WHEN JAZZ FANS first remember Chet Baker, if at all, it's generally not for his lazy, natural trumpet style, his smooth, boyish voice, or the years '53-'57, when he was the prince of the West Coast jazz scene. What people most remember about Baker are his public faces: the notorious womanizer and asshole; the juvenile delinquent, in and out of detention; and the drug-addled wraith depicted in Bruce Weber's stylish 1989 doc, Let's Get Lost. But Weber's film suggested that there was more to the jazzman than the image--that the real Chet Baker was hidden somewhere beneath the disheveled facade.
And so, it seems, hidden he will stay. As Though I Had Wings, Baker's newly found memoirs, was ostensibly packaged by his former wife Carol Baker as a means to clear the record and add depth to the "one-dimensional caricatures" of hearsay, dusty jazz histories, and "meager liner-note bios." But the book falls short: Baker gets hooked on smack in '56, about halfway through the 100 pages, and he spends the rest of the text skimming through his attempts to score and his subsequent run-ins with police. Sparse on detail, Baker talks plainly about cooking up with other addicts in public restrooms, getting strung out, and finding fellow jazzers dead, needles protruding from their arms.
Yet Wings is not as compelling as that might sound--even for those who can still maintain some interest in the romantic notion of jazzman-as-self-destructive-genius. The pseudo-poetic title belies Baker's drab, clunky prose, and he lets characters drift by without explaining why they appeared in the first place. Baker opens the book in his Army years, focusing on a studly fellow serviceman named Dick--ironic, perhaps, as Baker is something of an icon in some gay circles--only to let Dick disappear a few pages later.
Granted, Baker's a musician, not a writer, but the memoirs seem a wasted opportunity: Jazz titans such as Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, and Charlie Parker are given a few short paragraphs here and there, without much insight on how they approached jazz, or, most importantly, how they influenced Baker himself. As Though I Had Wings, seemingly the last word on Baker, is as much an enigma as the man who wrote it.