Book reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Matthew Ruddick – Funny Valentine: The Story of Chet Baker

Matthew Ruddick – Funny Valentine: The Story of Chet Baker
(Melrose Books, 840pp., £16.99. Book Review by Chris Parker

The blurb for this, the third edition of Matthew Ruddick’s biography of Chet Baker, describes it as ‘intimate and unflinching’, so anyone familiar with the trumpeter’s life story will know what to expect: an account of an extravagantly gifted individual squandering his talent in a downward spiral of drug addiction and abusive relationships, both professional and personal.

Except, of course, it isn’t quite that simple. While Baker’s overall life-trajectory can be clearly traced simply by looking at the book’s illustrated section (which faithfully documents his transformation, 1948–88, from clean-cut pin-up to cadaverous sunken-cheeked junkie), his actual story – so painstakingly reconstructed in this scrupulously researched account, which includes the fruits of almost 200 exclusive interviews – is complex, ambiguous, often downright bewildering and paradoxical. As Paris-based trombonist/journalist Mike Zwerin says: “At the end, Chet was not good most of the time. But when he played well, he played really well. It was the investment he made in music. Improvising was the way he expressed himself, and he put everything into it. He put his whole life into it – and when he played, you could tell.”

Put baldly, as Zwerin suggests, Baker could play like a supremely sensitive angel, but he frequently behaved – especially where women and children were concerned – like a callous, violent monster; even his musical performances veered, according to the day-to-day vagaries of his drug use, between the sublime and the ridiculous. For example, Guy Barker (source of some of the book’s most perceptive assessments of Baker’s musical gift) remembers the trumpeter’s 1985 appearance at Ronnie Scott’s as “amazing… he played great, and what really knocked me out was his stamina… [Gil Evans] turned to me and said, ‘My God, did you hear that? Everything, the way it built, the strength of it all’.” I myself witnessed a set during this residency, and remember Baker solely as a forlorn figure slumped on a stool at the front of the stage, able to do little but stare into the audience and occasionally wail, “Pete King, Pete King” – a deeply distressing and frustrating experience for all present.

Ruddick’s book’s great strength lies in his determination to face this central contradiction head-on. Thus, musical assessments from the likes of fellow trumpeter Jack Sheldon (“Chettie was just a genius right away… he had completely his own sound”) or saxophonist Bill Homan (“Chet… played all the good notes”) are interspersed with comments on his personality from trombonist Ed Byrne (“he would always ruin [success] because he understood losing, mistrust and hate… He was totally uncomfortable with winning”) or the frank judgements of his musical collaborators, such as bassist John Burr (“It’s so sad, he had such a great musical mind. He played so in tune that notes became transparent, a transcendental quality that he was capable of, but only under certain conditions. He could have had the world”).

Ruddick thus addresses, in this meticulous, exhaustive, but consistently gripping study, a central question about art: are we entitled, as its consumers, to separate the art from the artist, or must we constantly reassess its worth in light of our approval or disapproval of what we can unearth about an artist’s personal life? This question is probably never going to be satisfactorily answered; one thing is certain, however: Funny Valentine triumphantly succeeds in its main aim by providing a comprehensive, perceptive and thoughtful survey of Chet Baker’s music from its West Coast beginnings to its end in late-1980s Europe.

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