July/August 2002

Chet Baker: The Not-So Dream Life of Chet Baker

In Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, author James Gavin gives a no-holds-barred account of the trumpeter/singer/pinup/junkie. Jazz nerds might object to Baker’s music being given what some might call short shrift, but for most of his career the trumpeter’s playing style was as firmly set as his hair in the ’50s: a melodic, mid-register, vocal-like croon that rarely went outside those highly appealing conventions. That’s not where Baker’s most compelling story lies. For nearly 400 pages, Gavin plumbs Baker’s personal life—the difficult childhood and the mysterious death; the triumphs and excesses; the girls and the drugs—and, yes, the tours, records and music.

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Richard Dumas

Chet Baker

What results is the most well-rounded, clear-eyed profile of the trumpeter ever put to paper. Deep in a Dream is the definitive bio of Baker, and Gavin’s expertly selected companion CD, released by Blue Note, provides the perfect soundtrack to Baker’s not always so melodic and beautiful life.

There are a lot of sordid stories about Baker in the book. Were there any stories that you just felt were too sordid to include in the book?

Once you’ve written about a man shooting speedballs into his jugular vein and his groin, and about blue-ish bodies of OD victims being dragged out into the street and dumped behind a bush, little else seems that sordid. My only worry involved giving readers too much of a good thing, as it were. There were lots of other aspects of Chet Baker that needed space, such as his music.

What was the most surprising revelation that you discovered about Baker?

Chet loved to tell the Cinderella story of how Charlie Parker was auditioning trumpeters in LA in 1952, and had picked him out of a roomful of eager young hopefuls—thereby anointing him the Great White Hope of trumpet players. Everyone believed what turned out to be a complete piece of fiction. That was Chet’s seductive power. Virtually every pivotal autobiographical tale he told was, at the very least, apocryphal—and happily perpetuated by other writers who bought into the myth. Most people just do not want to know the truth.

Was there any cooperation from the Chet Baker estate?

Carol Baker was initially very cooperative, but withdrew her cooperation when she realized that she would not be paid for it. She never asked, she simply expected it, and I certainly did not offer; I don’t pay for interviews. As of this moment, I have had no contact with her for years.

Were there any people close to Baker who refused to speak with you?

Regrettably, I got to speak with only one of his four children. Otherwise, I approached hundreds of people for interviews, and virtually no one refused. People seemed so eager to have their Chet Baker stories immortalized—lucky for me.

The book has a slight tone of contempt for Baker because of his life off the bandstand. Did you start out as a fan of his music?

I disagree about the contempt part. It’s hard to admire a man whose behavior could be so incredibly ugly. But as I got swept along on this gruesome Magic Carpet ride, I was far more fascinated than contemptuous. Remember, it takes two to tango, and most people who are treated badly by someone and stick around for it have to accept their share of the blame. I started out by loving all the conflicted emotion in his music—the beauty and clarity of the sound versus the darkness of the feeling. Midway through the research, I found it painful to hear his records; I knew too much. But a few weeks ago, when I heard the CD tie-in I got to produce for Blue Note, I was seduced again—more than ever.

How important was Chet Baker’s image to his success and popularity?

If it weren’t for Chet’s image, we would not be having this conversation and I would never have gotten to write my book. The sexy William Claxton album cover photos; the cool, brooding mystique; the drugs; the self-destruction; the mysterious death—right or wrong, this is what makes a legend. Not just great music.

In compiling the companion CD, were there any surprise tracks that you unearthed? Also, were there any tracks from other labels you wished you could have included because they would have illustrated certain points you make in the book?

The two surprise tracks were a pair of unissued a capella vocals—”Blue Room” and “Spring Is Here” that Chet recorded at a 1953 session for Columbia. They are so eerie, it sounds as if Chet is in the room with you. If I could have done a double CD, the second would have picked up where the first leaves off (1965). But I believe that Deep in a Dream [CD] is the crème de la crème of the young Chet.

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