Junk bonds. Richard Cook on the dismal life and mysterious death of a jazz icon

Deep in a Dream: the long night of Chet Baker

James Gavin <em>Chatto & Windus, 430pp, £20</em>


The photographs published here of the young Chet Baker show a boyish face with sharp, high cheekbones, a missing tooth, coal-coloured hair and dark, despondent eyes. Looking at these images, it is strange to think of him as any kind of pin-up, as he was for a time: he looks raw and untutored, which was how his trumpet-playing sounded to a generation that had already heard virtuosi such as Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro. But Chet was "cooler" than that: he had a buffed, plaintive edge to his sound, and he could sing, too, in a whispery, apologetic voice that added to his mystique.

If you flip through the pages to the final section of photographs, the contrast is appalling: the young Chet is present only as a spectre in a haunted, puckered face. The final shot of Baker in his casket presents a preternaturally aged visage. What is preserved is the dreadful eyes and bony physique, the sustaining legacy of a lifelong heroin habit.

Drugs and jazz have always gone together, far more so even than drugs and rock'n'roll. Jazz is present in Deep in a Dream, but it is no more than the soundtrack: the tempo of the tale is set by the urgent need for the next score, the chase for a simple narcotic fix to make it as far as sunset, or sun-up. And then it begins again. Baker somehow managed to accommodate that race for decades. What James Gavin's deeply depressing but compelling biography reveals is a simple, melancholy (and oft-told) truth: the hold of hard drugs on the user renders everything else subservient.

In later years, Baker accepted nearly every recording date offered to him so as to pay for his needs. As a result, he is one of the most-recorded jazz musicians of the postwar era. It is testament to his artistry that, in spite of it all, many of the records remain peculiarly beautiful.

Gavin spares absolutely nothing in his account, avoiding prurience as he moves between sympathy, surprise and disbelief. As with another celebrated jazz bastard, Miles Davis, Baker attracted love and affection even as his behaviour became ever more selfish and disgraceful. In his early days, as the star trumpeter in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, he casually attracted women while maintaining other, steady relationships. Though not yet a junkie himself, he was surrounded by drug addicts. By the time Baker was leading his own bands, he was hooked, and in the company of other users. He never looked back.

There were a couple of periods when he tried to get off junk, but they never lasted long. The pianist Hal Galper, who played with Baker in the 1960s, remembered that "he didn't have a romantic bone in his body. People didn't mean that much to him. It was hard to tell who he really cared about, because Chet was such a user." Baker somehow managed to get through several wives, children and mistresses along the way, but none of them emerges with any real clarity in the story; more vivid are the agonising periods of each drug crisis.

It may be a little shocking for some jazz followers to read the anecdotage. Stan Getz - himself a near-casualty who had to be revived by Baker when a needle stuck in his arm began to turn him blue ("You ruined my high," Getz spat on coming round) - humiliated the trumpeter in later years. The camaraderie that is meant to be the jazz community's protection against a hostile world is here traded for the miserable brotherhood of junk.

For the last two decades of his life, Baker spent much of his time in Europe, where the legend of the golden young trumpeter lived on, and he was looked after by numerous players who somehow tolerated his deceit and self-abuse. All through the 1980s, he played countless record dates and made countless club appearances. Gavin does not much dwell on the music, which does leave a gap in the story - that, after all, was why this pretty despicable man was loved by so many.

Chet Baker died after falling to his death from a hotel window in Amsterdam in May 1988. Stories have often circulated that he was murdered by dealers; but Gavin suggests that Chet did the deed himself, on a final downer. It was one way to wake from the dream.

Richard Cook is the author of Blue Note Records: the biography (Secker & Warburg)