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Art of the Hipster: Chet Baker

Lawrence Russell

and introducing Chet Baker and his Trumpet

ƒƒ Chet Baker -- what a paradox. Gentle, playful, loving, hard-working some of the time; cruel, self-centred, lazy and downright ugly a lot of the time. This could be anyone, of course, as moral frailty and creative expression are a wedded contradiction, and the occasionally-famous are seldom allowed private ugliness. Drugs, addiction, women and cars -- his crimes were all secular, even though these things drove the omnivorous industrial dynamic of American free enterprize, and as a jazz hipster junkie longing to be free, his persecution was part of the corporate cultural lie. Perhaps. Perhaps true freedom always requires some sort of enslavement.

He had the Hollywood look that fitted his time -- the 40s, the 50s, maybe the 60s -- the sort of falsely innocent face that looked good on an album cover, the sweet white beauty of post-war American triumphalism. Indeed, Hollywood called, gave him a small part in the 1955 Korean war movie Hell's Horizon. In the credits he's listed as: "and introducing Chet Baker and his Trumpet", as if the trumpet personified a ventriloquist's dummy. He plays close to character, a B-29 airman called "Jockey" who lies around in the crew tent blowing pensive figures on his horn. Acting? Not really. A few jive talk lines and he gets to die. Following a fatal mission to the Manchurian border and a belly landing back in Okinawa, his skinny body is recovered from the burning wreck and laid out on the runway; one of the crew finds his trumpet mouthpiece, tucks it below his crossed hands... up violins as the crew walk away and that's it for Hollywood and Chet Baker. It was a 10 day shoot, fast even by B-movie standards, yet Chet says he "got really bored" hanging around waiting for his scenes. Truth is, his voice was all wrong, too high and androgynous for any male lead, so he could only be a bit player, a parody of himself.

But this didn't mean he couldn't live like a movie...

Los Angeles, summer of '57. Corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Western. The Hipster arrives late for a gig at the Peacock Lane Club, parks across the street, sees the cops under a streetlight checking for crucifixion marks. Two friends, users, their arms outstretched and gleaming. The Hipster slips into the club, recovers his trumpet, follows the shadows back to his car where his young wife is waiting. She's seven months pregnant, shows it, is anxious. The Hipster slips into first gear, pulls away softly, then spots a black unmarked Ford coming at him. He guns it, hangs a left, then another. He's driving kinetic, getting low yo-yo like the Red Baron, soon loses the eyeless narc, makes the freeway. He stops at the ramp, gives his wife some dough for a cab home. She gets out, and he breaks west for Newport Beach.

Cut To: the Hipster's 1955 XK 140 Jaguar sports slipping through the pre-dawn luminosity. The Hipster likes sports cars, will always like them, blew some savings that was owed to the taxman for this one. Well it's cool, flies like Bird, the great Charlie Parker who made him a bop disciple. Low deco streamlined chariot of the damned. He has a taste for the European, acquired during his US Army bugle-boy days in Germany. Jags go good in SoCal. Mike Hammer drives one in Kiss Me Deadly, and what's good for Hammer is good for Chet Baker, junkie hipster, winner of the 1954 Downbeat poll for Best Jazz Trumpet.

Check out his features: yes, he could be in the movies. He has the 50's chiselled jaw, cheek bumps, surfer wave hair, the SoCal cool. He could be Ralph Meeker playing Mike Hammer, although he's a ringer for Chuck Connors, The Rifleman... a handsome skull with eyes. Too bad he's an outlaw. Too bad he shoots it in his arm. Too bad 'cause he's white and Miles Davis is black and America still wants white. Cops don't care, though. They'll hunt anything, especially junkies, especially jazz junkies. They'll hunt the lizard and the lizard knows he's gotta head for the ocean.

Chet has a friend across the bridge in Balboa, where all the fishing boats hang up. Bobby's just heading out to harvest abalone in the Santa Barbara Channel, off San Miguel Island, so Chet decides "to cool it for a while, to clean up and let the sun work on my arms". After four days, he starts to feel better, get a little sleep. Meanwhile his friend Bobby is doing the bottom crawl, a hundred feet down, bagging the abalone, sending it up top on the electric lag line. Ten, maybe twelve dozen primo pinks every dive. Easy. No great whites around and the sea lions are cooling it on the rocks. Time for the Hipster to solo. Sea birds are dropping from the sky like footballs, using their wings to propel themselves deep underwater to snatch some fish. California Murres, smarter than penguins, faster than humans, hip as D Dorian. Yep, time to drop from the ladder, break the surface, play a little below the centre of tonality.

Well, he's done lots of diving before, skin and Aqua-Lung, but never any air-line stuff. Suit, helmet, lead boots. Down he goes, feet first, following the bag line, down, down into the undulating sea-weed forest... he starts walking around, gets lost, and his feet are getting colder. The suit is leaking, the water is up to his chest... he's been going in the wrong direction, doubled back on his air-line, just like he's gotten lost during a horn solo, can't find the point of resolution, very uncool and something he never does unless way too stoned and then some. But down here, hiding from the Man, doing the lizard but not doing it right, he's in trouble.

Yeah, let's get lost.

Chet Baker: memoir

Chet Baker: Pacific Jazz

It was a close call for Chet Baker, in a life with many close calls -- on the street, maxing fast cars, surviving prison or diving underwater or shooting skanky dope -- so you recognize that he was a natural risk-taker. Reckless cliff climbing at Palos Verdes or fights with football players, dealers... armed robbery, forgery... he took risks. He was California casual -- T-shirt and jacket -- the early hipster look that captured nearly everyone eventually, from lazy Joe College to the amped-up rock n roll cool of Miami Vice. West Coast Cool. It's not only a jazz sound, it's a life-style, and Baker becomes its icon, part of the young rebel chancer brigade that includes Brando, Dean... even Montgomery Cliff, sometimes Robert Wagner. They were always looking for a new sensation, a new high, a lost chord. Cars, women... women, cars. Brando was primal -- he played bongos, rode a bike. Later he did drugs and did them bad but never as bad as Chet Baker.

Chet Baker was a nomad, became stateless, even though he carried an American passport. The only property he owned was his car and his trumpet, and sometimes he didn't even own those. He wasn't Zen, although sometimes he sounded Zen in interviews and when he played. He grew up in Oklahoma against a flat, empty horizon, so perhaps this ruled his thinking. His father was a c & w alcoholic, Chet was a jazz urban addict. He spent time in jail, but time was always a jail. He was always on the move, even when he was locked up or locked out. He drove like a dog, his face to the wind. His emptiness was a pipe, a mouthpiece, a passage to shape his fear of judgement. He embraced nothingness as if his reflection revealed the beauty of his destination. He didn't read charts, yet he moved by the stars. He wanted to be a sailor, get a boat and get lost. He sang of love, yet he loved the poetry more than the woman. He was a toothless oral compulsive, his mouth always on his horn, a cigarette, a drink, or a tit. He could be had, was had, yet was never owned. He stole from others, even stole from himself. He disliked work, seldom practiced, remembered nothing, yet remembered all. He was a junky liar, even before he was a junky, lived in the fiction his respondents craved. In the end, he was death in a suit, desire in a coffin.

He was photographed often, poetically, fetishistically, yet the photographs reveal nothing. He was an idea, not a man, a stand-in for something. Possibly he was just an accidental instrument, like a sentient wind chime, but in his youth he was used as advertising, so he became part of a non-redactable American fantasy. He was a measuring stick for tomorrow, where art is a commodity for selling eternal youth. Hipness was supernatural, and whatever it was or how you got it didn't matter, as he had it. He had it before he turned to junk, and then he had it because he was junk. He was hip because he was in the mystic spiral, the junkie's needle like a phonograph needle tracking the groove... and everyone wanted to be in the groove... some of the time, maybe all of the time.

Can you compare Baker's drug abuse to athletes taking performance drugs? Art is a gray area, has no game boundaries like professional sports, is not a closed system. The thinking persists that art is divine messaging. When it's secular, it's just work, isn't really art. "You don't learn jazz," he said. "You're born into it." Certainly people like Chet Baker seem to be born tuned-up and ready to go. He didn't like charts, he was an ear player, someone who could read a song on hearing just a few notes, who could wander all over the theme in any sort of improvisation and still find the runway. Not for nothing did Bird summon him out of the darkness.

west coast cool

The story of how Chet Baker meets Charlie Parker (Bird) in 1952 has been told by him and repeated by others many times, many places. Perhaps it's fiction but this is how Chet says it went down: audition at the Tiffany Club, Chet gets there late, eyes burning in the darkness, every trumpet player in LA waiting his turn, Bird asks if Chet Baker is here yet, Chet gets up, plays a couple of tunes, gets the gig. "Bird was a flawless player," says CB in his memoir. "He treated me like a son, putting down any and all guys who tried to offer me some shit." Sound like Miles Davis and Bird? It certainly does. The high priest of bebop was a heavy user and abuser himself, a cat who could get lost for days, weeks, at end. Bird knew what heavy dope could do, its corruption of the soul; perhaps Bird needed innocence to play against, an idealized anima to sweeten his affliction. Chet describes how he would drive Bird down to the Palos Verdes-San Pedro coastline, and Bird would get out of the car, stare out to sea, watch the waves for an hour of natural hypnosis.

In his book West Coast Jazz 1945-1960 Ted Gioia says the "west coast cool" style really came out of the relaxed atmosphere, the fun climate and the oceanic rhythm of the place... but surely this is only part of it, the advertising face of it. West coast cool jazz was more than sports shirts and wave haircuts and monosyllabic musicians; it had the same hidden author as New York cool, that is, heroin. Heroin slowed the action down, turned it inward. As an avatar, the heroinista was static, an impassive figure in still-life, a pose. As Alexander Trocchi says in his heroin master-work, Cain's Book (Grove Press 1958): "The mind under heroin evades perception as it does ordinarily; one is aware only of contents... the perceiving turns inward, the eyelids droop, the blood is aware of itself, a slow phosphorescence in all the fabric of flesh and nerve and bone; it is that the organism has a sense of being intact and unbrittle, and, above all, inviolable. For the attitude born of this sense of inviolability some Americans have used the word cool."

Gerry Mulligan was a user, a driven anal-retentive addict with a brilliant compositional intuition. He'd been part of the Gil Evans-George Russell-Miles Davis modal clique in New York, and his move to Los Angeles in the early 50s was lucky chronicity for Chet Baker, even though they clashed big time at the start, at the end. Without swing, jazz was just cocktail lounge decor, yet Mulligan with his intellectual approach was able to compose and arrange modernist narratives that fitted nicely between post-war optimism and nuclear paranoia.

He got rid of the piano, as piano was cliche, softened the percussion, as percussion was cacophony, freed up space, as space was the fundamental. He played red low on baritone sax, and recruited Chet Baker on trumpet for the blue high. CB's early stuff with Gerry Mulligan for Pacific Records is sublime. It's a monophonic nirvana, where space is purely a mental dimension fixed by counter-point and tone. For example, the Quartet's recording of the Billie Holliday standard Speak Low might be a lover's code, but the walking bass suggests the easy flow of evening traffic somewhere near the beach. The 4 minute pop radio format, the soft porno of rent-a-dance, the narco sedation of cool. In 1953, music is still a 78 rpm format Time is not a meter but a distance. The soft resolution of magnetic tape recording fixes the era as a mid-band memory. It's transformative, the decay and the noise, tube mics, iron oxide and the mystic vibration.

Chet Baker: Jerry Mulligan Quartet

Chet Baker-Dick Zwardzik

Chet Baker in Paris 1955 is really the story of the young pianist Dick Twardzik. Some accounts suggest Baker was more than just musically dazzled by Twardzik, who replaced Russ Freeman in the line-up for the European tour. Twardzik's teenage obsession with bebop included the complete lifestyle -- a heroin habit and a black girlfriend. He was well-educated -- perhaps to the self-destructive edge of nihilism -- and his approach was bohemian, reminiscent of Mussogorsky, structured like Schoneberg, atonal and loose like Picasso with lots of bop and post-modern adventure in his avant approach to jazz.

The Quartet got off to a great start in Holland, and things looked promising in Paris, where they played the Sal Playel, then it all went to shit when Twardzik failed to show for a recording date at Blue Star Records. When someone goes looking, he's found in his hotel room "bright blue, the spike still in his arm". (Memoir, 71) Blame falls on his friend Peter Lippman, the Quartet's drummer, who immediately flees back to Boston, where he shifts the blame onto Baker. Commentators are divided on the issue of blame, but the facts seem to support that Twardzik and Lippman were established addicts long before they joined up with Chet Baker.

The October 25 Paris recordings -- Chet Baker Quartet Plays Standards -- is far better than you'd expect considering Dick Twardzik's death 4 days earlier, so CB is using a pickup pianist and percussionist. His trumpet tone is full, pitched for pleasure, with less melancholy than you'd expect. Perhaps the safe choice of a "standards" songbook was more than a commercial bet. On October 23 he'd flown to London where he broke down four songs into the gig (absurdly, he wasn't allowed to play trumpet because of union rules), so his state of mind was fragile. Still, he managed to return to Paris and get on with it. Only Jimmy Bond on bass remained of the Quartet he started out in France with in September. Summertime... You Go To My Head... Tenderly... Lover Man... the usual covers known everywhere. There's a Small Hotel -- fluid swing version with CB's trumpet uncharacteristically more out front. He's followed by some Gerard Gustin splatter image piano which descends into a nice comp for the bass solo... Chet resumes with the melody, without improv, closes it. Best number is I'll Remember April, which has bomb-flash solos from Baker and Gustin, almost "free jazz" in their directionless direction. Yet, this is a conservative album. For medics seeking clues of Baker's disintegration, this isn't it.

[Chet Baker & Caterina Valente: I'll Remember April]


il silenzio

Late summer 1962. Dusk. The Penitenzianio San Giorgio (St. George Penitentiary), Lucca, Italy. The American Hipster is playing his horn, the melancholy sound falling like dust through the surrounding streets and courtyards, a requiem for a lost soul. He's serving a 19 month sentence for smuggling the synthetic drug Jetrium, a heroin substitute. He spends his time in the ancient prison playing chess in the book bindery, waiting for conjugal visits from his mistress who is living in Room 15 of the nearby Hotel Universo. His fans gather in the street, disciples of the 32 year old jazz god "Chettino", now an adopted "Lucchese" even if he was described as a viper during the trial. Some gather on the walls that run adjacent to the prison, perhaps to hear better or even catch a glimpse of angel-face. He'd been busted in a gas-station washroom near Lucca, the needle still embedded, a pool of blood where he knelt, red like his Ferrari, its engine running where he left it.

His incarceration has become a cult, and his concerts seem like the cries of a ghost longing for rebirth, despite the fact that he is often heard playing the pop hit Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White at the behest of his fellow prisoners. He haunts, is haunted, the wandering Americano jazzman who played with Romano Mussolini, the old dictator's son, before this heartless injustice.

Does he resent Italy? No. Does he want to go back to America? No. He hates America.

While the Italian fans lamented Chettino's confinement and "Il Silenzio", he did draw perhaps on the experience when he recorded Silence with the bassist Charlie Haden in Rome, 1987. The Haden composition is a melancholy slow-step funeral march, based on the traditional military measure for fallen comrades. The jazz battlefield was littered with fallen Icari and of course the recording became an eerie forecast of Chet Baker's own death six months later.

San Giorgio prison

Jesus Satan

Can Chet Baker sing... could he ever sing? In the fifties, when he started, the critics were brutally hostile, offended by his effeminate impersonation. Impersonation? In his own words -- when recalling his successful con of the army psychiatrist at the Presidio in 1952 -- he said, "I always gave the most effeminate answer." My Funny Valentine... I Fall In Love Too Easily... in the macho 1950s these torch standards were o.k. for chicks, not for men. Men sensed deceit, lies and manipulation... women and gays, loneliness and love.

Singing is like poetry -- everyone can speak, but when is it poetry? Lots of people felt he was hopeless, always out-of-tune, drifting between cliches and lucky rhymes. Driving between gigs in the old days he'd sing in the car and jazz chicks would laugh at him. Yet at after-hours jazz parties in the Hollywood hills, he knocked them out. And if he couldn't sing, you have to consider that he couldn't play trumpet either as his singing was/is very similar to his trumpet sound. The phrasing, the pursuit of the melodic thread, the dropped-below-centre line driving. The complaints about his playing -- and there were many, some of it legitimate racial envy -- especially the perceived lack of dynamics and register range, seem to miss the fact that he plays into the group sound rather than over it. He says, "Most people are impressed with just three things: fast, high, loud... probably less than 2% of the public can really hear." (Memoir, 29)

"The Thrill Is Gone" (I can see it in your eyes)(love was grand when love was new). Poignant to the point of dreary, the lyric staggers between raw truth and love song cliche. Baker's vocal has the chanson quality, like a low-flying aircraft skimming between poetry and conversation. This dangerous aspect -- where his voice threatens to break, go sideways flat or shrill, is perhaps the reason for his appeal.

So his vocal phrasing is his trumpet phrasing. The melody seeks the hidden resolution that he believes all songs and all melodies -- whether written or improvised -- contain. There is no such a thing as disunity. Balance is everything. Baker plays between truth and deceit like a falling knife. He's a perfect Jesus Satan whose musical introspection masks his amoral hustle and beautiful melodic loneliness.

But drugs, drugs... illegal and prescription, were dragging him down. The incredible grind of the road, the feral wandering through the oily pits of America and Europe, the constant projection into the callous souls of strangers. Who could do it? Who could do it without drugs... and even with drugs, who could do it forever....

The sad state of his degradation is all too evident in his 1964 Belgian TV set. The performance is dull, the leaden black and white broadcast showing a group of middle-aged men trying to keep the faith when the congregation was channeling elsewhere and these players knew it. Shabby to look at, boring to listen to, although the protocol holds a certain interest.

The French pianist Rene Urtreger -- CB's go-to guy after the death of Dick Zwardzik -- has a beer parked as the 89th key, and an ashtray with a smoldering cigarette on the rim of the sounding board. After a lurching intro solo, Baker sidles around to Urtreger's left, finds the pianist's box of fags, takes one, lights up, resumes his position centre stage, plays the rest of the set with the cigarette locked between his fingers and the valves as if he's up for a trick routine on Ed Sullivan. The players are clearly professionals, yet here they lumber through the old bromides like bums singing outside the soup kitchen. Here and there you read what a great gig this was, but is this just the faithful grasping at rediscovered broadcast relics? The sax player/flautist Jacques Pelzer had a day job as a pharmacist, often accompanied American jazzers in Europe, was one of Baker's best Euro friends, and the only one not wearing a folk circuit sweater. Who's cool now, who's hip?

fusion or confusion

It's reasonable to wonder if Chet Baker ever got into fusion jazz like Miles Davis and many of the young jazzers who grew up on early rock n roll. The answer is, not really. At times he backed into it, as this was the style his pick-up players knew. When pressed, he always said he didn't like country music and he didn't like rock, but he liked just about everything else.

The bootleg palette does reveal the occasional fusion gem, such as the live version of Lovely Black Eyes, recorded in Paris, 1980, at the Le Dreher Club. Some smooth bossa nova here, with Riccardo del Fra on bass, Nicolo Stilo on flute, and the Austrian jazz funk guitarist Karl Ratzer chopping a very nice 2-4 samba. No singing, all instrumental, with sunshine solos stretching this baby out to 20+ minutes. Mostly in fourths with a bridge and a turn-around. It sounds very similar to the Mike Sharpe (Shapiro) 1966 sax instrumental Spooky, which was later modified with words into a hit version by the Classics IV. The Classics IV became the Atlanta Rhythm Section in the seventies, issued a live version of Spooky that was very influential. Karl Ratzer lived in Atlanta at this time (playing with Chaka Khan), so no doubt he absorbed the Spooky groove.

Another interesting example is the instrumental Five Years Ago from a 1979 Norway Chet Baker Quartet performance. Written by Wolfgang Lacherschmid, a vibraphonist who played frequently with CB in his last years, the instrumental has a New Age trance feel far removed from the show tune casings of old school jazz. Lacherschmid uses a bow on the vibe plates to increase the ethereal sustain, and CB plays into the dream tremolo with a running lyricism that steps outside the cliche.

Throughout the years Love For Sale was part of his set list. This bluesy 1930 Cole Porter composition was made for fusion, and you can find many Chet Baker versions out there. The 1979 Monmartre Jazzhouse CB Trio version is also worth a listen. Here Baker follows Doug Raney's guitar solo by dropping into Miles Davis' So What for a few bars, gets funky with it, then drops back to the Delta. A highly dressed version can be found on the 1977 album You Can't Go Home Again, where he teams uneasily with Michael Brecker on tenor and some Miles Davis fusion alumni (John Scofield, Ron Carter, Tony Williams). Over-produced. Chet Baker just wasn't at ease with this sort of punch meter.

Could he dance? Probably not.

Ronnie Scott's 1986: Chet's trumpet has a husky morning-throat timbre, a little coarsening of the white bird's morning cry. Some, craving purity and death, might think he sounds off-the-mark, but really, he's just in his lizard persona. His timing is immaculate, his tone dangerous. In the first Costello interview clip, he's smiling, yet nervous, scratching himself with the junkie itch, his disarticulating hands crossing as they scratch one side, then the other. It's a strange gig -- no drummer, which leaves lots of space between the bass and the piano. It's almost like a rehearsal without an audience. Even though CB sits on the stage apron, the performance is completely inward, as if space has been subtracted from time... he could be anywhere, as the song is its own space, and the material world is irrelevant. Perhaps, if you live on stage long enough, the only performance is when you leave it. Perhaps the junkie routine is his real performance, his real existence, the procuring and the fixing, the transmigration.

The rehearsal quality is sustained with both Elvis Costello's and Van Morrison's guest spots, as both use lyric sheets, the words written on pieces of paper, so they appear as poets reading hastily composed tomes in a bohemian cellar. Morrison sings Send In The Clowns raw like a busker at the entrance to the underworld, and Costello -- another singer of ambiguous ability -- talks his way through the old CB standard I'm A Fool To Want You. He gets away with it, although high altitude is not his thing. It's a chanson -- which is in some ways the core of the Baker songbook -- or an aria from an unknown yet familiar tragic opera. The poetry is modern, the lament ancient. Some might say, why didn't Chet sing it? And Chet might say, I have sung it, more times than I can remember.

The sound is near-field, close, as if you're a midget standing beside the lip of a giant horn. Piano is distant, bass less so. The gig is "featuring Chet" of course, and there's a bit of sound dialling going on at the beginning as the engineer tries to find the paradise level. Chet laments the decline of the jazz scene in the US: "The level of culture there is pitifully low." As you listen to him, you wonder, is jazz just another disposable American pop culture product, gone with the inter-war era, or does it indeed have classical possibilities as the Europeans seem to think?

Europe was late to rock n roll, as if the American occupation held it prisoner to the G.I. blues. Thinking about it, you see Chet Baker as a hangover from the Red Ball Express, a war groom left behind to colonize the survivors and the next generation. He started in '47 playing in the honour guard at Berlin's Templehof airport "where it was so cold... it would freeze your lips to the metal... the valves would freeze too" and then returned to the west coast for basic training in the post-bebop art of cool. So his return in the sixties as a cold war agent of American cool is just an unofficial part of the imperial plan; if Dave Brubeck could be sent abroad by the State Department to spread the good will, so could Baker. Brubeck was a marshal, Baker was an outlaw.

The boys do get funky here, especially on Love For Sale... the bass, the piano, but especially Riccardo del Fra on stand-up. Chet drops in below like a running stream, bumps and babbles, a poly-harmony that fits the group sound rather than challenges it. The three-piece setup allows lots of "strolling" free from orchestral clutter and bebop noise. It's SoCal cool reinvented as Euro cool. All in all, this is a very good performance documentary, coming two years before Chet's death. It's differs from the other concert documentaries out there because it's in-close and personal. The opening close-up shows CB's aging wizard face, eyes closed as he enters the trance, waits for the melody he will inhabit... perhaps die in.

And you're thinking, how far can a man go out without being obliterated?

LR Jan 2013 | Culture Court/ Media Court/CC Audio | my novel RADIO BRAZIL

Chet at his late best: CANDY (1985)


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