Tragedy in blue; The eternal romance of the doomed jazz musician
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 22 March 2016)

As the legend so thoroughly teaches us, jazz was born in the brothels of New Orleans. For many years it was treated everywhere as saloon entertainment. It was an art form associated with pleasure, sometimes with ecstasy. It spoke with tremendous vigour, like pure energy turned into waves of sound. Novels of the 1920s and 1930s tell us that the word "jazz" was once a synonym for coitus.

Yet the cultural aura surrounding jazz is always tragic. Stories and films inevitably depict the disasters of the jazz life. Born To Be Blue, the new film about Chet Baker, turns out to be an essay in pathos, a bleak exploration of a talented trumpet player who couldn't give up heroin even though he knew it was ruining him.

At one point he imagines that he won't be able to play without it. At another he says he uses it because it makes him feel so good. Those words may be invented by Robert Budreau, who wrote and directed the movie, fictionalizing Baker's life. But a 1988 documentary, Let's Get Lost, contains the real Baker's similar response.

Asked when in his life he was happiest, he answers by describing a time when he got high with a mixture of heroin and cocaine.

Chet Baker lived to be 58, but for many years the people close to him feared he would die much sooner. Anyone who knows a little about jazz has noticed that many stars died young. Charlie Parker died at 34, Fats Navarro at 26, Clifford Brown at 25, Jimmy Blanton at 23. In 1931, before any of those people came along, Bix Beiderbecke, an alcoholic, died at 28, leaving memories of his beautiful cornet solos. He inspired Dorothy Baker's novel, Young Man with a Horn, which was adapted as a 1950 film with Kirk Douglas as a trumpet player too good, too virtuous, for the music of his day.

Those deaths were variously explained by alcohol, heroin, and overwork. The musicians were at the mercy of managers and bookers who sent them out on endless road trips. Family life was at best sporadic.

The wife who was left behind with three of Chet Baker's four children said that he dropped in and out of their lives at unpredictable times. Money was scarce. A heroin habit is never less than expensive.

When John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley both died in the 1820s before they reached 30, they set the standard for romantic death. Ever since, any high-quality artist who dies in youth has been given a special place in the folklore of death. Were Charlie Parker alive today, at age 95, he would be a revered elder. As it is, though, he remains more alive, forever at his best on record. His admirers, who perk up even at a few Parker notes heard in a restaurant or on a movie sound track, are jazz fans, people so devoted to jazz that it becomes a kind of cult. For a while they see much of the world through jazz and count it an important part of their education -- maybe even the most important part, as it was for me.

I was recruited into the cult by a book -- a 1946 memoir by a clarinetist, Mezz Mezzrow, Really the Blues (recently republished by the New York Review of Books). At the age of 14 I was given it by a friend of my father, who had heard I was interested in music. It unfolded for me an endlessly interesting world, a separate universe governed by Louis Armstrong, by the soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet and by their friends. I wanted to know everything about it.

Half a dozen years later I became the Toronto correspondent of Down Beat, the American magazine for musicians. It was a parttime job with part-time pay (in the low single digits) but it was one great gig. It entitled me, a 20-year-old fan, to interview half the jazz giants in the world: Duke Ellington, Peewee Russell, Gerry Mulligan -- even Sidney Bechet. They were just as interesting as I had dreamt they would be. My education progressed.

They taught me so much I needed to know -- about tradition and its vital role in the present, about an honest and authentic life as compared to an existence devoted mainly to money. Most of all about race.

Mezzrow, who began life as Milton Mesirow in a Russian-Jewish Chicago family, believed that he could be a real jazz musician only if he joined the race that invented jazz. For him, a white man like Chet Baker was automatically excluded. Mezzrow married a black woman, moved to Harlem and declared himself a "voluntary Negro." When he was arrested for dealing drugs (to Armstrong, among others) he asked that he be placed among the black inmates. He was afraid he might be attacked by racist whites. Born To Be Blue has an evocative performance from Ethan Hawke as Baker, beaten-down and heroinwracked. Carmen Ejogo plays to great effect the unfortunate Jane, who tries to drag him back from the power of what may be the most enticing drug in the world. Unfortunately, neither the script nor the direction helps them much. The script is thin, the direction too much like every other film about jazz.

Watching Born To Be Blue, I thought of another re-imagination of a jazz life, Geoff Dyer's 1991 book, But Beautiful. It's a collection of richly conceived stories about Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and several others, including Baker. In his ingenious way, Dyer writes about Baker's singing performance from the standpoint of the songs he chose to sing.

"Chet left a song feeling bereft," Dyer wrote. "When he played it the song needed comforting; it wasn't his playing that was packed with feeling, it was the song itself, feeling hurt. The song itself cried out to anyone who would listen: please, please, please." That one aspect of Baker's performance is caught precisely by Born To Be Blue.

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