Deep in a Dream

Deep in a Dream


CHET EST ARRIVÈ!" (Chet has arrived!) proclaimed the Belgian news-paper La Meuse in the summer of 1959, as if the Archangel Gabriel had descended, trumpet in hand, to spread the word of God. But it was his self-destruction, more than anything else, that fascinated the European public. Four years before, only jazz fans had cared about the award-winning trum-peter's presence in Europe. Now, thanks to international reports of his dope scandals, people came to gawk at an infamous American junkie. "They didn't give a damn about jazz," said Amedeo Tommasi, the Italian pianist who joined him that fall. "The reason they were interested in Chet Baker is that he was handsome and a drug addict." Particularly in Italy, Tommasi said, "drugs were still a novelty. They were glamorous."

Many black jazzmen, including Kenny Drew, Bud Powell, Dexter Gor-don, and Kenny Clarke, had traded the racism and struggle of the United States for freer lives in Europe, where their artistry was revered and work was plentiful. But none had the cachet of Baker, who was white and beauti-ful, tortured yet rebellious. He quickly entered the world of celebrity deca-dence exposed in La dolce vita, Fellini's landmark film about a failed novelist (played by Marcello Mastroianni) who sells his soul by becoming a gossip hound for a Roman tabloid. Like other major European cities, Rome had become an industrialized metropolis, fully mended after the ravages of World War II. Rich and carefree, it turned into a playground for movie stars and jet-setters who were bored with their privileged lives and hungry for kicks. Scandal reporters and paparazzi feasted on their excesses, chronicling every wrong move for an audience who, like "Marcello," the Mastroianni character, both scorned and coveted all the lavish emptiness.

Chet Baker fit neatly into what Fellini viewed as a Dante-esque frenzy of moral and spiritual decay. His downfall had a tragic allure for many Euro-peans, who saw him as an artist with a magical sway over people's souls. All over the Continent he found followers who wanted a piece of him; for the rest of his life he put them to use. "Chet was like the sirens," said Lisa Galt Bond, referring to the mythic temptresses whose singing lured sailors to a dire fate. "He had a seductive, mystical sound that people responded to. But to follow the voice of the sirens was to be held captive, or end up dead."

Where his own country was concerned, he felt embittered, victimized, rejected. When the German broadcaster and editor Gudrun Endress asked him how his music could sound so pure and beautiful after all the self-abuse, he explained that dope hadn't destroyed his soul, only protected it from all the "bullshit" of life. "I saw many people greatly affected by things that had happened to them, and I just kind of had it in my head to try and put that part of me in a sort of unreachable place," he said.

Whatever hopes Baker had, his new European career got off to a shaky start. On July 26, he headlined at the Festival Nazionale del Jazz di Fregene, held at a famous beach town outside Rome. Accompanying him were five boyish musicians from a medieval Tuscan city. They called themselves the Quintetto di Lucca: vibes player Antonello Vannucchi; guitarist Gaetano Mariani; drummer Giampiero Giusti; bassist Giovanni Tommaso; and his brother Vito, a pianist. Promising but not too experienced, they worshipped Baker and longed to make music as beautiful and effortless as his.

But the Quintetto couldn't speak English, and Baker didn't know Italian, which caused problems. Musica Jazz, the country's top jazz magazine, called the Fregene concert a mess, adding that Baker should have asked his band if they knew "My Funny Valentine" before he tried to play it. At the hotel afterward, Francesco Forti interviewed him for a new magazine, Jazz de Ieri e di Oggi (Jazz of Yesterday and Today). Francesco "Cecco" Maino, a tal-ented young photographer and friend of the Quintetto, took pictures. "The music was still great, but the man had changed," said Maino, who had met Baker in 1956. "He treated the musicians in a very bad manner. He made some nasty remarks and treated his wife very badly in our presence." Maino understood why after Baker excused himself to shoot up, then returned, more relaxed.

Gigs in Belgium and Italy kept him traveling, so he left his wife and son at the Paris home of Peter Broome, a sculptor whose brother, Ray, had played in Baker's high-school band. Peter had known Baker as a cocky, rambunctious teenager; now he saw a lost soul whose ineptitude as a father shocked him. Chesney Aftab, recalled Broome, was a "robust, chubby, curly-haired kid," but he was also semi-retarded, and Baker chose an unfor-tunate way of dealing with it. "Chet brought the kid to us drunk," Broome said. "He'd given him a couple of shots so he would calm down, but the boy just threw up all over the place."

The trumpeter left Paris to headline Belgium's Festival International du Jazz on August 2, 1959. It was held at Comblain-la-Tour, a tiny village in the Ardennes forest, site of the Battle of the Bulge. As a young soldier, Joe Napoli, Baker's manager, had fought there. While recovering from injuries, he had discovered a vacant football field surrounded by rolling green hills and the most brilliant blue sky and water he had ever seen; now he was back to organize the first of many annual jazz festivals there. Never mind that Comblain-la-Tour was "in the middle of nowhere," according to pianist Francis Thorne; an estimated twenty thousand jazz fans arrived on that cold, rainy day, blankets in hand, to hear a strange grab bag of performers. They included Thorne, a classical musician from Long Island, New York, who supported himself by working in Italian jazz clubs; Romano Mussolini, the piano-playing son of Il Duce; Kenny Clarke, Paris's most revered expatriate drummer; the Roman New Orleans Jazz Band, an all-Italian Dixieland group sporting straw hats and banjos; and Jacques Pelzer, a Belgian flutist and sax player who ran a pharmacy where many musicians, including Baker, would spend a lot of time.

But the draw was Baker, the closing act. When he arrived backstage, all concern shifted to him. Pale and weak from lack of heroin, he looked "just horrible," Thorne said. "He was a wreck. We were all biting our nails, won-dering how he'd get through it." By the time he played, stars filled the night sky. He walked onstage in a white sweater, and when the spotlight hit him, he glowed like an angel. He didn't sound like one; aching from head to toe, he emitted a strained, sickly wobble. Yet every solo triggered rapturous applause. It was hard to tell whether the audience was applauding his music or the heartrending sight of a wounded master. Whatever the case, he knew that in Europe he was home.

Throughout the coming months, Cecco Maino saw the untiring kindness Baker was shown in Italy, particularly by the Circolo del Jazz di Lucca, a jazz society whose founding members—including Giampiero Giusti, Rudy Rabassini, and Paolo Benvenuti—treated him like a brother in need. Italian fans christened Baker l'angelo (the angel) and tromba d'oro (golden trumpet). Trumpeter Oscar Valdambrini compared their first encounter to the moment when "a man . . . meets the woman of his dreams." Saxophonist Gianni Basso likened Baker to Debussy. In a land where melody was sacred, where the fluid bel canto opera style reigned, and the language itself had a musical lilt, Baker's graceful lines and honeyed tone were a feast for the ear. Yet he seemed to be paying a ruinous price for these gifts. As bassist Carlo Loffredo said in Paola Boncompagni and Aldo Lastella's book Chet Baker in Italy: "He looked like he was suffering or was about to die."

Baker was undeniably at his weakest, and everywhere in Europe, people wanted to cradle him in their arms. "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," explained Gerry Mulligan. "It's a Christ-like image of self-immolation. That's something you encounter a great deal in Europe. You don't find it a lot in America. It's kind of foreign to our more mercantile nature. That is the role of the patron, the helpful keeper. Some-body like Chet was so needy, as soon as somebody put out a helping hand, man, he'd swallow the whole person." But to Enrico Pieranunzi, an Italian pianist who worked with Baker throughout the eighties, any nuisance Baker created was richly worth the trouble. "For American people, Chet was just a drug addict," he said. "Here 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."

For all this enrapturement, Baker found little work there at first. Accord-ing to Aldo Santini of the newspaper Il Tirreno, the Italian public consid-ered the jazz world "both the haven of vice and the world of the devil." Places offering jazz were called "hot clubs": private spots, forbidden as speakeasies and open only on certain days. Pop-jazz orchestras played for dancing at such semi-decadent nightspots as the River Club in Florence's Palazzo Corsini, a huge palace on the Arno River, with sprawling frescoes, high-priced hookers, and a clientele of old nobility and jet-setters. In such an environment, serious artists like Helen Merrill, an American jazz singer living in Rome, were scuffling. "Things were not so wonderful over there," she said. "But there was something hypnotic about it at the time. I guess we were sort of running away from things."

So was Chet Baker, but the "monkey on his back" needed constant attention. Broke, he accepted an acting gig from Lucio Fulci, an Italian film director recalled today for such gory shockers as Gates of Hell and Zombie. Fulci hired Baker for a low-budget rock-and-roll movie, Urlatori alla sbarra (urlatori denoting rock shouters, alla sbarra meaning "on trial"). The movie was aimed at Italian youths, who had just discovered the thrills of rock music, leather jackets, and screeching motorcycles. German actress Elke Sommer played a teenager who inflames her father, a stuffy record-company executive, by joining a pack of rock-crazed biker youths. Urlatori helped launch two Italian pop legends, Mina and Adriano Celentano. Baker, though, was presented for laughs as a stoned trumpeter (called "Americano" by the other characters) who nods off everywhere: in a bathtub during a party, under a sofa, in an elevator. "We made that film above all to give Chet Baker a hand," Fulci said in Chet Baker in Italy. "He was in a bad way . . . he didn't even have the money to live."

But on camera, Baker was in control. The closing scene took place in a sunny park in Rome, where love-struck boys and girls lay under the trees. As violins and flute start to play, Baker cuddles a dark-haired Italian girl to his chest and croons the sentimental "Arrivederci." The breeze flutters a lock of hair on his forehead; the sun flatters every chiseled contour of his face. His magic envelops the park, and soon the couples have fallen into each other's arms. But the camera is drawn to Baker. Lying on the grass with sleepy eyes, like a little boy just tucked into bed, he looks, once more, like an angel: so beautiful, so innocent, so sublimely and naturally gifted that it was easy to see how anyone could fall under his spell.

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Excerpted from Deep in a Dream by James Gavin. Copyright © 2002 by James Gavin. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.