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Musical Interlude

BLUE BOSSA.\o7 By Bart Schneider (Viking: 246 pp., $24.95)\f7 ; BUT BEAUTIFUL: A Book About Jazz.\o7 By Geoff Dyer (North Point Press / Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 228 pp., $12 paper)\f7

June 14, 1998|DAVID THOMSON | David Thomson is the author of "Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts."

Chet Baker was a soft white kid who loved black music and wanted to imitate it but who never had the depth or energy to keep up. Born in Yale, Okla., in 1929, he moved to California when he was 11 and joined the Army five years later. He was by then a bugle boy increasingly drawn to jazz on the radio and sometimes in live performance. He left the Army in 1948, reentered in 1950--a strange move--and was deemed unfit for service in 1952. His professional jazz career took off soon after, with Charlie Parker for a while, and then in the famous piano-less quartet led by Gerry Mulligan. He won the Downbeat trumpet poll in 1954, beating Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, among others. Surely that was in large part because he could be mistaken for a movie star. (Baker himself said that the victory made no sense.)

With an exaggerated male jaw, pouty eyes, an almost pulpy look to his face and devilish black hair, Baker signaled so much promise. Women wanted to touch him. Gays must have been attracted. And he did look like a star, albeit more like Dewey Martin (a brief career from the '50s) than Montgomery Clift. Baker had a forlorn, uneducated face, insecure, unreliable, indolent and self-indulgent. He had a white-trash Dorian Gray air to him, and I'd guess that that was the allure many Downbeat readers voted for. And Baker's music, long before heroin or the loss of his teeth, was restricted, plodding, slow and like the last gasp of a consumptive. Still, the playing was dainty, terse and lyrical next to his stunned singing. There, above all, you heard his empty mind.

Writing about jazz, or music of any kind, may be as difficult as writing gets, but it's an entertaining problem. Here's Bart Schneider on the comeback of that fabled trumpeter of yesteryear, his main character in "Blue Bossa," Ronnie Reboulet: "Ronnie walks tentatively through the theme. The trumpet is a thin man strolling up a trail with a trusty stick. He stumbles here, goes up the wrong fork there, and has to back his way down. No fancy stops yet, no switchbacks. Just a walking man telling a warm story with enough quick, pop laughs to punctuate the tale so that any dumb fool, wondering if he's pissed away his life, feels he has a compatriot on the stage, walking a deceptively simple trumpet line up the trail."

And here's Geoff Dyer, in "But Beautiful," imagining, inventing the feeling of one of the lovers of that great sorrowful beauty, Baker, his brow like a cloud, who also played trumpet:

"It was listening to him like this, lying with her legs apart. . , that she understood, quite suddenly and for no reason the source of the tenderness in his playing: he could only play with tenderness because he'd never known real tenderness in his life. Everything he played was a guess. And lying here now, noticing the valleys and the dunes formed in the creased sheets, damp with a light dew of sweat, she realized how wrong she had been to think that he played for no one but himself: he didn't even play for himself--he just played."

This isn't a contest. I admire both passages, and yet neither quite settles for me the unique, perilous sound of Baker, somewhere between arty self-pity and halting seduction. Baker played like a child reading Hemingway aloud--but how do we find any metaphor that contains Clifford Brown?

Schneider has skills enough to write more novels--and I'm sure he'll take more risks, and look deeper, as he gains confidence. As for Dyer, an Englishman, he is already a author, too little known in this country. He is a novelist, the author of a book about John Berger and a very comic, yet entirely serious lament about the difficulty of writing a book about D.H. Lawrence. All that and "But Beautiful," which may be the best book ever written about jazz, the most humane and refined response to a music that famously supports incoherence and platitude.

"Blue Bossa" is a novel, set largely in the Bay Area in the mid-'70s, about a trumpeter, who was a sensation as a kid (his mother thinks he was dreamier than Montgomery Clift). He was in the Army, but they let him go for the good of the Cold War. The ties in Ronnie's life--wife, lovers, daughter--have gone, or slipped. He played with Stan Kenton and Charlie Parker. He was very fashionable until heroin got the better of him, and then he lost his teeth in a brawl. He was a wreck, but is now trying to live in San Francisco with a good woman, Betty, and do what he can to mend his relationship with his daughter, Rae, 20-ish, who bore a child, Quincy, to a black man and wants perhaps to become a singer.

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