. He was one of the most unique singers in jazz and just as good a trumpet player. I think there were many people who thought they were in love with his music, but they were really in love with him.”