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The Story of Chet Baker
Matthew Ruddick, Melrose Books
In the words of bassist Ron Mclure, the trumpeter's face ended up looking like twenty miles of bad road, or the face of an old sea captain left out in the sun. Chet Baker's rugged appearance was not enhanced by a missing front tooth, yet when he was young, Baker had the kind of unusual good looks that appealed to photographers, to the extent that he could give serious consideration to a film career. Young Chet's father worked in the Oklahoma oilfield, the world's second largest. By the early 1930s, oilfield work had disappeared. Pressure to find work had its effect on Baker's father, who took to smoking weed and drinking heavily. On numerous occasions the father beat both his wife and his young son. Chesney Henry Baker (Chet) was born in 1929. The behaviour of Chet's father in the boy's formative years perhaps explains the problems that plagued Chet in later years, whose life was littered with examples of road rage, fist fights, familial abuse and onstage tantrums.
Gary Burton described Chet Baker as a ‘genial version of James Dean, good-looking and boyish'. Miles Davis felt that Chet did not deserve his early success. Gary Burton thought that Chet took his success for granted.
One of only a bare handful of jazz singers able to scat convincingly, Chet Baker could read neither music nor chord symbols. Incredibly, he seems to have improvised from the melody, depending on his outstanding ear to be able to thread his way through the harmonic pathway laid down by the rhythm section. Yet not everyone admired his singing. Dinah Washington was scathing about Chet's abilities as a singer, though one suspects that her critical view was fired by jealousy. By 1952 the piano-less Gerry Mulligan Quartet was riding high, though Chet was always trying to escape reality, often through women. ‘He was married to a lovely lady named Charlaine at the time,’ said Chico Hamilton. ‘At intermissions, she would be waiting at the bar for him, while he was in the back seat of someone's car with a groupie. If Charlaine dared to ask where he had been, he would kick her ass.’ By 1953 DownBeat had described Chet's playing as ‘Beautifully simple and simply beautiful.’
Chet had the utmost respect for Miles Davis; he was taken aback when Miles walked straight past him, ignoring his outstretched hand, a pattern of behaviour that was to continue throughout Chet's career. In the five years he spent in Europe, Chet was deported from Italy, from Germany on two occasions, and from Switzerland and England, largely because of his drug addiction.
The controversial circumstances surrounding Baker's death in Amsterdam during the early hours of May 13th 1988, when he fell from an upstairs window of the Hotel Prins Hendrik, are dealt with at length - sensibly, coolly, and analytically.
At nearly 830 pages, Ruddick's book is large for a jazz biography, but commendably thorough, unflinching in facing up to the less praiseworthy aspects of the trumpeter's life, and eminently readable. A well-written account of an important jazz figure, Funny Valentine is highly recommended.
John Robert Brown
First published in Jazz Journal, November 2012. Used by kind permission, unauthorised reproduction forbidden.