Let’s Get Lost
When the American jazz trumpeter Chet Baker died in May, 1988, the only real surprise was that he’d managed to live as long as he had. After almost 40 years as one of the most notorious junkies in jazz, he’d long been expected to clock-out of an overdose. In the final idiocy of a life filled with them, Baker didn’t die of an overdose but fell out of a first-floor hotel window in Amsterdam’s red-light district. Sic transit gloria etc.
Baker had started out as a ‘golden boy’, with his matinee idol good-looks and an almost supernatural gift for making a trumpet do whatever he wanted. And gift it was. Baker never ‘learned’ to play the trumpet and he didn’t practice. Friend and fellow trumpeter Jack Shelton (who went on to a long career as a respected band-leader and in-demand studio musician) said:
Chet used to drive me crazy. You know, here’s me, practicing 12 hours a day, blowing ’til I’m fucking cross-eyed and Chet, he’s just running around, chasing girls, smoking dope, going to the beach, having a blast, never even picking up a trumpet. But he’d turn up at gigs 5 minutes before we started, have a quick look at the playlist and then blow everyone else off the stage. What was worse, the son of a bitch never once pressed the right valve…
Right valve or not, Baker effortlessly delivered a clean, lyrical sound with the ability to play passages expressive of such tender yearning and loss that a listener must assume he had gone to hell and back. But he hadn’t. He was a nice, naive, fresh-faced kid from Norman, Oklahoma. He’d been nowhere, done nothing (except a brief stint in the US Army), read nothing and could hardly be said, at the age of 22, to have lived at all (and before anyone points out that Rimbaud had finished writing poetry by the age of 22, I’d point out that Rimbaud was a worldly, sophisticated, well-educated Frenchman: Baker was a hick who never read a book in his life).
Baker was an idiot savant: it was a gift. Like the song of the blackbird or the gorgeous display of a bird of paradise–and gifts can be spurned, abused, broken or lost.
It’s a measure of Baker’s gift that he never quite broke it or lost it, even when the heroin took hold or through the years of scuffling and ducking and diving, the busts and overdoses, the ruined relationships and crap albums recorded on the strength of his name and to make enough to keep him from ‘clucking’ (the wonderfully expressive term used by British junkies to describe being junk-sick).
Even after he had his teeth knocked out in a 1968 heroin deal gone wrong. For a trumpeter, this was catastrophic. The embouchure (the ability to shape the mouth and lips) is dependent on teeth. False teeth mean having to train the facial muscles all over again from scratch, a task that’s probably beyond most trumpeters and Baker gave up music for a couple of years. But by the early 70s, he was playing again and perhaps, after his experience of regaining what he’d thought lost, better than ever. His playing had new depth.
THIS TRACK, recorded in Rome in late 1987, six months before his death, is almost heart-breaking. My Funny Valentine was a Baker signature tune and one that helped rocket him to fame in his early 20s. Listening to the broken, reedy, wheezing vocal convinces you that he’s a dead man walking…but his trumpet playing? His trumpet tells a different story. The old fluid lyricism is still there, just as effortless, just as moving.
Actually, it’s even more moving–now, he can truly be said to have learned about the pain and loss and yearning that he’d once expressed so thoughtlessly. And just for contrast, listen to Baker HERE, aged 22. Marvel at his breezy confidence and delight in his command, his phrasing, his optimism. Then, perhaps, consider the long, hard road that he and all of us must travel on our way to a dusty death.
I guess this is just a long-winded way of saying that I love Chet Baker’s trumpet playing. I could have written a much, much longer piece, trying to explain my affection for Baker but what would be the point? Explaining the hows and whys of love is as futile as herding cats.
Let’s have poems about musicians or music that you love. They don’t need to be great musicians and it needn’t be great music: you just have to love it.