Chet Baker: Both James Dean and The Portrait of Dorian Gray

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I just have been looking at a 1995 French edition of a photo collection by the great jazz photographer, Herman Leonard, called  Jazz Memories.  We’ll be offering new signed copies of this rare (and I believe out-of-print) book during the upcoming winter fund drive at KCRW.  Herman lived a long life, and got started taking pictures all the way back to the late 1930s.  He captured everything from bebop on 52nd Street in New York City to the Parisian jazz scene in the 1950s, where he lived as staff photographer for Playboy.

In case you’ve never read Portrait of Dorian Gray, it was the sole novel penned by Oscar Wilde, and was about a perennially youthful and beautiful young man who never aged, but of whom there was a portrait up in the attic that showed how the ravages of time had ruined his former beauty.  The BBC did an amazing television special on it.

Leonard photographed Chet Baker early on, in 1949, when Chet had just come out from Oklahoma to join the Stan Kenton band.  Those pictures, like the early romantic shots that William Claxton shot of him, made Chet Baker the James Dean of jazz.  The photos, however, always showed Chet with his mouth shut.  He was missing an upper front tooth and looked ridiculous when photographed with his mouth open.

Leonard recalled how one fan asked Baker later on in his life “why do you have so many lines in your face”.  Baker replied “from laughing!”.  The questioner quipped back, “ain’t nothin’ that funny!”.

In the 1970’s, Baker’s teeth were knocked out in a drug deal gone bad in Italy.  Fitted with dentures, Baker said he loved them because they improved his embouchure and his playing.

I only saw Chet play once.  It was at At My Place in the early 80s.  The club was booked by a guy named Matt Kramer. Later At My Place (@ 10th & Wilshire in Santa Monica)  became The Temple Bar.  Chet sat on a stool and played a great set on flugelhorn.   Not much range up and down, but the his fluid melodic lines, phrasing,  and utter smoothness more than made up.  After the gig, the promoter–another trumpet player– absconded with the cash drawer and Chet got no bread.  He probably didn’t make the next gig, scoring dope in East LA.