Sunday, January 13, 2008


Today I saw a reissue of a 1988 documentary by noted photographer Bruce Weber about what turned out to be the last six months of the life of legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Baker first came to fame in the fifties as one of the cornerstone artists of what came to be known as West Coast 'cool' jazz.

In addition to being a talented horn blower, Baker also had an unusually affecting singing voice. Melancholy in tone, almost off-key, but not quite, Baker's voice was a perfect compliment to his subdued horn playing.

Also adding to his legend, Baker had the good fortune to be iconically photographed by then young cameraman, William Claxton. Struck by Baker's looks and what he saw as charisma, Claxton shot portraits of Claxton that are among the most revered in jazz photography.

Unfortunately, Baker fell prey to hard drugs and was never able to shake them. Weber's film, shot in crisp black and white, travels with Baker in California and Europe, spending time with him in the studio, onstage, with friends, lovers and family members, almost all of who bear varying degrees of hurt and pain from being involved with Baker.

Six months after the film was finished, Baker fell from a window in a hotel in Amsterdam. Officially ruled a suicide, there's still some question about the possibility of foul play.

This is one of the saddest films you'll ever see, but I couldn't take my eyes off it. It's playing in limited release in Los Angeles and New York, but should be on DVD in the next few months. Incredibly moving, but it's not the film to watch if you're feeling a bit down.

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