Musical Interlude

David Thomson is the author of "Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts."

Chet Baker was a soft white kid who loved black music and wanted to imitate it but who never had the depth or energy to keep up. Born in Yale, Okla., in 1929, he moved to California when he was 11 and joined the Army five years later. He was by then a bugle boy increasingly drawn to jazz on the radio and sometimes in live performance. He left the Army in 1948, reentered in 1950--a strange move--and was deemed unfit for service in 1952. His professional jazz career took off soon after, with Charlie Parker for a while, and then in the famous piano-less quartet led by Gerry Mulligan. He won the Downbeat trumpet poll in 1954, beating Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, among others. Surely that was in large part because he could be mistaken for a movie star. (Baker himself said that the victory made no sense.)

With an exaggerated male jaw, pouty eyes, an almost pulpy look to his face and devilish black hair, Baker signaled so much promise. Women wanted to touch him. Gays must have been attracted. And he did look like a star, albeit more like Dewey Martin (a brief career from the '50s) than Montgomery Clift. Baker had a forlorn, uneducated face, insecure, unreliable, indolent and self-indulgent. He had a white-trash Dorian Gray air to him, and I'd guess that that was the allure many Downbeat readers voted for. And Baker's music, long before heroin or the loss of his teeth, was restricted, plodding, slow and like the last gasp of a consumptive. Still, the playing was dainty, terse and lyrical next to his stunned singing. There, above all, you heard his empty mind.

Writing about jazz, or music of any kind, may be as difficult as writing gets, but it's an entertaining problem. Here's Bart Schneider on the comeback of that fabled trumpeter of yesteryear, his main character in "Blue Bossa," Ronnie Reboulet: "Ronnie walks tentatively through the theme. The trumpet is a thin man strolling up a trail with a trusty stick. He stumbles here, goes up the wrong fork there, and has to back his way down. No fancy stops yet, no switchbacks. Just a walking man telling a warm story with enough quick, pop laughs to punctuate the tale so that any dumb fool, wondering if he's pissed away his life, feels he has a compatriot on the stage, walking a deceptively simple trumpet line up the trail."

And here's Geoff Dyer, in "But Beautiful," imagining, inventing the feeling of one of the lovers of that great sorrowful beauty, Baker, his brow like a cloud, who also played trumpet:

"It was listening to him like this, lying with her legs apart. . , that she understood, quite suddenly and for no reason the source of the tenderness in his playing: he could only play with tenderness because he'd never known real tenderness in his life. Everything he played was a guess. And lying here now, noticing the valleys and the dunes formed in the creased sheets, damp with a light dew of sweat, she realized how wrong she had been to think that he played for no one but himself: he didn't even play for himself--he just played."

This isn't a contest. I admire both passages, and yet neither quite settles for me the unique, perilous sound of Baker, somewhere between arty self-pity and halting seduction. Baker played like a child reading Hemingway aloud--but how do we find any metaphor that contains Clifford Brown?

Schneider has skills enough to write more novels--and I'm sure he'll take more risks, and look deeper, as he gains confidence. As for Dyer, an Englishman, he is already a author, too little known in this country. He is a novelist, the author of a book about John Berger and a very comic, yet entirely serious lament about the difficulty of writing a book about D.H. Lawrence. All that and "But Beautiful," which may be the best book ever written about jazz, the most humane and refined response to a music that famously supports incoherence and platitude.

"Blue Bossa" is a novel, set largely in the Bay Area in the mid-'70s, about a trumpeter, who was a sensation as a kid (his mother thinks he was dreamier than Montgomery Clift). He was in the Army, but they let him go for the good of the Cold War. The ties in Ronnie's life--wife, lovers, daughter--have gone, or slipped. He played with Stan Kenton and Charlie Parker. He was very fashionable until heroin got the better of him, and then he lost his teeth in a brawl. He was a wreck, but is now trying to live in San Francisco with a good woman, Betty, and do what he can to mend his relationship with his daughter, Rae, 20-ish, who bore a child, Quincy, to a black man and wants perhaps to become a singer.

As a novel it's very loose and relaxed with nowhere much to go. Ronnie has a comeback in L.A. He draws closer to Rae, but then he goes absent again, slipping away to Montreal, where the story leaves him. Betty and Rae and Quincy aren't much more than filler--and the same applies to Patty Hearst's melodrama with the SLA going on in the background. Schneider never pulls these things together, never really builds Ronnie as a large character, a genius maybe, but an absent-minded killer of other souls. Ronnie never has that much stamina or resolve or energy even. He floats along. What makes "Blue Bossa" so readable is Schneider's writing, his sympathy for the weak, talented man and his fragmented form. The book is a series of short takes, beginnings again--like songs on an album maybe, or isolated solos that never think of symphonic form. This is the way a jazz musician plays.

Schneider doesn't hide his debt to the figure of Chet Baker; the publisher says the novel was inspired by the man. But neither does he follow every detail of Baker's life, pursue him to the grave, or ponder his musical shortcomings. There's an honest hero-worship in the novel, a true tolerance, and no end of the fun if you read it with a few Baker CDs just breaking the silence, like breathing in the background.

Dyer's collection of essays is altogether larger, more penetrating and very brave. He admits he's writing about Chet Baker, though he claims very little in the way of research or encounter and he tells us early on that what he's writing is more imaginative criticism or fiction than reportage. He doesn't delve deeply into the lives of the jazz men he writes about. He wants to express what they mean to him, and he has worked from records and from photographs; indeed, he says he "relied more on photographs than on written sources." His piece on Baker is only 15 pages, and it's shorter than other ruminations on Lester Young, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.

Whereas Ronnie Reboulet found something akin to peace in a comeback and in Montreal, Dyer's Baker is much closer to some insoluble abyss. Very near death, in a bathroom in an Amsterdam hotel, he looks in the mirror and sees only the snowy expanse of towels, which is some sort of metaphor for heroin and the bleak, blank heartbeat of his music. But both Dyer and Schneider sense a man ready to vanish or erase himself--they know the message in "Let's Get Lost," the title of Bruce Weber's cult-making and morbidly erotic documentary movie on Baker and the work that enshrined the guy as much as the photographs and the music.

Yet his plaintive look and his whiteness brought him sympathy and praise beyond his due. Dyer says that Baker "never played the blues. Even if he played blues, it wasn't really the blues because he had no need of the fellowship, the religion, the blues implied. The blues was a promise he could never keep."

At first, I wasn't quite sure what Dyer meant by that--for, in fact, Baker cast a bluesy attitude over just about everything he played. But the blues are cultural, racial to a degree; they bespeak a total sense of history and politics. And Baker was too resolutely solitary to partake of it--his blues fade to white, the pallor of heroin.

Dyer appreciates not just the melancholy but the unwholesomeness of the attitude--whereas Schneider is merely loyal to it. He doesn't have the point of view to let us feel the damage Reboulet does in life, just as he fails to admit the self-pity or the monotony in Baker's music. A jazz man, for Schneider, is a holy figure.

Of course, it's a cliche securely founded in the realities of the road, of one-night stands for not much money, of the need to get "free" enough to improvise, that the jazz man lives near the edge--that he cracks up, dies young, looking so much more than his true age, leaving chaos behind him. He can be treated as the classic outcast or outlaw type, stepping out of disarray for the beautiful clarity of this or that solo. So wasn't he entitled to be bluesy?

Well, sure, but if you listen to, say, Parker, there's hardly a tremor of self-pity. He was so energized, so exuberant, so fast, so proud, happy and as torrential as Mozart. Dying young and being a mess are no defense; they do not intrude upon the intricacy, the passion and the many moods of great music. The trumpet in Baker's time included the dynamism, the gaiety, the restless, driving force and exhilaration of Lee Morgan, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown and Kenny Dorham, among others, whose music dwarfs Baker's. In other words, it was part of the community of the blues, or of the great classical orchestra, that you played fast and slow, blue and hot, night by night. It did not detract from the blues, or blue as a feeling, to note that jazz is not just the deathly glow of Chet Baker (or Ronnie Reboulet), it is the thoroughly organized profusion of Parker, Ellington, Armstrong, Coltrane, Tatum and Bud Powell.

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