Monday, 5 April 2010

Nothing in life is that funny

I always hesitate to call myself a jazz fan. Yes, these days I listen almost exclusively to jazz, but my tastes are quite limited (I prefer acoustic, melodic, melancholic jazz, and above all jazz that moves me) and there's a lot of jazz I don't particularly like. One thing I have a real aversion to is jazz vocals. So, for example, in deciding which jazz club to visit during my recent trip to Tokyo, the first thing I did when going through the schedules on the club websites was disregard all the dates with vocalists.

As with most rules, there are a couple of exceptions. I've always quite liked Tony Bennett. Which is lucky, because a couple of Christmases ago my brother, knowing that I was a Bill Evans fan, gave me The Legendary Sessions, a CD of duets by Evans and Tony Bennett. The other exception is trumpeter and singer Chet Baker.

Until recently I'd resisted listening to Chet Baker, not only because he sings, but also because I was put off by his image as the pin-up boy of West Coast cool jazz, which caused me to dismiss him as a lightweight. According to Wikipedia, between 1966 and 1974 Baker did record music that could be classified as early "smooth jazz," but from what I've heard of his recordings from the 1950s before his heroin addiction got the better of him and in the 70s and 80s when he cleaned himself up enough to make a comeback, he was anything but a lightweight. His music certainly has many of the qualities I look for in jazz.

Baker's abilities have always been the subject of controversy. He could barely read music, and he was no great technician, sticking to the trumpet's middle range and employing little or no vibrato. His singing, described as "an acquired taste" and having "an innocence and a sexual ambivalence that is vaguely unsettling," helped him acquire a mainstream audience beyond jazz, but it also attracted scorn from jazz purists, who were incensed when he won popularity polls in jazz magazines ahead of such distinguished contemporaries as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.

In the 1950s, his youthful good looks saw him courted by Hollywood (he appeared in the 1955 film Hell's Horizon), and for a time he lived the life of a movie star, his popularity among women, contempt for rules, and love of fast cars earning him a reputation as the James Dean of jazz. But he turned down an offer of a Hollywood studio contract so that he could continue to tour as a musician.

Baker's drug habit (he became addicted to heroin in the 1950s) began to interfere with his career in the 1960s. He fled to Europe to escape a drugs charge in the U.S., only to be jailed in Italy and expelled from England and Germany for drug-related offences. He returned to the U.S., but was forced to switch from trumpet to flugelhorn after losing several teeth in the mid-1960s. He left for Europe again in 1975, living out of a suitcase for the rest of his life. By this time he was playing the trumpet again, his sound "frail, airy, almost ethereal." Years of heroin use had taken its toll, not only on his playing but also on his looks. According to the liner notes to Chet Baker: The Collection (a compilation of Baker's mid-1950s recordings for the Pacific Jazz label):
By the time of his death in 1988 his face told his story. Much photographed, the boyish good looks of the 1950s Pacific Jazz album covers had disappeared with the ravages of a junkie lifestyle, his lined face displaying the all too tangible evidence of addiction. "They're laugh lines," he once quipped to fellow trumpeter and arch-humorist Jack Sheldon. "Nothing in life is that funny" came the response.
And while I'm quoting liner notes, here are some more, this time from Broken Wing, one of the many albums Baker recorded in Europe in the 1970s and 80s as he was struggling to resurrect his career:
After praising him to the skies - abusively, in his estimation - when he was the West Coast trumpeter-playboy, the men of America's "show-business" had looked the other way when, unrecognisable, with the craggy face of an old Indian, Chet was trying to emerge from what might possibly have been the nearest thing to hell. "There are no second acts in American lives," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald.


Mark T said...

Nice article, Bro.
Have you listened to much Chris Botti? I was just thinking that he also has a bit of a glamourous image, and plays smooth jazz.

Walking fool said...

Thanks, bro. Been listening to Broken Wing (from your collection), Chet Baker: The Collection (stuff from the 50s), and Once Upon a Summertime (from 1977, includes a version of E.S.P.). I have a couple more on order from Amazon. I wouldn't call any of it "smooth". But I guess there's a fine line between "cool" and "smooth".

Walking fool said...

Oops, you mean Chris Botti is smooth jazz. Thought you meant Chet. No, don't think I've heard him. Borrowed an Enrico Rava CD from the library the other day. Mark Turner on Saxophone!

Walking fool said...

There's a doco about Chet Baker called Let's Get Lost, made just before he died. Meant to be very good.

Mark T said...

Think I saw that. Must have been the first time I saw the old Chet. I love they way each note is always so in tune. Wish I could do that.
You may have heard Botti on some of Sting's albums.
Did I keep my Mark Turner album?