In "Deep In a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker," James Gavin excavates the life of the jazz musician. In this excerpt from the book (to be published in May by Knopf), Baker hits New York.
California sunshine had no place in Birdland, a midtown cellar where the spotlights cut gray beams through a cigarette haze. Only the most confident (or stoned) musicians could keep from getting the jitters on the stage of that two-hundred-seat room, whose walls were lined with paintings of the greats who reigned there, including: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, and Charlie Parker, for whom Birdland was named.
In May 1954, the audience consisted largely of girls who adored Chet Baker, along with a few beboppers—Art Farmer, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey—who were there to watch the showdown between Baker and [Miles] Davis. The first half of the month passed smoothly. . . . Then Davis took over as the opening act, and tension rose. In tunes like "Blue Haze" and "Blue 'n' Boogie," he introduced a hotter version of cool: a slow, insinuating form of bop, full of midnight atmosphere and steeped in the blues. . . . The reception was polite. Then Baker's group came on, and the squeals from their female fans were little comfort. "We were scared to death," said [bassist] Carson Smith. "It was like the boys coming to play next to the men." Now, songs like "Happy Little Sunbeam" didn't seem so clever. After hearing Kenny Clarke, [drummer] Bob Neel "started to feel inadequate back there," he admitted. "I began to think that maybe we weren't the greatest jazz band in the world."