Two jazz trumpet players, Miles Davis and Chet Baker, are back in the news due to the release of two biopics: Miles Ahead, about Davis, was written, directed and stars Don Cheadle; Born to Be Blue, about Baker, was written and directed by Robert Budreau and stars Ethan Hawke. Neither film inspired much enthusiasm from critics, except perhaps the dredging up of a tired argument in which the trumpeters themselves were not involved, a sort of East Coast-West Coast musical rivalry. While both musicians received high praise from their contemporaries, there was a great deal of rather silly controversy over which one was the more deserving of praise. Their careers had their ups and downs, and both films concentrate on the downs - the source of most of the interesting drama in these musicians' lives.
I have been a jazz lover for about as long as I can remember - before I even knew what it was. When I was ten, I was sitting in the back seat of a car and a pretty sixteen year old blonde in the front seat turned around and looked at me. I was a cute kid, but painfully shy. There was music playing on the radio, probably rock music, and she asked me, "What kind of music do you like?" Without stopping to think of an answer, I blurted out "Jazz!" The girl tilted her head in amazement, smiled a curious smile, and said, "Jazz?!?"
I didn't know it then, but jazz was the greatest musical idiom of the 20th century. Some of the greatest jazz musicians were playing then. It was 1966, and post-bop was the latest permutation of jazz. Listening to some of it now, it sounds as edgy and bold as it did then - more so, since jazz has slipped into ossification since then, like it had nowhere else to go. I think it has to do with the fact that jazz is more about musicians than it is about music. And when the mass audience, which had never really embraced jazz as its own, turned its back on jazz in the late 60s, turning instead to funk and psychedelic rock, those jazz musicians who had survived the 60s tried to stay alive by changing styles, modes, and mixing jazz with other forms. The results sound terrible today precisely because of its impurity - music that can't make up its mind what it wants to be.
A jazz musician isn't just an interpretive artist, like an actor who has to follow a script, or a classical musician a score. When a jazz musician takes the stage, he may begin with the familiar notes of a standard like "My Funny Valentine," but from the initial notes of the melody he can go wherever his mood or his frame of mind may take him, to a destination that he may not even have glimpsed when he started. He has the freedom and the power to be both interpreter and creator, making something out of thin air in front of his audience. On their best recordings, such musicians wrote their own songs, used a handful of notes they assembled in the morning as a jumping off point for their rapturous improvisations in the evening. One such jazz artist was Miles Davis, who originated a minimalist, clean - "cool" - musical style that attracted listeners because it lacked the overwhelming busyness of bop, the sometimes bewildering multiple layers of notes piled on notes that characterized the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. As much as Davis was famous for ushering in the cool era of jazz, there were many imitators, and none of the imitators was as successful - more successful even than Davis - as Chet Baker.
There had always been great jazz musicians who were white. Jazz is an idiom - not a form unto itself, but a kind of dialect. It was the opposite of parochial, as the success of jazz everywhere in the world proved; it was universal. White artists, however (especially in America), had an advantage over their black fellow musicians that was unfair. Because jazz was largely played by black musicians, the discriminatory laws in America that deliberately isolated black people from white society made it difficult for black jazz musicians to perform wherever they wished. The Swing Era was the closest that jazz came to being American Popular Music. But it did so because of predominantly white bandleaders like Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, and Artie Shaw.
The postwar era ushered in great changes. How could anything, least of all music, fail to reflect the enormous experience of a world war? There was a need and an appetite for something new, even revolutionary. But as much as musicians and listeners were ready for change, conservative forces in society wanted things to return to the way they were before the war, especially in the Deep South. Too often, black jazz musicians touring the South found themselves playing in clubs on one side of the tracks only to learn that they had to sleep and eat on the other.
Chet Baker was different, and not just because he was white. He and his fellow musicians, which included the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, were practitioners of the "West Coast Cool" bebop sound. Baker had earned chops of his own playing with Charlie Parker in some of Parker's west coast gigs. And Baker could sing, sort of. His vocals were actually alot like his trumpet style - spare, reedy, unforced, and rather bland. But he was popular, and his striking (white) looks landed him Downbeat's Trumpeter of the Year award in 1953 and 1954 when more talented (black) trumpeters were struggling. They knew - and deep down, so did Baker - that his popularity had little to do with his playing.
It's easy today to look back on the era and laugh. But it's also too easy to see Baker's dramatic decline as some kind of tragic fall. The truth is somewhere in between. Baker wasn't the equal of Miles Davis, but neither was he a total joke, as too many observers of late are suggesting. Jokes don't win Downbeat Awards, however racially biased they used to be. People still find something of value in Baker's early recordings, and in his recordings of the 1980s, after he got new dentures and regained his embouchure, even if they're aware of what Miles and Dizzy (and Clifford Brown and Roy Eldridge) were doing at the same moment. Holding all of his advantages against Baker is as unfair as the system that made him popular.
The two biopics Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue concentrate on moments of crisis in the lives of and Davis and Baker. The critics I've read liked neither film, even if Miles Ahead, the film concentrating on Davis, was somewhat better received. The trouble starts when critics measured the success of the films against the worthiness of their subjects. However self-inflicted Baker's problems may have been (both he and Davis were heroin addicts), his life didn't follow the self-destructive curve that some critics would have us believe.
In 2002, a biography of Baker, Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, by James Gavin, was published. Among the mostly favorable reviews was one written by David Thomson, a prolific and sometimes observant critic who is clearly more interested in famous subjects like Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. As I said of him in a review of his Biographical Dictionary of Film, he is more of a fan than a genuine critic.
The thesis of his review of the Baker biography is that Baker was a bad jazz musician because he was white and because he was strikingly good-looking (which seems to be the only reason why Thomson was attracted by the subject in the first place). He opened his review with the following warning: "If you treasure Chet Baker, if you have all his recordings of "My Funny Valentine" and "Let's Get Lost," and if you revere the desperate effort to hit flat notes, to stretch more paining pauses, to disappear into the ether, then buy this diligent book, but do not read what I have to say about its subject."(1)
I read his review of the book because I was interested in the story of jazz, not necessarily in the story of Chet Baker. Jazz musicians, like blues musicians, often die suddenly or accidentally, and often far too soon. The talent they possess seems to be purchased at the expense of their souls, and a jealous death is always shadowing them, ready to press them for payment.
Evidently, if Chet Baker could've pawned his soul for some heroin, as he often did with his trumpets at his lowest point (he started using in 1957, served time in jail in Europe for drug offenses, and, in 1966, got his teeth knocked out in a drug-related altercation), he would have without a moment's thought. What any of this has to do with his playing is a question worth asking because it doesn't have an easy answer - despite David Thomson's strenuous efforts to convince us of Baker's total unworthiness.
Baker died in a fall from a second storey balcony in 1988. Thomson comments: "Had the man fallen or jumped, or had someone even pushed him? I am inclined to confess that I think it may have been me - I don't want to be unkind, and in this case it was surely mercy if some angel gave the man's frail back a tender, guiding push."
For Thomson, Baker's life story after discovering heroin is so monotonously depressing that he feels sorry for his biographer:
"Baker was out to bring everyone down. It would not surprise me if - just to get through the labor--Gavin needed an hour or so every night listening to something as cleansing, explosive, and hopeful as Louis Armstrong, Lee Morgan, or Clifford Brown, or anyone who knew how to pick up a trumpet and blow, as opposed to using the instrument to enlarge an exquisite, maudlin, and grisly sigh. No, I do not like Chet Baker." I don't know that I like him either, but I can't condemn him simply for not being black or not being Louis Armstrong. Do I condemn Thomson for not being Vernon Young - a fellow Americanized Englishman, but much finer writer and critic?
"Truly I think that the Chet Baker story was, from start to finish, based on his appearance. He was pretty, he was handsome, he was cute." It's possible, all these years since, to separate Chet Baker's trumpet playing from his face - especially since, by the time he was 40, he had entirely lost his looks. And it was his later recordings in the 1980s that critics recognize as examples of his best playing, when he looked like death warmed over, as my father used to say.
As for his playing, Thomson quotes Art Pepper, a fellow white jazz musician, from his memoir Straight Life (1979):
"Billy Wilson [Pepper's veiled renaming of Baker] plays like he is. When I knew him, when he was young, he was a real warm, sweet, loving person. And he plays just that way. But if you listen to his tone, it never was very strong; it's pretty and kind of cracking. It's weak. And when he was faced with prison--because he got busted for using drugs--he couldn't stand it. He couldn't go because he was afraid, and when they offered him an out by turning over on somebody he couldn't help but do it. He's a weak person. That's the way he plays. That's the way he sounds."
At least Pepper was fair enough to credit Baker's playing with warmth and sweetness. Whether or not his death was suicide, whatever was responsible for Chet Baker's success, it's silly to blame him for it. Was John Coltrane responsible for his early death from cancer? If being a gifted jazz musician carried a curse, how was Baker to blame if his curse came ready-made, as it did for anyone who picked up an instrument and made something out of nothing for whomever was lucky enough to be listening?
(1) "My Unfunny Valentine" by David Thomson, The New Republic, June 17, 2002.