For a brief time in the 1950s, Chet Baker seemed to have everything going for him. With the chiseled good looks of a James Dean, he was one of the key figures in the West Coast jazz scene that emerged in the wake of Miles Davis’s 1949-1950 Birth of Cool recordings. Baker first came to prominence in 1952 when he joined baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in the formation of what was then a novelty: a pianoless quartet. Free from the confines of piano chords, Baker and Mullligan developed an elegant contrapuntal style that influenced later generations. Baker’s trumpet playing was relaxed and lyrical, with even dynamics and just a hint of vibrato. He was the epitome of cool.
But things fell apart. Baker developed a drug habit and never recovered. In the book Jazz: The New York Times Essential Library, author Ben Ratliff puts it bluntly: “Baker checked out of being a sentient, developing musician–in other words, one who gave a shit–barely after having gotten started, and he continued on the path of least resistance for thirty-five more years.”
Those later years were spent mostly in exile, in Europe, where Baker continued to record and perform (often as a singer) for adoring crowds. Despite his addiction to heroin and cocaine–or perhaps because of it–Baker developed a cult following. In his biography Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, author James Gavin strives to capture his subject’s romantic appeal:
A former Oklahoma farmboy, Baker had filled people’s heads with fantasies from the time he was born. Everything about him was open to speculation: his “cool” trumpet playing, so vulnerable yet so detached; his enigmatic half-smile; the androgyny of his sweet singing voice; a face both childlike and sinister. The melody that poured from his horn had led Baker’s Italian fans to dub him l’angelo (the angel) and tromba d’oro (the golden trumpet). Marc Danval, a writer from Belgium, called his music “one of the most beautiful cries of the twentieth century” and compared him to Baudelaire, Rilke, and Edgar Allan Poe. In Europe, even his longtime addiction to heroin worked in his favor, making him seem all the more fragile and precious.
In 1987 the fashion photographer Bruce Weber went in search of Baker the cult figure and came back with a documentary film, Let’s Get Lost (shown above in its entirety), that lays bare the hollowness of the mystique. Ravaged and wrinkled, Baker is 57 in the film but looks much older, and seems always to be on the verge of nodding off. Weber tries to recapture the romance of the 1950s icon–driving him around Southern California in a convertible, taking him to the Cannes Film Festival–but his efforts only manage to heighten the pathos. In a 2007 New York Times review, Terrence Rafferty writes:
The really peculiar thing about “Let’s Get Lost” is that its subject’s physical decrepitude and narcoleptic performance style seem not to bother Mr. Weber at all. This isn’t one of those documentaries that poignantly contrast the beauty and energy of youth with the sad debilities of age. Far from it. The picture cuts almost randomly between archival clips and 1987 footage to create a sort of perverse continuum, a frantic insistence that the essence of Chetness is unvarying, eternal.
But Let’s Get Lost is a poignant film. Watching it unfold, we come to understand how the delicate, fragile phrasing of Baker’s music reflects the insuperable fragility of his character. Baker died before the film was released. About a year after the final scenes were shot, he fell from the third-story window of his hotel room in a neighborhood of Amsterdam notorious for drug dealing. It was Friday the 13th. A plaque was later placed where his body was found. It reads: “Trumpet player and singer Chet Baker died here on May 13th, 1988. He will live on in his music for anyone willing to listen and feel.”
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