How do we go about judging a famous artistic figure? Do we treat them as a stand alone individual, or do we evaluate them in relation to their peers? I’ve often grappled with this subject and, true to my intellectually ambivalent nature, still haven’t parked myself in either camp. I go back and forth, insufferably so. Keeps discussion interesting I guess. I hope!
I remember many years ago, listening to my father (a trumpet player) having a lively discussion with another musician (also a trumpet player) about Chet Baker. The topic was whether Baker’s talent squared with his popularity. My father’s position was a definitive “no”. Let me explain the context. The year was 1954, and my Dad, 22 years old at the time and jazz lover to his core, opened the pages of Downbeat Magazine and saw that Chet Baker was voted Best Trumpet Player of the year in a reader poll. Best Trumpet Player. Of 1954. A glorious year for jazz. A year when the competition included not only greats like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, but my father’s idol, the gifted young prodigy Clifford Brown. So it was in that context that my father forged a mild but persistent resentment of Chet Baker. I tried several times to get my dad to warm up to Baker but he simply couldn’t no matter how hard he tried. He didn’t dismiss Baker’s talent outright, mind you. He just held trumpet playing in such high regard that his standards were earnest and precise. In other words, if Clifford Brown was on the scene, Baker had to take a back seat. No Clifford, then Baker deserves a shot. (“No Clifford” came soon enough. He was tragically killed in a car crash in 1956. A promising young talent gone at the age of 25).
Chet Baker, photographed by Bob Willoughby:
Like my dear friend Fred Hatt, Baker was a native Oklahoman. Born Chesney Henry Baker Jr. in 1929, “Chet” joined the army after dropping out of college. Upon his discharge he set down his jazz roots in Los Angeles, at a time when a genre split was forming in the jazz community – “cool” West Coast jazz versus East Coast bebop. The geographical labels are less significant than the actual sound, which is where the true distinction is realized. East Coast jazz was intense, frenzied, edgy, and introspective. West Coast jazz was laid-back, uncluttered, very “listener-friendly” and accessible. East Coast jazz embraced dissonance and radical chord changes, while West Coast jazz relied more on smooth arrangements and a light swinging feel. It must be noted also that the East Coast crew was comprised mostly of black musicians like John Coltrane, Bud Powell, and Charles Mingus, while the West Coast crew was primarily white, its main figures being Dave Brubeck , Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and, of course, Chet Baker – the classic, chiseled, handsome, corn-fed American white boy if there ever was one.
Books and scholarly articles have been written about the rivalry between Matisse and Picasso, and their work is often assessed in contrast to each other. The same treatment has been done to Michelangelo and da Vinci, Pollock and de Kooning, Lennon and McCartney, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Marlon Brando and James Dean, etc. The list goes on and on. We like to frame everything as a competition. But is it fair? Well, it’s not necessarily unfair. In spite of their self-absorption and individualism, artists do not exist in a vacuum. They are, for better or worse, part of a group. A club. A particular era in time. If you are an artist and the other guy is doing something new, original, and groundbreaking, you would be smart to pay attention. Creative souls feed off each other, challenge each other, influence each other. That competitive interplay generally raises the quality of everyone involved. So it is inevitable that an artist’s contributions will be evaluated in the context of his peers. Depending on the artist, that can be either a blessing or an albatross.
The public (especially women) adored Chet Baker, but many jazz critics eviscerated him. He was a “lightweight”, they said. He couldn’t read music. He had no upper register and couldn’t hit a high C. He represented style over substance. He was a poor man’s Miles Davis. Okay, but let’s consider what Chet Baker did bring to the table. He was insanely photogenic. A stylish Beat Generation hipster. It may sound shallow, but that kind of thing scores a lot of points. Never underestimate the resonant power of “image” in popular culture. Also, in addition to the trumpet, Baker played an excellent flugelhorn. Most notably, Baker offered something extra to communicate with and engage his audience. Unlike the moody, mercurial, introverted East Coasters, Chet Baker could chill out and sing. He didn’t just sing. He was a seductive crooner. That reaches out to people in an intimate and sensitive way, and the listening public gobbles it up.
William Claxton’s famous photograph of Chet Baker with his second wife Halima:
Most impressive, in my opinion, was the supportive endorsement Chet Baker received from none other than the legendary Charlie Parker :bows down in worship: If Bird saw something in the guy, then that counts for an awful lot. Parker even invited Chet to join him on tour for his West Coast dates.
But still, there’s the race thing. The pesky, unavoidable race thing. There’s no denying that race played a significant role in Baker’s easy rise to popularity. Remember context? Well, this was still racially segregated, pre-Brown vs Board of Education, pre-Civil Rights Act 1950s America. Was it fair that Chet Baker was promoted more aggressively than black musicians? That he could travel freely throughout the country and play in any venue and stay at any hotel? That he could talk to a white cocktail waitress without being hassled? (which happened to Miles Davis). Of course it’s not fair. But conversely, the race card can also be played to belittle Baker’s talent, and that is equally unfair. It carries the suggestion that a pretty-boy white guy can’t play jazz, and that’s just silly. Chet Baker did possess unique interpretive skills, and he brought subtle inflections to his playing that were lyrical, vulnerable, and haunting. And while Baker’s critics have accused him of lacking inventiveness and musical innovation, one could counter that argument by crediting him with popularizing jazz and attracting a broader audience to an art form that was previously regarded as insular and esoteric.
Chet Baker and Charlie Parker together onstage:
So what’s my opinion of Chet Baker? I know you’re all on the edge of your seats in eager anticipation! 😆 Well, I like him. I just don’t love him. I understand that he was an easy target of ridicule by jazz critics who, much like art critics, can be a snotty, mean-spirited bunch. I also understand that Baker clearly benefitted from advantages that were non-musical in nature; matinee idol good looks, youth, and race. But I can’t fault the guy for circumstances that were out of his control. My main issue with him as a musician is based solely on my personal taste. It’s a lack of fearlessness. I like fearlessness in creative people. Baker’s trumpet playing, to me, often feels timid and restrained. He plays with no authority. His horn sounds fragile, like it’s about to break at any second. I do enjoy listening to Chet Baker, but at times it can be exasperating. In my mind I start thinking, “Play! Play man! Blow! BLOW INTO THE HORN, DAMMIT!”. Grrrr. But that’s just me 😉
If Chet Baker didn’t deserve jazz “street cred” through his music in the eyes of some, he certainly earned it when it came to his personal habits. In the tragic, cliched tradition of jazz musicians, Baker was hooked on drugs throughout his adult life. Although he tried many times to kick his heroin addiction, the stays in rehab and methadone clinics didn’t stick. He was in and out of jail many times in both Europe and the United States. The low point came in San Francisco in 1966, when Baker was beaten up during an alleged drug buy. All his teeth were knocked out and he had to wear dentures from then on. He also had to learn to play the trumpet all over again.
In his later years, Baker’s physical appearance changed dramatically. With the drug use and wild living having taken their visible toll, the transformation was astonishing. The once handsome, fresh-faced young trumpeter now looked gaunt, ghostly, beaten. A broken shell of a man.
His demise, predictably, was grisly. In 1988, Chet Baker’s dead body was discovered at 3 AM on the street just below his hotel room window in Amsterdam. He was only 58 years old. Although the death was ruled an accident, speculation has raised questions as to whether it was a suicide, or even a murder. Does it even matter?
Some creative artists rise to incredible historic heights. Picasso, Shakespeare, Beethoven, etc. Their artistic contributions are permanently seared into the annals of art and held up as awe-inspiring exemplars of brilliant creative output. Trailblazers. Prodigies. Mad geniuses. But let’s face it. That is a very, very select and exclusive group. Chet Baker was not, and could not be, Dizzy Gillespie. And we can safely assume that Chet himself knew this. Maybe Chet Baker just didn’t have the soul of an innovator. That kind of thing has been said about Degas you know. Everyone agrees that he was great, but critics remind us that he didn’t “change” anything, didn’t assert enough influence. Oh man, who cares? Who sets these rules anyway? Maybe Chet Baker was both conscious of his limitations and aware of his strengths. If so, there is absolutely nothing wrong or inauthentic about that. If anything, it is profoundly authentic. It means that the man knew who he was as an artist. And if that’s the case, I say we just enjoy the music. Enjoy the art. Enjoy the expression . . . from wherever and whomever it comes . . .
“I’m Through With Love”, performed by Chet Baker: