Photo by William Claxton
Chet Baker and wife Halema
Redondo Beach, 1956
One of the iconic images of jazz — Chet Baker and wife Halema — is a shot taken by William Claxton during a photo session for the cover of a Pacific Jazz anthology album called The Blues. It was a time of brilliant artistry for Baker, and of course rampant and destructive drug abuse.
A story of their relationship and of this photo session, as told in this book excerpt from James Gavin’s Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker begins with the dark, drug-caused decline of the band Baker played with at the time — Phil Urso, Peter Littman, Bobby Timmons, Jimmy Bond and Bill Loughbrough — who had most recently recorded the album Chet Baker and Crew on Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz label.
In clubs, even casual observers of his band knew they were seeing a group of users. Littman sat slouched over the drums, eyelids drooping. One night he set up about eight cymbal stands (rather than the two or three most drummers used), and one of them was scratching Bond’s bass. “Move the cymbal, man!” Bond whispered. “Awww, mannn!” drawled Littman, too high to care. The usually coll-headed Bond lost his temper and swung a fist at the drummer, who fell off the stage.
Bobby Timmons had more discipline, and went on to become a valued member of the Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderley bands. But for all his talent, Bond said, “he destroyed himself – drugs, alcohol.” Meanwhile, recalled Bill Loughborough, Urso’s recklessness threatened to get them all arrested. On drives from town to town, Urso stopped at gas stations to fix, and one day he strolled out of a toilet sucking blood off the crook of his arm. Loughborough was furious. “Awww, these people don’t know anything about this shit!” muttered Urso.
Loughborough, whose own drug use stopped short of the needle, had lost patience. Baker had left him in charge of road-managing the band and transporting them in his van; that gave the trumpeter time to hunt for drugs. He carried everyone’s payroll in his pocket: a wad of hundred-dollar bills that might be traded at any time for a new car or dope. Finally both Bond and Loughborough quit. “I don’t want to be around to watch you kill yourself,” the latter told Baker.
That was one of the fears of Halema Alli, whom Baker had met in April 1956 and married in May, when she was just twenty. Onstage at the Rouge Lounge in Detroit, Baker had locked eyes with a dark-skinned, short-haired young woman at the bar. Halema lived in town with her East Indian family; she had no foreign accent, but her exotic look attracted him just as Lili’s had. Yet Bob Zieff would later call her “a quiet, sweet homegirl, and probably fantastically naïve.” She had never had a boyfriend, nor even been to a jazz club before. Baker’s forbidding sexiness must have titillated her, while her reserve intrigued him. “She looked like a mirage,” he told his friend Jack Simpson years later. “She was so beautiful. A little bit timid, especially with men, but very intelligent, very sensitive and sweet.”
Halema was overwhelmed when Baker started bombarding her with calls from other cities, and even more startled when, after so little time in her company, he proposed. Baker picked her up in Detroit and drove her to St. Louis, where they were wed by a justice of the peace. Littman served as witness. It all occurred so quickly that she barely grasped what was happening. “I ran away from home,” she said. “I just left one day, don’t ask me why. Nobody knew I was leaving. A girlfriend who helped me leave called my parents to tell them so they wouldn’t worry about me, and after I got married, then I told them.”
Thus began a marriage that, within a month, would turn into a hellish roller-coaster ride; forty years hence, she still didn’t want to talk about it. The couple never had their own home; they roomed with friends and strangers, crashed in hotels and motels. But things began romantically enough as Baker tried to make his best impression on the shy young woman. He took her with him everywhere – on helicopter rides and deep-sea diving trips, to gigs all over the United States – and bought her presents, including a brand-new Thunderbird for her twenty-first birthday.
Baker introduced her to all his musician friends; she hardly said a word because they scared her. Perhaps sensing that, they went out of their way to be nice to her. Phil Urso wrote a song called “Halema,” which Baker recorded; Peter Littman was on good behavior around her too. Littman had been on drugs but wasn’t anymore, Baker assured her. She had no reason to doubt him. “I didn’t even know what a junkie was,” she recalled. At first she didn’t even seem aware of her husband’s habit. “Chet never, ever used drugs in front of me,” she insisted. “Ever.” During their whole marriage, she claimed, they argued only once.
Baker was still in control in the fall of 1956, when he made a new round of albums for Dick Bock. One of them, Playboys, teamed him with Art Pepper, the celebrated West Coast alto saxophonist. Aside from his movie-star looks, not unlike Tyrone Power’s, Pepper shared with Baker a talent so natural he barely had to think about what he was doing. In his 1979 memoir Straight Life, Pepper discussed his music little, focusing instead on the thrills of copping, getting high, and doing jail time. His playing, though sometimes pretty, sounded hardened and cold; so did Baker’s as his habit grew. Playboys was a blowing contest, with long leathery solos by the two stars. On Quartet: Russ Freeman and Chet Baker, made a month later, Baker played a new ballad by Freeman, “Summer Sketch,” that rivaled “The Wind” and “My Funny Valentine” in its stark beauty. His other solos were impeccably shaped, but short on feeling.
William Claxton William Claxton photographed Baker in the studio that autumn. “He was looking very paranoid, sinister,” said Claxton. “In my naïve way, I finally woke up and thought, ‘There’s something wrong with him! I wonder if he’s on some drug.’ And of course, he was totally stoned.” Baker snapped at Claxton’s every request: “What do you mean by that?” “Why should I do that”? Near Thanksgiving, Halema gave Baker some unwelcome news. He was going to become a father – a job he was in no way equipped to handle.
The pressure inside him kept building, as Claxton saw when he took Baker’s picture for the cover of The Blues, a Pacific Jazz anthology album. Claxton had picked as unbluesy a setting as possible: a vacant house in Redondo Beach, sun-drenched and painted white. Halema was with her husband, and in her sleeveless summer dress she looked so seductive that Claxton used her in the shot. Posing them in a window seat, he asked Baker to take off his shirt. Then he gave directions: “Put your leg up here, Chet…” Suspiciious of the manipulation, Baker blew up. The photographer tried to calm him down – “Chet, just relax!” – so they could proceed. The contact sheet showed Baker scowling at the camera, wearing bangs that made him look like a nasty juvenile delinquent.
Out of that tense session, Claxton ended up with his most famous photo, a classic of cool sensuality. Wearing only khakis, Baker stands in profile before the window, arm resting on his knee. Halema sits with her head against his hand, gazing out soulfully. Soft light streams in from behind them, yet the couple are enveloped in shadows, as though they were carrying their own dark cloud.
– Excerpted from Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, by James Gavin
Read my interview with James Gavin, author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker