Chet Baker (1929-1988) was a star by the age of 23, winner of all the jazz polls for his singing as well as his trumpet playing. His early promise, though, was frustrated by involvement with drugs, and by a popular shift in taste away from the cool jazz of the West Coast. But except for a few years of inactivity Chet continued to perform for over thirty years-mostly overseas, and often in bad shape-but always faithful to his original, lyric style. Some of his finest recordings were made shortly before his death. Since then his reputation has recovered and continues to grow, thanks to his romantic life as much as his beautiful music.
The book has been well received, particularly among long-time Baker fans.
Chet Baker: His Life and Music
Berkeley Hills Books $15.95 (paperback)
Paperback $15.95 308 pages 42 photos . ISBN 189316313X
Reviews of CHET BAKER: His life and music
Reviewed by Brian Priestley, editor of The Rough Guide, Jazz, and author of Mingus: A Critical Biography, in Jazzwise, December 2000/January 2001
“I don’t believe there is anyone who has spent so much money on drugs in one lifetime. Most addicts spend less money and die earlier. The words of his European manager and tour promoter Wim Wigt effectively encompass Baker’ s tragedy, and many other first-person comments in this valuable book raise questions about his passive personality and lopsided career. In passing, it picks up the few useful facts from the trumpeter’s posthumous autobiographical fragment, and saves one from having to read it.
Careerwise, there are slight parallels with Dexter Gordon-early fame, early prison, early exile to Europe, total obscurity at home, and then the comeback. But, whereas Dexter’s comeback took place in the U.S., Baker remained a complete non-entity there except for those who could remember 1952-56, his years of glory with Gerry Mulligan and his own bands. Fans in Europe and Japan, though, took him to their hearts and, for all that he often played miserably or didn’t show at all, found his later music often superior to the early work. De Valk is clear-sighted about such paradoxes and his subject’s foibles in the ’50s (interviews with figures such as Russ Freeman and Bud Shank help here) and he is equally unsensational about the circumstances of Baker’s death in 1988.
As well as the virtues of the chronological narrative, the author really comes into his own with the 60-page section on the recordings. Initially it seems a strange choice to describe first several albums recommended for their historical importance or particularly good playing, and then do brief assessments of everything ever issued-some 201 items! This, however, enables him to sift the wheat from the chaff in the over-prolific late period, describing the 1987 Chet Baker In Tokyo as his best ever while others merit comments such as “Completists only” or “Chet in bad shape with a band that doesn’t know what to do about it”.
There are minor problems of accuracy (the earliest Mulligan-Baker track wasn’t released for several years) and minor problems with translations. Those, for instance, spoken in languages other than English come out less than idiomatically-and who outside Continental Europe understands “the spirit of 1992”? (Think Maastricht.) Though it has an endearingly unfinished feel like some of Baker’s music, it’s going to be definitive.
From Library Journal
This is the only biography of Chet Baker (1929-88) available in English. De Valk’s sympathetic yet gritty rendering of Baker’s life blends well with his account of Baker’s recording career. Somehow, the author manages to avoid the lurid and sensationalistic aspects those having only a passing familiarity with the musician usually recount. Leading a wandering existence that included a scattering of wives and children across America, Baker is shown to be a master musician who communicated primarily through music. De Valk weaves excerpts from Baker’s As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoir (a chilling account of his music-making and life-long search for drugs, both seemingly of equal importance) with insights from Baker’s family and friends, making sense of Baker’s creativity. In his final years, he seemed inspired to play some of his finest music, so his death was that much more shocking to fans. Recommended for public, academic, and music libraries. DWilliam G. Kenz, Moorhead State Univ., MN
Larry Nai, in Cadence 27.1 (January 2001)
Jeroen de Valk’s book, CHET BAKER: HIS LIFE AND MUSIC (Berkeley Hills, 294
pages, $15.95), is a classic of modern Jazz biography.
De Valk’s writing is so straightforward as to be stark, yet this is just what makes it so rich. His description of the events leading to the tall that took Baker’s life, for instance, has a quick, breathless suspense to it. While De Valk is a passionate fan of the trumpeter’s, he’s also very clear on the man’s limitations, with a mordant sense of humor (as when he titles his sixth chapter “the second European tour: a picaresque journey through clinics and jails”). After recounting the actual (rather than rumored) circumstances of Baker’s death, he writes, “This may sound anticlimactic for a jazz hero, but there is nothing I can do about it.”
There are several reasons why this book is so valuable. First-and perhaps the main reason why anyone writes a biography-is de Valk’s ability to inspire the reader to investigate his subject more deeply. Statements like “From 1974 on Chet achieved an intensity unmatched by just about any other Jazz musician. When he was in good form, he surpassed, in my opinion, every other living Jazz musician” may raise eyebrows, but de Valk’s impressive, almost poetic understanding of Baker’s playing lays solid groundwork for his claims. De Valk feels-as Baker himself did-that Chet did the best playing of his life during his later years in Europe and Japan, and the documentation of this phase of Baker’s life is non-pareil.
The author also interviewed many musical, business, and personal associates of Baker’s, and the resulting insights give the book an intimate feel that raises it far above many jazz biographies I’ve read. A number of superb, black & white photographs enhance this quality: Chet in custody as a result of a drug bust in Italy, looking at the camera through jailhouse bars, an odd look of mischief on his face, performance photos that are among the finest evocations of their subjects’ personalities I’ve ever seen, and-unnervingly, as it accompanies the final account of Baker’s fatal tall from a window, a 1961 shot of Baker sitting in an open window in Italy, playing his trumpet many stories above the ground.
Finally, de Valk includes two discographies at the end: a selection of notable recordings, and a complete overview of all of Baker’s albums, both feature helpful commentary on each release. Taken together, they serve as a wonderful guide to the recorded legacy.