Scenes From the Life of Chet Baker
Click here to read Part One: Chet Baker: the Junkie Beat.
Chet Baker finally hit New York in May of 1954, fronting his own band, for a month long engagement at Birdland. By all accounts it was a bizarre scene. Baker’s group had been double booked for two weeks with Miles Davis. On most nights the audience with packed with young girls, who had streamed to the smoky, midtown club to catch a glimpse of their idol, Chet Baker. Davis’s band was forced to open for Baker’s group and on many night played before a white crowd who believed that Davis had been cribbing Baker’s riffs. Baker’s performances that month were tentative and flat. He was ripped by the jazz press for his limp playing and weak vocals. But such critiques did nothing to diminish his popular appeal or cause him to reappraise his own technique.
That spring he launched into a torrid affair with the sultry French actress Liliane Cukier. At parties, Baker told people Cukier was his wife, even though he was still married to Charlaine. One night during Baker’s run at Birdland, Charlaine showed up and glimpsed Baker making out in his car with Cukier. She rushed back to her hotel, picked up Baker’s gun and re-entered the club hot for revenge. While Baker was playing onstage, Charlaine was waving the pistol in Cukier’s face and then ran off toward the stage threatening to kill Baker, only to be restrained by documentary film-maker Al Avakian before she could unload a few rounds into the trumpeter.
With Charlaine on the warpath, Baker soon split from New York, taking Cukier with him, first to the West Coast and then to the Midwest for dates in St. Louis and Chicago. Cukier liked to party and had already been using heroin before she met Baker. Chet’s drug use escalated, with dismal results for the band. Cukier recalled walking into their hotel room in Chicago after a performance to find Baker and the other musicians shooting up. “They were all lying around, and some people took 45 minutes to find a vein, and it was bloody,” Cukier recalled. “I said, ‘Chet this can’t go on.’” But of course it did go on.
Before the end of the year, the band was falling apart. The reviews of Baker’s performances had become even more hostile. His playing was called “insipid” and his voice judged “anemic.” Moreover, Baker was incapable of scheduling gigs or handling the money. He burnt the last $300 in the band’s account by purchasing a Jaguar for himself. That was the last straw for Russ Freeman, who returned to California.
Baker’s inability to manage his affairs made him vulnerable to the ruthless vultures that circle around musicians. In his last years, feeble as he was, Baker was generating a big stream of revenue, probably as much as $200,000 a year. Who knows how much of this actually ended up with Baker. Like most junkies, Chet preferred to be paid in cash at the time of the performance. He refused to sign contracts that gave him a percentage of the income from recordings. It probably cost him millions. For the last couple decades of his life, Baker didn’t even have a bank account.
In the early 1960s, Baker had signed a larcenous deal with the sleazy manager Richard Carpenter, who was notorious for ripping off down-and-out black musicians, including Lester Young, Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. Baker had been introduced to Carpenter by his old junkie friend Tadd Dameron, one of the most gifted composers and arrangers of the bebop era, who had been hoodwinked into signing away all of his royalties to Carpenter for a mere fifty dollars—or about three days worth of heroin. Baker signed a similarly predatory deal. But he was so fucked up he didn’t care. Carpenter gave him a cheap, roach-infested apartment and doled out $20 a day as his daily dope allowance. Decades later, when he had comprehended the scope of the rip-off, Baker tried to hire a hit man to kill Carpenter.
At the time, none of these problems seemed to matter. In 1955, Baker won the Downbeat reader’s poll as best trumpeter, trouncing Clifford Brown, Miles and Dizzy. Then Baker got a call from Hollywood. He landed the role of trumpet player in the B-grade war movie Hell’s Horizon. The movie was a bomb. But Baker was unfazed. He toured the country with Dave Brubeck, Mulligan and Clifford Brown and appeared on the Tonight Show, playing a zippy, if somewhat inchoate, version of Dizzy’s “Night in Tunisia.”
Later that year, Baker took Liliane and his new band across the Atlantic for his first European tour. It was to prove a fateful trip. That fall Baker’s group featured a brilliant young pianist from Boston named Dick Twardzik, who had played with Charlie Parker in the months before Bird died. Twardzik was a prodigy, with a Bill Evans-like talent for dazzling harmonic patterns. He was as comfortable playing Bud Powell as he was Bela Bartok. But Twardzik had developed a serious heroin habit as a teenager. His lover, the black singer Crystal Joy, hoped he would kick the addiction while on tour. But it wasn’t to be. Twardzik was on the road with a band of junkies, including Baker and drummer Peter Littman. It wasn’t long before the three musicians were sharing their drugs and spiking their veins with the same needles.
The band blazed across Europe, playing a grueling slate of one-nighters in Amsterdam, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Milan and Rome. After hours, they were also shooting up with European jazz musicians and groupies, with high-grade European heroin straight out of Marseille. In Deep in a Dream, James Gavin quotes the French jazz pianist, René Urtreger as saying that by the time Baker’s band hit Europe more 95 percent of the French jazz musicians were heroin addicts, including Urtreger.
While in Paris, the band ducked into the Pathé studios to record a series of sessions for the French jazz label, Barclay Disques. Under Twardzik’s guidance, the music was inventive and challenging, probably the most adventuresome Baker ever played, especially on the classically-infused “Rondette” and Twardzik’s own modernist composition “The Girl From Greenland.” But as the weeks went by Twardzik slipped deeper and deeper into a heroin thrall and on the night of October 20 it all came to an end. When the piano player failed to show up at the studio, bassist Jimmy Bond, the only non-user in the group, phoned the manager at the Hotel Madeleine and asked him to check on the pianist. Twardzik was found dead in his room, his skin a shimmering blue, a needle still hanging from his arm. He was just 24 years old.
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The death of Twardzik hardened Baker. He was no longer seen as the sweet young idol in the States, where he had been savaged in the press for leading a band of junkies. His appearance grew rougher, his temper more explosive, his addictions more voracious. William Claxton photographed Baker in the fall of 1956 and described him as “looking very paranoid, sinister.” By then, Baker had hooked up with a new woman of East Indian descent, the young and naïve Halema Alli, who quickly became pregnant. Baker was not happy with the news. When his son, Aftab, was born, Baker ridiculed the child as a “retard” and blamed Halema’s genes, never once pausing to wonder if his years of drug abuse had been a contributing factor.
Baker had also put together a new band featuring saxophonist Phil Urso, pianist Bobby Timmons and drummer Philly Jo Jones, who had been booted from Miles Davis’s first quintet because of his heroin addiction. The band recorded one album together, the bop-oriented Chet Baker and Crew, then broke up after Jones went on a spending spree using Baker’s credit card.
Baker spent the next year or so on the skids, scrounging for gigs from New York to Chicago. His star was fading. He was out of money. He had no band and was shooting heroin into his feet. Halema fled the crazy atmosphere surrounding Baker, taking their son with her back to Detroit. Reunions with Mulligan and Getz flopped, mainly because of Baker’s deteriorating playing. Then Baker was arrested twice within a matter of days. Once in Waukegan, Illinois and later in Harlem. Both times for heroin possession. Instead of being sent to prison, Baker checked himself into the US Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky to clean himself out. Chet wasn’t alone. Inside the famous junkie hospital at that time were three other famous jazz players: pianists Tadd Dameron and Kenny Drew and sax player Sam Rivers.
The cure didn’t take. Within days of checking out of Lexington, Baker was shacking up in New York with a young blonde groupie who had followed him to Kentucky. After he blew through her money, he moved in with a prostitute named Pixie and her boyfriend. Baker skimmed Pixie’s daily earnings to buy dope. “I had all the money I wanted to get high with,” Baker wrote in his autobiography.
For some obscure reason, the Riverside label—once home to Thelonious Monk and Cannonball Adderley–signed the dissolute Baker to a five record deal. Baker showed up stoned at most of the sessions. He muttered his lyrics and wheezed through his trumpet solos. Even though producer Orrin Keepnews surrounded Baker with top-notch players, like Paul Chambers and Johnny Griffin, the records were ridiculed by the critics.
The lone exception was the Riverside recording titled Chet, which featured Bill Evans, Herbie Mann, Connie Kay and Kenny Burrell. Here Baker rose to the occasion. Following Evans’ lead, Baker’s playing was lyrical, dark and tender. But sales were tepid. Baker had finally lost most of his luster.
By day Baker was playing in the Riverside studios, by night he was robbing the place to feed his habit. First Baker stole three blank checks from the office, forged producer Bill Grauer’s signature and tried to cash them at a local pharmacy. A few days later Baker broke into the Riverside warehouse and stole a truckload of LPs to sell on the streets. Riverside didn’t prosecute because Baker still owed the label another album.
But before Keepnews could get Baker back into the studio, the trumpeter was busted twice in Harlem trying to buy drugs. Baker had now been arrested 10 times and the judge showed little mercy, sending him to Rikers Island for a six-month term. It was a brutal place to go cold turkey.
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Baker walked out of jail two months early. The experience was rough, especially for someone with Baker’s boy-like looks and debilitated condition, but did nothing to deter his craving for dope. Baker was blitzed as he cut the sessions for his final Riverside album, Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner & Loewe. Baker’s playing is stunted and lugubrious, drained of any hit of emotional creativity.
After the drug convictions, Baker was banned from playing in New York nightclubs, so he collected Halemi and headed back to Europe where he was still adored as an icon of cool. Even his heroin addiction seemed to heighten his allure, especially to young jazz players.
By now Baker couldn’t play unless he was high. His bandmates and promoters pumped Baker full of heroin, opium, morphine and cocaine just to coax him on stage. He soon began taking large amounts of Palfium 875, a methadone-like drug used in addiction treatment. But Palfium was also highly addictive and soon Baker was hooked on both Palfium and heroin.
While he was in Italy, Baker ran into Romano Mussolini at a party. Romano was a jazz drummer and fan of Baker’s music. A stoned Baker supposedly patted Romano on the back on said, “Gee, it’s a drag about your old man.” Now that’s detachment. But the aura of cool was now chemically-induced. By his own admission, Baker was burning through 250 pills of Palfium a day. He was injecting himself 40 to 50 times a day, walking around in a fog. “I lived in a nightmare of eternal anguish, existing from one injection to the other, terrified that without Palfium I would die,” Baker confessed.
Baker was consuming so much Palfium that he ran out of sources in Italy and he sent his wife on plane to Munich, where the drug could be bought without a prescription. Halema had no idea that she was running illegal drugs into Italy. His drummer Gene Victory was dispatched on similar missions. (Years later Baker would hide drugs in his agent’s luggage and inside his girlfriend’s bra.)
While in Italy Baker recorded two albums with Italian musicians, Chet Baker in Milan and Chet Baker and Fifty Italian Strings. His playing was mournful, almost dirge-like, the arrangements bland and uninspired. The Italian musicians try gamely to infuse the songs with a little spirit, but there was no one of Bill Evans’s talent to salvage the records from mediocrity. These sessions demonstrated again that Baker was neither a bandleader nor a visionary. He could still play, but someone had to point the way.
Baker was coarser now and meaner. He would insult his band members in the middle of sets and storm off the stage. At one concert in a Sicilian Cathedral, he got enraged by some sloppy playing by pianist Michel Graillier and pushed him off his bench.
Baker’s arms and legs were covered with open sores and abscesses. His pants and shirtsleeves were often stained with blood. He disliked bathing and slathered himself in Paco Rabanne cologne to hide the stench.
In the winter of 1960, Baker underwent a bizarre detox procedure at clinic in Milan. The Italian doctor placed Baker in a drug-induced coma for a week. The treatment was supposed to wean the musician from his addiction without having to endure withdrawals. Soon after Baker’s release, he launched into an affair with a British dancer named Carol Jackson who was working as a showgirl at the Teatro Olympia in Milan. Baker thought Jackson looked like Elizabeth Taylor. Within a couple of weeks, Baker was using again, shaking down as many as 25 different Italian doctors for prescriptions. But it was never enough. He needed at least 200 pills a day to satiate his habit and the prescriptions for Palfium were limited to boxes of five pills. So Baker began stealing prescription forms from doctors’ offices.
It all came crashing to an end on July 31, 1960. Baker was driving his Alfa Romeo to a gig in the beach town of Rimini. He stopped to fill up at a Shell station in Lucca, locked himself in the bathroom, began shooting up and apparently freaked out. A worker at the station called the police. When police broke into the bathroom, they found Baker standing before a sink in a stupor, a syringe in his hand, his arms bloody and riddled with track marks.
Baker was arrested. So were two doctors who had written him prescriptions for Palfium. Most tragically, Halema was also arrested and jailed on charges of transporting illegal drugs. Baker and his wife spent grueling months in prison before the trial. The trial was a sensation in Italy, attracting press from around the world. Italian papers called it the “trial of the vipers.” There was widespread sympathy for Halema in the media, almost none for Chet or the doctors he had bribed into selling him Palfium. In the end, Halema was freed and Chet was convicted and sentenced to a year and seven months in the town’s medieval jail, where Baker would play his trumpet in his cell almost nightly, while local residents gathered outside the prison to listen in the moonlight.
By the mid-1960s, Baker’s real jazz act, the true feats of daring improvisation, of working on a net-free tightrope, weren’t found in his haunting phrasings of minimalist melodies played on his trumpet, but in his living day-to-day, score-to-score, scrounging for money and places to crash, surviving bad trips and dirty needles, performing for a few intense moments on stage, if only to fund the next buy, to cop a little bliss at the end of a spike. Month after month, year after year. Baker survived against all the odds, playing almost nightly, recording dozens of albums. He outlasted most of his friends and idols: Parker, Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Tadd Dameron, Paul Chambers, Philly Jo Jones.
Baker’s music remained fixed in time, never evolving. His style, as hauntingly beautiful as it sometimes was, became a relic within a couple of years of those first recordings in Los Angeles. But his life had jumped the system. Baker breached every rule, transgressed every social convention, squandered every friendship, betrayed every intimacy. He negotiated a knife-edge for 30 years. He was a real outsider, a social reprobate, living without shame or remorse, bound only by the burning chain of his addiction. “My home,” Baker said, “is in my left arm.”
Then in Amsterdam, as alone as he had ever been, Chet Baker made his final break, going solo through that small opening in the window and falling out into the night.
Chet Baker & Bill Evans Legendary Sessions (Riverside)
Jeffrey St. Clair’s latest book is Born Under a Bad Sky. He is the co-editor of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.