I've been listening to Chet Baker a lot, namely Chet Baker Sings, a CD I got a while back and forgot I had. The disc's got two sessions on it, one from 1954 and the other from 1956, both recorded in Southern California. Baker's in his prime here--not strung out, still golden-boy handsome on the cover photo (he's got all his teeth)--and he sounds like an angel, both singing and playing the trumpet with such supple serenity, a blessed ease making each phrase flow like clear, crisp water.
I never really got Baker's playing until recently, couldn't understand why these beatnik-hippie types I knew from school (who'd seen him play in North Beach back in the '50s) went crazy over his muted trumpet tones or his breathy tenor croon. Granted, I've got this chip on my shoulder against blond guys (don't ask--junior high shit), but still. All Baker did was play standards. And he blew so damned soft. Call it a West Coast sound if you want, I told the beat-hips, but the guy just needs some balls. I chalked up Chet's charm to the one thing I could put my finger on--his blond whiteboyness. Folks let you get away with murder when you look like a Malibu Ken Doll.
MATTER OVER MIND
I'd forgotten about this profound insight until a couple of weeks ago, right after turning in the final draft of my thesis. After veering dangerously close to having a nervous breakdown toward the end of writing said thesis, upon completing it I decided I would have to stop thinking for a while. I would watch TV until my brain went numb.
So I watched. And watched. And watched. Cops. Behind the Music. Ricki Lake. Antiques Road Show. Deep Space Nine. TRL. Judge Judy. Judge Mills Lane. Judge Joe Brown. Judge Brown Nose. Judge How Now Brown Cow. Judge...
After only two days of channel surfing, numbness was attained. And I could already feel my ass spreading as a result of the nonstop applications of couch that had been applied to it for 48 hours. Ack. Fat and numb. Not so good.
I decided to read.
Picking up a book off my nightstand I'd started a while back, I lay down on my stomach (the ass needed rest from resting). It was a book about jazz, But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer. I'd bought it after seeing words of praise provided by pianist Keith Jarrett on the back cover (you know how persnickety Jarrett can be) that read, "But Beautiful is the only book about jazz that I have recommended to my friends. It is a little gem." Jarrett's right. Dyer's an incredibly lyrical writer; using photographs, anecdotes, and his interpretations of their music, he reconstructs scenes from the lives of jazz legends like Ellington, Trane, Monk, Miles, and Mingus with an incredible ear for each man's sound, managing to capture the rhythms and phrasings of each artist through his words.
I was familiar with most of the musicians Dyer wrote about until I got to the vignette on Baker. I considered skipping it. Oh well, I thought, might as well see why Dyer likes the pretty boy.
Dyer portrayed a Baker in decline--womanizing, junked out, broke. However, as with the rest of the book, Dyer's writing was gorgeous, melodic. Was Baker worth it? And then I hit these words:
"...people hung on [Baker's] every note.... They believed they were listening closely--getting inside the music--but really they were not listening closely enough. That pain wasn't there. That's just how he happened to sound.... There was only one way he could play, a little faster, a little slower, but always in the same groove: one emotion, one style, one kind of sound."
That was it. Baker only had one groove. That's what I'd thought the first time I heard him, assumed it was just because he couldn't play anything else. That he wasn't trying. I rummaged through my CDs and popped in Chet Sings. And with Dyer's words reverberating in my head, I heard it. The purity in Baker's tone, the innate pulse that runs through his trumpet playing, his singing. The hushed nonchalance he conveys on "I Get Along Without You Very Well." The limpid poise he maintains when articulating a heartbreaking lyric like on "The Thrill Is Gone" or "But Not for Me." And suddenly, with no classes to go to, no thesis to write, I heard the beauty of just letting things flow, finally understood that Baker didn't want any other groove. One was enough.
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