Born to be Blue, a Canadian film directed by Robert Budreau, with Ethan Hawke as jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (1929-1988)
I was introduced to jazz and blues in my teens in the early 1940s via half a dozen 78RPM boogie-woogie records left behind by my older brother Billy, who had joined the WW II U. S. Navy. By 1947, age seventeen, I had amassed a collection of some 500 discs, in the process widening my musical tastes— from Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and other classic boogie woogie pianists, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Bix Beiderbecke, the Chicago and New York scenes of Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, and Wild Bill Davison, and the 1940s New Orleans Revival —to include Swing Era big bands and combos, Art Tatum, the Nat King Cole Trio, and Jazz at the Philharmonic, which had in its ranks Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and other pioneers of bebop. At some point in the early 1950s, I became aware of and began to like the West Coast Cool Jazz of Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, and Chet Baker.
Over the years, I caught in action some of those alluded to above—e.g., Pops, The Fatha, some members of the Condon Gang, Dizzy, Gerry, Dave— but three decades would go by before I found myself at a performance of Chet Baker, in 1981, several years after I had become the Washington Post’s jazz writer.
Arriving in time to review the 10 p.m. first set (we reviewers had to meet a 1 a.m. deadline—in this pre-cell-phone era, I called my 200 or so words in from a pay phone), I jotted down some first impressions and then, upon his arrival, assessed Chet Baker’s performance.
“It was all sixes and sevens at the One Step Down Friday night as, first, a substitute bassist arrived unheralded and then word came that a missed train connection in New York had delayed the headliner, trumpeter Chet Baker. But it was worth the wait when the former Gerry Mulligan sideman finally mounted the bandstand ’round about midnight on ‘Broken Wing,’ a brooding instrumental on which he stayed in the lower ranges of his horn, with bassist Tommy Cecil and pianist Armen Donelian.” I went on to observe that Chet played “softly down in the darker octaves, only occasionally ascending for brief flurries of bright notes executed with speed and precision. His singing, largely scatting, as on ‘Just Friends,’ was light and airy, as against his somber and haunting horn. The combination was an effective balance of optimism and despair.”
Chet Baker had not much been on my mind since then when, a year or so ago, I was reading, with much enjoyment, Elvis Costello’s autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (Blue Rider Press) and came upon the author’s encounter with Chet, in 1983. Costello wanted a trumpet solo for “Shipbuilding” on his album Punch the Clock. As it turned out, Chet, whom Costello had never before met (and Chet had never heard of him), had a gig at the Canteen, “a rather unpromising venue in Covent Gardens,” so Costello dropped by and between sets asked Chet if he could record a solo. Prepared to pay “anything he wanted,” Costello asked what he would charge and was astonished to be told, “Oh, scale.” He offered double scale and Chet agreed to cut the solo that week. “Chet then asked me those things that junkies ask near strangers. When I told him I had no such intelligence, those matters were never spoken between us again.”
Another connection with Chet was my meeting William Claxton (1927-2008), who shot iconic photographs of Chet in the 1950s. Bill and I met in 1999 at his Govinda Gallery, D.C., book signing, at which we traded inscribed copies of my Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson for his Jazz Seen. He wrote me a few weeks later, saying, “Dear, Royal, I finally got around to really reading your book. What a terrific piece of jazz history. Although most of the bands were a bit before my time, it truly is the era that I enjoy most . . . the entire big band scene . . . . I’m envious of you and this great book. Thank you so much for sharing it with me. My book seems boring by comparison!” Okay, that’s not much of a connection. I just wanted to ensure that Bill’s nice words of praise saw permanence.
Born to be Blue with Ethan Hawke as jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (1929-1988) is a Canadian film directed by Robert Budreau, who has made some award-winning short films. Described as a re-imagining of Baker's musical comeback in the late-1960s, the film thus takes place a decade and a half before I caught him at the One Step Down.
The film makes many good uses of flashbacks, for example, from a gig in New York (organized for him by Dizzy Gillespie) to a 1954 scene at Birdland (Miles Davis back then advising Baker to “go back to the beach”). With both Dizzy and Miles in the audience at the later gig (which in reality was at the Half Note, not the film’s Birdland), Chet says to himself, “Hello, Dizzy, hello, Miles. There’s a little white cat on the West Coast gonna eat you up.”
I was moved by the film’s inexorable decline from an insistently proclaimed (by the trumpeter and his management) “clean” Chet on methadone to his inevitable and repeated return to the needle for the real thing. There are many forceful, even gripping, scenes, for instance, a 1960s drug-related street beating that so damaged his mouth and teeth that it deprived him of his embouchure (until he mastered playing with upper dentures), with Jane (Carmen Ejogo as a composite for Baker’s many women) looking on, in horrified helplessness.
Although far from a happy story, Born to Be Blue is, in the words of Australian critic Tony Mitchell, “a welcome reminder of the subtle, muted power of a man who was called the James Dean of jazz.”
Still a junkie living from one fix to the next, Chet Baker spent the final several decades of his life wandering Europe, playing and recording there, only occasionally visiting the U.S. for gigs. French writer Philippe Adler wrote, in 1988, “The European public is stricken with a profound sensitive and respectful love for this eternal wanderer, this voyager without any baggage except his trumpet case.”
In 1988, the 1950s jazz star was found dead in the street below his Amsterdam hotel window. Baker biographer (Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, 2002) James Gavin speculates that Baker was high on dope and took his own life, “opening a window and letting death come to him,” dying “willfully of a broken heart.”