The Heart of Darkness or Die Leiden des jurgen Chet Baker
Deep In A Dream
Alfred A. Knopf
2002, 430 pages
Early in James Gavin's finely crafted biography of the brilliant and troubled trumpeter Chet Baker, the author quotes long-time Baker associate Enrico Pieranunzi opining,
"For American people, Chet was just a drug addict...[In Italy] we felt he was a great artist with a great problem. He was a man who needed help. He found a lot of friends here who felt his fragility, his shyness, his inner drama. He was so sweet when he played, so mysterious. Somehow he was able to express the question mark of life with so few notes. In Italy, we're more sentimental, and we felt that very much."
A bit earlier, former Baker employer Gerry Mulligan framed the trumpeter's Messianic appeal in Europe in this way: "It was a case of worshipping the self-destructive artist who dies young in a garret full of unpublished music or unsold paintings or something...It's a Christ-like image of self-immolation. That's something you encounter a great deal. You don't find it a lot in America."
These attitudes somewhat sell short the Romantic American spirit, a spirit that tends to the darker side of Romanticism. One needs only to consider our country's preoccupation with the Wild West gunslingers of the late 19th Century and the Midwestern gangsters of the early 20th century to identify the American Romantic Ideals of rebellion and contradiction. Both are in our blood. The dark American Romantic archetype is that of the beautiful, talented, and doomed. Two splendid examples are that of John Henry "Doc" Holliday, the consumptive dentist, taro dealer, gunslinger, and associate of Wyatt Earp who roamed the Western United States creating myths and legends. The second is author Edgar Allan Poe, who's brilliant and dissolute life and strange death are still the topic of historical conversation. Add to this esteemed list perhaps the life most representative of the dark side of the American Romantic Myth, Chet Baker.
It is difficult to read Deep In A Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker and consider the life of Chet Baker without having mixed feelings. Gavin takes a black and white snapshot panoramic view of Baker's dissipated life and presents it in a savagely honest manner, as if under bright lights. From this biography, this critic can conclude that Chet Baker was a typical compulsive substance dependant who was only interested in getting high and all else (including music) was secondary to that desire. Baker's behavior can easily be explained and defined by what William S. Burroughs referred to as "the algebra of need." In that same breath, this same critic can look upon Baker as every Romantic invention applied to him: Dorian Grey, Jesus Christ, Werther The tortured artist, flaming out into nothing, leaving only his art. Furthermore, Baker represents the archetype for the American Byronic Hero, that individual with abundant natural good looks and unrefined talent who touches culture in some fundamentally positive way. But, in this scenario, this hero possesses a fatal character flaw, leading him to his death earlier than necessary and in a squalid and pathetic manner.
Author James Gavin is previously best known for his book Intimate Nights: the Golden Age of the New York Cabaret, which won ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award. His liner notes for Ella Fitzgerald: the Legendary Decca Recordings received a 1996 Grammy® Awards nomination. In Deep In A Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, Gavin provides an unflinching portrait of opiate addiction and all of its ramifications. Better than Art Pepper's Straight Life or Hampton Hawes' Raise up Off Of Me, Dream is fully engaged in describing drug seeking behavior at its most desperate. If is fair that Gavin spends so much time on Baker's addiction because it is that addiction that defines the trumpeter so completely and confounds his ardent listeners so fully.
But Baker's opiate addiction is not all Gavin addresses. In an immediately engaging, straightforward style, the author tells of Baker's confused childhood, son of an alcoholic musician father and doting mother, his teenage years in Southern California, where the family moved from their Oklahoma home, and Baker's two stints in the military. Gavin details Baker's emergence as a professional musician in the early 1950s with a complete account and miss-account of Baker's performances with Charlie Parker during the latter's stay in Los Angeles in April of 1952. With a workman's detail, Gavin highlights Baker's principle relationships: with Gerry Mulligan, Manager Richard Carpenter (composer of "Walkin'"), and all of the Baker's wives and principle loves. To the end, all relationships were fractious and damaged by Baker's chemical proclivities.