In addition to the profile of Charlie Davidson, for the forthcoming issue of The Rake I also wrote a short piece on Chet Baker, with quotes by his good friend Charlie. Here it is.
* * *
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.”
Last night Ivy Style crossed the 10,000-comment threshold with these infamous words that will echo across America this summer as families pile up the station wagon and head out on the road:
Are we there yet?
The comment was left by none other than regular reader Henry, who will finally be rewarded for years of faithful interaction.
Leave one more comment with your real email address, Henry, so I can make sure the IP addresses match. Wouldn’t want the loot to go to one of your sparring partners pretending to be you. — CC
* * *
Ivy-Style.com is rapidly approaching its 10,000th comment. As a way of saying thank you for the interaction and entertainment that our comments section provides, I’m arranging for one lucky reader to get a pile of loot donated by our sponsors.
Here’s how it will work. Sometime over the next couple of weeks — depending on how worked up you guys get — we’ll cross the ten thousand threshold. The person to leave comment number 10,000 — after all spam and petty nastiness has been expunged, of course — wins.
So you might want to leave a valid email address when you comment, at least for the time being.
And while it’s true that the winner may be one of the usual suspects in our perennial Left vs. Right and US vs. UK kerfuffles, at least everyone has an equal chance of winning, regardless of ideology.
After all, anyone can wear buttondowns and penny loafers. — CC
Update: Here is a confirmed alphabetical list of the prizes so far, which have a combined value of $1,425: (Continue)
Today is the first day of summer. You probably don’t need a calendar to tell you that, as the entire United States is getting scorched with its first nationwide heat wave.
But summer’s aren’t endless, so make hay — or whatever else you like to do from June to August — while the sun shines.
For about five years while living in Los Angeles, my favorite summer activity was surfing. Swimming in a natural body of water — ocean, lake, river — is one of life’s great simple pleasures. Likewise, sitting on a longboard near Santa Monica pier, with the ferris wheel in the background and dolphins zipping by while you wait for the next set to come in, was one of Southern California’s great pleasures. For six weeks of the year I could get by without any wet suit (some wear them year-round), and the alternating feeling on your torso of the sun beating down and the bracing salt water upped the experience tenfold.
Released in 1966, “Endless Summer” is still considered the greatest surf film ever made. It’s a documentary that never fails to inspire a zest for life, no matter how landlocked or water-phobic you are. Check it out if you haven’t.
Though hardly Ivy League, the film does have some cool patches of midcentury style, with suntans and Wayfarers and relaxed sportswear. You’ll see surfer Mike Hynson in penny loafers and white socks and Robert August in a salmon-colored short sleeve buttondown with third button.
But even more radical than the changes that have come to surfing since 1966, with the graceful, harmonious riding of the waves on longboards replaced by the frantic slashing against the ocean that is shortboarding, is what the young Californians behind “Endless Summer” wore on their trip around the world: suits and ties. Below are August and Hynson — who appear at several points in the film in their navy and charcoal suits — and filmmaker Bruce Brown, with sneakers and cigarette: (Continue)