Interviews » Biographers

James Gavin, author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker

 

 

photo by William Claxton

That trumpeter Chet Baker was a sensitive musician whose sound is a cherished part of the jazz landscape is well known. That he led a hard life is also pretty well known, perhaps even to the most casual music fan. His 1988 death from a fall out an Amsterdam window only added to the sad mystery surrounding his persona.

What was not known by most of us is the haunting depth of Baker’s self-destructive life; that he was an arsonist, a thief, a second-story man, a drug addict, an abusive husband and lover, a philanderer, a liar…need we go on? We could, you know.

Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, is biographer James Gavin’s dark profile of Baker’s demise – a book so dramatic and compelling that it effectively becomes the reader’s personal vehicle for transport into Baker’s seductive, tormented, seedy world.

In our exclusive interview, Gavin talks with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita about the stark sadness that dominates his book, and indeed, Chet Baker’s life.

 

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 photo by Lee Tanner

 

Chet Baker

 

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 Everything Happens To Me

 

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JJM Who was your boyhood hero?

JG Musically, my boyhood heroes were women. Early on, I was infatuated with Peggy Lee, as I still am. But my introduction to the music I love, and that I have written about for quite a few years, was the Andrews Sisters. I was born in 1964, and in 1974 Bette Midler had her first hit, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” when she was doing the camp nostalgia routine that made her a star. “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” knocked me out. It opened a window to the past for me, and like most kids, I was looking for my own little world to escape into, and the past seemed like a safe haven. There are no surprises; you know exactly what’s going to happen. My Uncle John bought me an Andrews Sisters record, and that is probably why we’re having this conversation now. The Andrews Sisters turned me on to the swing era and the great singers it produced. Chet Baker wasn’t a part of that era; he came later.

JJMWhy did you choose to write a biography on Chet Baker?

JG Desperation. In 1991, I published a book called Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. My tastes had moved forward about a decade, and now I was fascinated by the 1950s, which seemed so cool and sophisticated to me at my young age. The gigantic repression of that time, sexual and otherwise, gradually began to interest me too. At the time, I owned only two Chet Baker albums. One of them, which may still be my favorite, is Chet, a set of instrumental ballads with Bill Evans. I thought it was the best “make out” music I had ever heard, even though I hadn’t started making out yet! I found this music to be incredibly slow and sexy and hot – not cool, as everyone called him. When Chet made that album in the late ’50s, he was virtually a gutter junkie, and that surely helped break down his cool veneer. But I still wasn’t a great aficionado, I must admit. I knew the cliches of his life story: that he was a beautiful but tarnished golden boy from the 50’s with an androgynous singing voice that people debated about violently, and that a lot of people didn’t take him seriously as a trumpeter, either. I had a vague sense that he was extremely out of favor in the United States and had become as famous for his drug habit as he was for his music. I didn’t know much more about him, but I did know that no one had written a comprehensive book about him that tried to cut past all the myths. I was desperate to write another book, and in the fall of 1994, some angekl or devil flew onto my shoulder and whispered the idea of Chet. From that point on, I became as obsessed with him as anyone who had known him. I sold the idea to Knopf very quickly. The time was right. The documentary Let’s Get Lost had come out five years earlier, and Chet was becoming more popular in death than he had ever been in life. The Gap ad that read “Chet Baker Wore Khakis” came out around that time, and the records were starting to really sell. It was obvious that people were mystified by Baker and drawn in by all the mystery surrounding him. I sensed that there was a great detective story to be told. I was certainly right about that.

JJM Baker’s life is desperately sad. Were you as shocked by the sadness of his story as I was?

JG At times I was extremely depressed by it, but I can’t say I was shocked. Orrin Keepnews, the former co-owner of Riverside Records, was one of the first people I interviewed, in December of 1994. Orrin recorded Chet in the late ’50s, and he grew to hate him. Orrin said to me, “Do you have any idea what you’re getting yourself into?” I said, “Sure.” But I didn’t, not at all. I very quickly learned how messy this story was, mired in falsehood and almost hopelessly mythologized, to the point where its ugliness was made to seem romantic and glamorous. As I went on with my research, I realized that most of the famous stories told about and by Chet Baker were completely fictional, that many people who had known him had their own agendas and were not telling the truth. Because I had not known Baker and had never even seen him perform, I had no agenda of my own, besides trying to tell the truth. And the truth was much uglier than I had imagined. The paradox that fascinated me and a lot of people was, how could so much beauty come out of so much ugliness? When we look at our idols, we’re seeing a reflection of who we want to be. We don’t want to see monstrous flaws; we want to believe that a beautiful artist is also a beautiful human being. Most people just do not want to know the truth. It’s hard for certain people to read my book, because they want to believe that Chet was essentially the same romantic figure they hear on his records. He had elements of that romance in his personality, but the realities of life as a drug addict are not pretty.

JJMYou wrote of Baker and bebop, “He plunged fully into the culture surrounding it: the burning drive to keep moving, the pleasure in shocking people, and later, the compulsion to self-destruct.” Who did Baker model himself after?

JG In my opinion, Chet Baker had little interest in the outside world, except as it related directly to his needs. He wasn’t modeling himself after other rebels Marlon Brando or Jack Kerouac or even Charlie Parker, because he lived in a bubble. Chet would never have seen himself as a part of any social movement. But his number-one musical hero was Miles Davis. I think it’s indisputable that if there were not a Miles Davis, there would not have been a Chet Baker as we know him. Chet himself said that Miles showed him the light — that if you were a trumpet player, you didn’t have to play loud, screeching, high notes as fast as you could squeeze them out. That is what people were accustomed to hearing in a trumpet player. It’s one of the reasons why, to this day, Chet is not taken seriously by a lot of people. As he said, his playing just sounded too easy to many listeners.

JJM  In fact, there was a friend of Baker’s, a haberdasher named Charlie Davidson who said of Baker’s early success, “Half of it was physical attraction. I mean, what right did he have to be winning Downbeat polls over Miles and Dizzy and Clifford Brown? Everything was getting so out of proportion.” How did the black musicians of the fifties era, including Miles Davis, feel about Baker’s success?

JG They hated him for it, even though they usually avoided admitting that. Miles Davis made it pretty clear that he thought Baker had ripped him off. The black musicians saw a pretty white boy appearing on the Today show, on the Tonight show, winning the trumpet polls by a big margin after having seemingly come out of nowhere. It was easy to interpret his success as a slap in the face to black musicians like Miles who were better schooled than he was, who played with more obvious fire, who seemed stronger and had more obvious passion to express. Chet was the object of tremendous resentment at that time, and he knew it. I think this is one of the sources of all of the pressure that built up in him in the fifties, as he became an underground star.

JJM There was one man in particular who had a lot to do with him rising to this level, the photographer William Claxton. He wrote, “Chet was sort of a nice looking, athletic guy; he kinda looked like an angelic prize fighter. He had one tooth missing, so he looked a little dopey, and a sort of fifties pompadour in his hair, but then you put him in front of a camera and he became a movie star.” Claxton was very important to Baker’s career, wasn’t he?

JG If Bill Claxton had not taken the pictures of Chet that appeared on his earlycovers, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation, and I don’t think a major publisher would ever have commissioned a biography of Chet. His looks fit perfectly with his sound, especially his singing. Chet sang in a way that men – especially jazz musicians – were not supposed to sing then. The ’50s were an age of ironclad sex roles; men were men, women were women, and the gray area in between was off limits. To this day, you can hear Chet sing and not know whether he’s a man or a woman. The singing itself is so detached, almost numb. Bill Claxton captured that sense in his photographs. He caught everyone looking so cool, so pulled-together and trouble-free. Chet, of course, was actually a disaster waiting to happen.

JJM It was really the image of California. They weren’t smoking in a dusty, dark club…

JG Yes, they were outdoors, in the light. In those Claxton pictures, Chet could be thinking about anything or nothing. He looks perfect. His skin is like porcelain. His hair is perfect. His eyes are revealing nothing. People were mystified. His handsomeness was so soft, when jazz musicians were supposed to look tough. No wonder so many teenage girls were so infatuated with him. Chet drove a lot of women crazy.

JJMBy all accounts, Baker was nothing but trouble. He was a junkie, a philanderer, not the least bit dependable, and possessed a terrible temper, even attempting murder. Ruth Young, one of Baker’s lovers, came to the conclusion that Baker “couldn’t stand women. He hated them all, including me.” Yet women stood by him. Why were women so vulnerable to Baker’s charms?

JG Both women and men were vulnerable to his charms. The image of the wounded artist — who creates great beauty out of great pain — is an extremely romantic one, especially in Europe. When someone reveals as little as Chet revealed, it suggests a mystery that’s crying out to be solved. People thought that somewhere inside his silence lay the key to that magical artistry of his.

JJM  You talked about Europe and you claim that Baker “fit neatly into what Fellini viewed as a Dante-esque frenzy of moral and spiritual decay.” Maybe what you are saying is that not only women were vulnerable, but society, particularly European culture was vulnerable to him. There was more of a fascination with his self-destruction than his music over there.

JG I think his music and his image were indistinguishable in Europe. The Europeans revered Chet at a time when America had tossed him aside, with Chet’s cooperation, of course. Here in the States in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, Chet was looked down upon as a burn-out who had destroyed his gifts, thrown his life away. There was a very nice review of my book in the Toronto Star. The subtitle reads, “What a waste his life was.” That was and is the American attitude toward Chet. It really annoys me, as it did him, because how can you call a guy a waste when he’s recorded 150 albums and almost never stopped playing? That attitude reveals something quite unflattering about America. In Europe, Chet felt embraced, because most people didn’t treat him with disapproval — even when he deserved it. I think it was the pianist Enrico Pieranunzi who said in my book that in Italy, Chet was looked upon as a great artist with a great problem. Europe is filled with people who proudly view themselves as patrons of the arts. Helping a needy artist is a noble act there. Even when Chet was at his frailest — especially when he was at his frailest — the Europeans were extremely touched by the pain he revealed so nakedly. Even if he had only tatters of his former technique, this outpouring of the soul touched everyone’s hearts. The Europeans loved him for it.