Little white cat
By JONATHAN DRUMMOND
The new Chet Baker biopic (bioPIC or BiOPic?) Born To Be Blue, featuring Ethan Hawke as the troubled trumpeter, concentrates on the events of his life in 1966 and 1967. We don't see anything of his early breakthrough with Charlie Parker (who warned Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie: "You'd better watch out – there's a little white cat on the Coast who's gonna eat you up!") or his involvement in the innovative Gerry Mulligan quartet, or even the production of arguably his most famous record, Chet Baker Sings. Nor does it feature the last twenty or so years of his career, during which he released a number of successful records and toured Europe extensively in spite of his drug addiction. He died in 1988, after falling out of a hotel window in Amsterdam.
The opening scene shows Chet lying in an Italian prison cell high on heroin, reaching towards a tarantula crawling out of the bell of his trumpet. His addiction soon leads to a critical moment – a drug dealer smashes the teeth out of Chet's head with the butt of a gun. The film focuses on his subsequent struggle with drugs, his struggle to develop a new embouchure, and his struggle to maintain a relationship while staying clean. We really only ever see Chet as the shambolic junkie – constantly forcing his new false teeth back into his mouth; sitting in a bath, covered in blood, trying to produce a single note on his horn; unable to come even close to creating the kind of music for which he'd once been famous. While he is relearning his embouchure, he takes a regular gig in a pizza restaurant with a local amateur quartet who tell him that he needs to practise more before they'll ask him back. He certainly seems to be following the advice given to him early in the film by Miles Davis (played by Kedar Brown), who, on hearing Chet's gentle swing and feminine vocals for the first time, tells him to "come back when you've lived a little".
What the film seems to lack is a lightness to go with the shade, any release to go with the tension. When studying jazz, in a former life, I was told that these things were necessary in order to create an engaging narrative. The irony is that Chet's playing was filled with these qualities. Every improvised line he played had an arc – a beginning, an end and invariably a beautiful and interesting way of linking the two together. His linear improvisation had a melodic nature of its own.
In jazz, you generally play the melody, then improvise over the harmonic structure of the piece, then play the melody again to finish; the tune provides a beginning and an end, and lends the improvisation a greater context. If only Born To Be Blue gave us something similar: it focuses on one brief period of Chet Baker's life, and doesn't let us hear the whole tune.