(Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf; now available in paperback from Chicago Review Press)

“A landmark in entertainment biography.” (Tony Gieske,
Hollywood Reporter)

“Almost unbearably vivid … James Gavin has brought us as close as life to his subject.” (David Hajdu,
New York Times Book Review)

“Definitive … a haunting prose poem that’s every bit as affecting as one of Baker’s solos.” (
Entertainment Weekly – “A” rating)


Saturday, May 21, 1988
Inglewood, California

GRAVESIDE FUNERALS dotted the rolling hills of the Inglewood Park Cemetery, in a residential black neighborhood on the outskirts of L.A. White canopies shielded mourners from the sun but couldn’t block out the rumble of planes, which zoomed in and out of the nearby Los Angeles International Airport. In parts of the cemetery, the foul smell of jet fumes hid the scent of freshly cut grass.
......Two days earlier, a passenger flight from the Netherlands had carried the badly decomposed body of a trumpeter recalled as one of the handsomest men of the 1950s. Chet Baker had died a mysterious, drug-related death in Amsterdam on Friday the thirteenth. Now, after years in Europe, he was back in Southern California, where he had first known glory, to be laid to rest alongside his father. A former Oklahoma farmboy, Baker had filled people’s heads with fantasies from the time he was born. Everything about him was open to speculation: his “cool” trumpet playing, so vulnerable yet so detached; his enigmatic half-smile; the androgyny of his sweet singing voice; a face both childlike and sinister. The melody that poured from his horn had led Baker’s Italian fans to dub him l’angelo (the angel) and tromba d’oro (the golden trumpet). Marc Danval, a writer from Belgium, called his music “one of the most beautiful cries of the twentieth century” and compared him to Baudelaire, Rilke, and Edgar Allan Poe. In Europe, even his longtime addiction to heroin worked in his favor, making him seem all the more fragile and precious.
......But in America, his death didn’t arouse much sympathy. Baker’s New York Times obituary, which listed the wrong age (fifty-nine instead of fifty-eight), portrayed him as a faded heartthrob whose “phenomenal luck” had “turned sour” due to drugs. “Some critics said he might have been overrated at the beginning,” it noted of a musician once proclaimed the Great White Hope of jazz trumpeters. Despite announcements in the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood Reporter, only about thirty-five people showed up at the funeral. “It was sad, it was not a celebration,” said clarinetist Bernie Fleischer, Baker’s high-school bandmate. “But nobody expected him to last this long anyway.”
......Few of those gathered knew much about his life abroad, and now, as they stared at a closed coffin, they were even more puzzled at his death. At about 3:10 in the morning, Dutch police had removed his body from a sidewalk below the window of his third-story hotel room near Amsterdam’s Central Station. Steps away was Zeedijk, a winding side street notorious for the most blatant drug dealing in Holland. Officers dumped the anonymous corpse at the morgue, assuming they had found one more unlucky dope fiend. The next day, Peter Huijts, Baker’s Dutch road manager, identified the body. The death was ruled either a suicide or a drug-induced accident.
.......But contradictory evidence abounded. The window of his hotel room opened only about twelve inches, making it impossible for him to have fallen out involuntarily. Drug paraphernalia was found all over the room, yet a police spokesperson announced that Baker’s blood showed no sign of heroin. In recent months, Baker had told several people that someone was out to get him. His English widow, Carol, living in Oklahoma with their three children, seized upon the same notion. “It wasn’t suicide, it was foul play,” she insisted. Pianist Frank Strazzeri, who had played for Baker a year earlier, took her suspicion a step further: “I’m looking down at the coffin and I’m saying, ‘What the hell happened, man?’ I was so disgusted – ‘What did you do? You fool, man, you burned another cat for bread. They finally killed you.’”
......It was just like Baker to keep everybody guessing, even in death. He was a man of so few words, and notes, that each one seemed mysterious and profound. British writer Colin Butler had noted a similar quality in Jeri Southern, a melancholy singer-pianist of the ‘50s whose neuroses had led to a nervous breakdown and a refusal ever to sing again. “It was as though she had looked into the heart of some American dream and seen the outlines of a nightmare that was never ever to be discussed,” Butler wrote. Baker had lived inside some unnamed torment of his own, and drawn from it such lusciously sad and lyrical music that people clung to him for years, desperate to uncover his secret. To Hiro Kawashima, a young Japanese trumpeter, Baker was like Buddha: “He taught me about life itself, and I look up to him as the ‘master of life,’ so to speak.” Singer Ruth Young, Baker’s girlfriend of ten years, was so entranced by her “Picasso,” as she called him, that she smuggled dope across borders for him and once even helped him drag a dead body out of a European apartment and dispose of it.
......Baker had unleashed a similar mania in photographer Bruce Weber, who paid for the funeral. From 1986 through 1988, Weber had reportedly spent a million dollars of his own money to make the documentary
Let’s Get Lost, an orgasmic fantasia about a man whose ‘50s look had helped inspire Weber’s homoerotic ads for Calvin Klein underwear. His camera lingered just as rapturously on the Baker of the late ‘80s, a figure whom film critics called a “singing corpse” (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice), a “withered goat” (Julie Salamon, the Wall Street Journal), a “hollow-cheeked, toothless, mumbling, all but brain-dead relic” (Charles Champlin, the Los Angeles Times), an “unreliable, conniving heroin addict” (Lee Jeske, the New York Post), a “bloodsucker” and “drug-ravaged ghost” (Chip Stern, Rolling Stone). All this of a man whose solos were regarded as models of heartfelt expression, as graceful as poems.
......Everyone at the funeral had his own fascination with Baker. At around 2 a.m., mourners started drifting into the cemetery. They passed the coffin, which was placed on a gurney beside the grave, and sat in a cluster of folding chairs. Everything had been planned by Emie Amemiya, the young woman who had coordinated the shooting of Let’s Get Lost. There in the cemetery, Amemiya saw, for the first and only time, the trumpeter’s second wife, Halema Alli, who had refused to participate in the film. In 1956, Alli had posed shyly with her bare-chested husband for a coolly erotic portrait by photographer William Claxton. Four years later, she wound up in an Italian jail, howling in anguish while awaiting trial as an accomplice in her husband’s biggest drug bust. Diane Vavra, Baker’s lover for years, stayed at the back of the crowd, as far as possible from the front row, where Carol, the three children, and Baker’s mother, Vera, were seated. Baker and Vavra’s mutual obsession had raged so intensely that she called it a “sickness.” The trumpeter couldn’t live without her, yet his abuse had finally made her run for her life the previous February.
......Only now was it safe to return, or so she had thought. Even before the service began, Baker seemed to be present, stirring up the same jealousy and paranoia he had aroused in life. Baker’s daughter, Melissa, began taunting Vavra in her hillbilly twang: “We don’t like you! We don’t want you here! We want you to leave!” Vavra recalled seeing a “really evil smile” cross Carol’s face with every harangue. Many wondered why Carol had stayed with Baker for twenty-eight years, given his continual absence, violence, overt relationships with other women, and financial neglect. She loved him, she explained. Years after his death, royalties from his CD reissues earned her more money than he himself had ever made from his albums. Yet she kept selling Chet Baker T-shirts, homemade CDs, and photos on the family Web site, seemingly determined to earn every cent, and more, of the cash her husband had denied her.
......Melissa’s outbursts shook Ed Hancock, a boyhood acquaintance of Baker’s. He walked up to her, put his hands on her shoulders, and said, “Not here!” Amemiya motioned nervously for the eulogies to start. Bernie Fleischer reminisced about the teenage Baker: “I just couldn’t believe the way he played! Everything was such a struggle for me, and it was so easy for him, like a bird singing.” Peter Huijts quoted some words allegedly spoken to Dizzy Gillespie by Charlie Parker, the father of bebop, who had featured Baker in his band in 1952: “You better look out, there’s a little white cat who’s gonna eat you up!” There were tributes from bassist Hersh Hamel, another early pal of Baker’s; Russ Freeman, who played piano in his famous quartet of the mid-‘50s; and Frank Strazzeri, his accompanist in Let’s Get Lost. Then Chris Tedesco, a young West Coast trumpeter who worshipped Baker, stepped forward. Holding back tears, he played an a cappella version of “My Funny Valentine,” Baker’s theme. When Tedesco cracked a note – just as Baker had on his first recording of the song in 1952 – Fleischer felt a chill, as if his old friend were truly haunting the funeral.
......Amemiya witnessed an even more surreal moment. She had brought a huge bouquet of white roses to distribute among the guests, and had placed the vase on the ground in front of Carol and Melissa. What happened couldn’t be blamed on the sun, which was bright but not blazing. Suddenly the vase shattered, Amemiya said, strewing flowers and broken glass at their feet.
......As the funeral ended, Melissa placed a rose on her father’s coffin, then joined
the other attendees as they filed out. Vavra and Amemiya trailed behind. Melissa turned around and hissed:
“I’d kick your ass right now but I’m not dressed for it!” Years later, Vavra tried to be philosophical about that “awful” day. “Well, she’s just a little kid,” she said of Melissa, who was nearly twenty-two when Baker died. “Her father didn’t treat her very well. Never was around.”
......Tedesco was one of the last to leave the gravesite. He stopped at the coffin, which was still aboveground, and laid a note, handwritten on musical staff paper, atop the lid: “Dear Chet, you were the first jazz trumpet player that I ever heard and studied. You touched my life so many times with your solos and your singing. Farewell.”
......Whatever horrors they may have faced in their pursuit of Chet Baker, most of the mourners shared Tedesco’s feelings. “After all is said and done,” observed Amemiya, “Chettie was so gifted and so magical that what he gave out he could never, ever get back.” But Gudrun Endress, a German broadcaster and publisher who had known Baker for years, saw things less romantically. “Chet can hurt people even after he’s dead,” she warned. “Remember that.”


“Superb … unerring … a stark, troubling portrait of both the artist and his times.” (
Publisher’s Weekly)

“Splendid, fascinatingly thorough … a book that remains a page-turner long after it’s obvious what’s coming next.” (
K. Leander Williams, Time Out New York)

“Savagely honest … impeccably researched, elegantly written.” (Joel Selvin, San Francisco Chronicle)

“The most well-rounded, clear-eyed portrait of the trumpeter ever put to paper … the definitive bio of Baker.” (Christopher Porter, JazzTimes)

“So thorough, gripping and well-written that once the pages start to turn, you’re hooked … a journalistic gem.” (
Jason Koransky, Down Beat)

“A pitch-perfect, informed and engrossing character and cultural study … Gavin deserves a curtain call.” (
Alan Bisbort, Hartford Advocate)

“Harrowing … chilling.” (
Richard Sudhalter, Baltimore Sun)

“Cringingly fine … a really scary story.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“I honor the patience, the method, and the fidelity of James Gavin’s book.” (
David Thomson, The New Republic)

“Gripping … fascinating … brings Baker’s personality vividly to life … resonates on a level far deeper than most biographies of musicians.” (Carlo Wolff, Boston Globe)

“First-rate … Scrupulous to the end … [Gavin] coolly documents the man, his art, and the mysterious and powerful hold both still have on jazz fans and what might be called students of American celebrity culture.” (William Corbett, Boston Phoenix)

“Potent … A well-written and balanced biography … Gavin transcends the clip-job form biographies often take.” (
Howard Cohen, New Herald, Miami)

“A hair-raising, chilling, and always fascinating look at a tortured musician who became an American myth … Gavin has delivered a masterful look at him.”
(Terry Perkins, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

“Thoroughly researched, briskly written, and clear-eyed … compelling.” (Kevin Riordan, Courier-Post, Camden, N.J.)

“Detailed and perceptive.” (The Economist)

“The Baker presence emerges vividly from James Gavin’s new, painstakingly documented biography.” (Register Star, Rockford, IL)

“Riveting … abounds in useful insights.” (Peter Vacher, Coda, Canada)

“Thorough and compulsively readable.” (Jack Batten, Toronto Star)

“A hair-raising account … it should attract anyone interested in a cautionary tale well-told.”
(Greg Delaney, The Independent,U.K.)

“Chet Baker’s story is a harrowing, twisted fairytale of music and mayhem, and James Gavin reveals its terrors and triumphs superbly.” (Andrew Vine, Yorkshire Post, U.K.)

“A black comedy of bad behaviour … pure Joe Orton … [written] with a diligence and insight with which not even the most puritanical jazz purist could find fault.” (Kenneth Wright, Sunday Herald, U.K.)

“The best possible introduction to Chet Baker, that American tragedy.” (
Amiri Abaki, Valor, São Paulo, Brazil)

“Free of moralizing or empty musicology – yet without forsaking careful, parsimonious stylistic analysis – Gavin’s book is an act of artistic love and intellectual honesty, written with the fluency and drama of a novel.”
(Paolo Russo, La Repubblica, Italy)

“A monumental and informed biography … told by Gavin in the finest detail.” (Ernesto Assante, LaRepubblica, Italy)

“A monumental biography … a story reconstructed with precision and accuracy … writing with a fluidity of style that lies halfway between a novel and journalistic investigation.” (
Helmut Failoni, Il Manifesto, Italy)

“An extraordinary and monumental biography.” (Mirella Seni, La Stampa, Italy)

“An outstandingly documented biography … bloodcurdling storytelling.” (Humo, Netherlands)