Friday, July 7, 2017

Jeroen de Valk's Biography of Chet Baker: Revised,Updated and Expanded

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"As a touring artist you are constantly surrounded by people who want something from you. People ask you for everything imaginable, offer you things . . . Chet couldn't shut himself off, he was open to everything that happened around him.
"Yesterday, somebody came backstage and started insulting me. He thought I played badly and said so in a very unpleasant way. I said: 'This is the dressing room, what are you doing back here?' and told him to get lost. If you take drugs, you can't do that. At certain moments you get an enormous kick, but later you're even more susceptible to exactly those things you've escaped from. You don't even have control over yourself. You're always in the victim's role.
"I'm often in Europe on tour. On the stage, I have success, I communicate with the public. But when I leave the stage, I'm a mere mortal again, trying to get along in the world. No one knows me, only the jazz insiders, and I don't speak the languages. Everywhere there are people who try and cheat this 'Ugly American.' And I fight it: 'Hey, you're charging me too much, No, that's not right!' I don't like to have to act that way, but I have the alternative of either doing it or being cheated.
"Chet let all this affect him and then would suddenly get in a horrible mood in a completely uncontrolled way. Once, we were supposed to rehearse in a music school where I taught. The principal, who sat behind a desk below, didn't know Chet and asked him what he was doing there. When Chet heard that he began to abuse the guy. And he wouldn't let up. I think I lost the job because of that incident. He looked like a tramp and was treated accordingly.
"Anytime someone wants to tell me a story about Chet Baker, I say, 'Stop, let it alone,' because I already know it's going to be a sad story. Chet got in trouble all the time."
-Lee Konitz, alto saxophonist
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has recently received its copy of the revised, updated and expanded edition of Jeoren de Valk’s biography Chet Baker: His Life and Music and is pleased to inform you that it is now available from Aspekt Press and at Amazon.
Originally copyrighted in 1989 by Van Gennep, the book has been translated into English and available in a softbound edition since 2000 from Berkeley Hills Books.
Chet Baker was a star at 23 years old, winning the polls of America’s leading magazines. But much of his later life was overshadowed by his drug use and problems with the law. Chet Baker: His Life and Music was Baker’s first solidly researched biography, published a year after Baker’s passing in 1988. It was available in five languages.
Here is a Press Release about the forthcoming revised, updated and expanded edition of Mr. de Valk’s biography of Chet.
“Now finally, here is Jeroen de Valk’s thoroughly revised, updated and expanded edition. De Valk spoke to Baker himself, his friends and colleagues, the police inspector who investigated his death and many others. He read virtually every relevant word that was ever published about Chet and listened to every recording; issued or unissued.
The result of all this is a book which clears up quite a few misunderstandings. For Chet was not the ‘washed-up’ musician as portrayed in the ‘documentary’ Let’s Get Lost. He recorded his best concert ever less than a year before he died. His death was not th├ít mysterious.   
According to De Valk, Chet was first of all an incredible improviser; someone who could invent endless streams of melody. “He delivered these melodies with a highly individual, mellow sound. He turned his heart inside out, almost to the point of embarrassing his listeners.’’  
The film rights of this book have been sold to Kingsborough Pictures. The movie ‘Prince of the Cool’ is in the making. Furthermore, the author worked as an advisor for ‘My Foolish Heart’, a Dutch ‘neo-noir music film’ which will be released in cinemas in 2018. Earlier, De Valk contributed to the legendary documentary ‘The Last Days’.
The press about De Valk’s earlier edition:
Jazz Times: ”A solidly researched biography… a believable portrait of Baker… a number of enlightening interviews…’’  
Library Journal: “De Valk’s sympathetic yet gritty rendering of Baker’s life blends well with his account of Baker’s recording career. Somehow, the author manages to avoid the lurid and sensationalistic aspects that those having only a passing familiarity with the musician usually recount.’’
Cadence: “A classic of modern jazz biography. De Valk’s writing is so straightforward as to be stark, yet this is just what makes it so rich. His description of the events leading to the fall that took Baker’s life, for instance, has a quick, breathless suspense to it.’’
Jazzwise: “… it’s going to be definitive.’’
Jeroen de Valk (1958) is a Dutch musician, journalist and jazz historian. He has been writing about jazz since the late 70s and also authored an acclaimed biography about tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.”
And here is an excerpt from the Preface of the original edition of the book that sets the tone for how Mr. de Valk approached writing about Chet:
“CHET BAKER is the subject of many misunderstandings. Read anything about Chet Baker— an article in a magazine or a newspaper, for example —and it is likely you will be told that Chet was a pitiful character who started using drugs when his popularity dwindled and his piano player Dick Twardzik died. That he faded into obscurity after spectacular early success and was rescued from oblivion by filmmaker Bruce Weber, who also inspired his last recording, the soundtrack for Let's Get Lost. That he was killed in Amsterdam, where the police handled the case carelessly.
The truth, alas, is less sensational. Chet had his problems, but he was hardly that badly off. He started using drugs when he was at the height of his popularity and Twardzik was still alive. In the last ten years of his life, he was very popular in Europe, where he recorded and performed extensively. His trumpet playing was usually much stronger than it is in Weber's film. The soundtrack was certainly not his last recording; he made over a dozen records afterward, both live and in the studio. One of them — Chet Baker in Tokyo — contains his best work ever. And, finally, Chet was not killed. After thorough examination, the police concluded that he died because he fell out of his hotel room, after having taken heroin and cocaine. This may sound anti-climatic for a jazz hero, but there is nothing I can do about that.
I found out this - and other things - while talking to friends, colleagues, and a police sergeant, spending quite some time in libraries, reviewing paper clippings from all over the world, and collecting as many recordings as I could.”
Having now had the opportunity to read the revised and expanded edition of Jeoren de Valk's Chet Baker: His Life and Music, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles formed the following impressions about the work.

[1] It is a painstakingly accurate book that goes to great lengths to separate fact from fiction in Chet's life and in so doing, dispels many of the romanticized myths associated with what has become a Baker hagiography;

[2] It is chronologically detailed such that it offers the reader a full overview of each of the major periods in Chet's career beginning with the famous piano-less quartet he formed with Gerry Mulligan, continuing on with the quartet he formed with pianist Russ Freeman, to his own groups on the West Coast and earlier tours of Europe, and then to the remaining 25 years of his career spent mainly in Europe with occasional sojourns to the states;

[3] The work is full of primary source interviews largely centered around the musicians, record executives, club owners, concert impresarios and Jazz fans who were close to Chet and many of these are cross-referenced to give the clearest possible picture of Chet and his music;

[4] The book is full of fair and honest assessments of the quality of the music on Chet's many recordings in an effort to help the listener focus of the better ones;

[5] De Valk maintains that "Chet was first of all an endless improviser; someone who could invent endless streams of melody. He delivered these melodies with a highly individual, mellow sound. He turned his heart inside out, almost to the point of embarrassing his listeners:" there are numerous musician interviews whose aim it is to attempt to explain why Chet's approach to improvisation was so unique and special - in other words - what they fuss was all about in Chet's playing;

[6] Every facet of Chet's approach to music is touched on in de Valk's Chet bio from his choice of trumpets, to his technique in employing the valves of the instrument, his use of microphones, et. al. all of which is combined to provide the reader with rarely understood insights into the mechanical process of making Jazz;

[7] De Valk makes every effort at an honest appraisal of Chet's personal life and how it affected his music and this objectivity serves to prevent the extremes of hero-worship or warts-an-all-tell all that plagues many biographies of Jazz musicians noted for their drug addictions;

[8] De Valk introduces some little discussed factors that influenced Chet to spend his later career in Europe such as the reverse discrimination, Black Nationalism, and complete dismissal of Baker's "Cool School" style of Jazz as superficial by major American Jazz critics, all of which were very prevalent in the America of the 1970s when Chet was considering returning to the US;

[9] The frank and candid discography contains every major recording that Baker appeared on and helps guide the Jazz fan to Chet's better recorded efforts;

[10] The book does not contain a bibliography, but it closes with fully annotated footnotes for each chapter.

This book should serve as a model for how to write a biography about a Jazz musician because it is descriptively strong in its analysis of the music while, at the same time, providing accurate and abundant information about the musician's life, both personal and professional.

If a Jazz fan is looking for a guide to the evolution of Chet Baker's music as manifested through the major phases of his career, this is the book to get. Jazz musicians are their music and Jeroen de Valk's comprehensive biography proves to be another example of why this is so.


  1. I've read at least three Chet Baker biographies, and de Valk's is by far the best. I'm looking forward to the revised edition. As to the quality of his late work -- I heard him late in his life when he played Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase. Word was that he was shooting up in his feet, so played sitting down. His playing and singing was still great then, and also on "The Last Great Concert" two weeks before he died. Was his voice shot? Sure. So was Lady's on her last LP, but it is still one of my favorites.

  2. Hi Jim, thanks for your kind words! Do you remember the date and the sidemen from that gig in Chicago? It may have been May, 1986, when Chet played the Showcase with a (partly) European band and recorded with a local group - 'Chet in Chicago'(Enja). A fine record, but Chet was in much better shape in Japan, earlier that year, where he wasn't shooting at all. Kindly, Jeroen

  3. Thanks for your kind words! The Chicago gig may have been the one in May, '86. when Chet played the Showcase with European sidemen and recorded with a local band. He was even (much) better earlier that year, when he toured Japan and wasn't shooting at all.

  4. Thoughtful article..the praise for De Valk's book is fully deserved!


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