Chet Baker was a legendary jazz trumpeter and singer in the 1950s who had a quick rise to fame and an even faster downfall.
A part of his life — when Baker grappled with heroin addiction and tried to mount a musical comeback after a horrible beating — is dramatized in the film “Born To Be Blue,” which opens on March 25.
After Baker rose to fame in the ‘50s, his drug addiction nearly ruined his career. He was in and out of jail and — in 1968 — had his teeth knocked out in a fight. The brawl left Baker temporarily unable to play the trumpet and nearly ended his music career, but in the late 1970s Baker began a comeback that lasted until he died in 1988 from what was termed an accidental overdose.
Ethan Hawke plays the seminal musician in the film. The Frame's John Horn spoke with the actor about the role music has played in his life, what drives him as an artist, and about his own ups and downs in the entertainment industry.
How much was music a part of your upbringing as a child?
I grew up in a house that had a tremendous amount of respect for all the arts — my stepfather was a serious musician, and my father played the piano, and it's always been the church of my choice.
If life had turned out differently, would you be a full-time musician, rather than an actor/musician?
I don't ever call myself an actor/musician. [laughs] I have a theory that, for a lot of us, our lives are changed by our friends and who we're around. I love music so much, and performing isn't that different than acting.
I remember there was a kid down the street from me, his name was Brandon Boyce, and he was really interested in acting. He took an acting class, so I took an acting class, and sometimes I wonder, If he had been a drummer, would I have taken an interest in the bass?
We try to separate within the arts, but I think I could have found fulfillment — the same I've found through acting — through other things. Doors opened for me as an actor in my life — that's how I got into college, and once "Dead Poet's Society" happened, the path was leading me. I wasn't carving that path.
You grew up in a family that clearly had a lot of respect for the arts and was willing to indulge your interest. As a parent yourself, do you try to practice the same thing?
Why do you say "indulge"?
Thank you, thank you. [laughs]
I mean, there are a lot of parents who would say that the arts are frivolous. I know kids who are really artistic, and their parents are like, Well, that's fun and interesting, but what are you going to do with it? It's not a calling.
In a lot of ways, I feel like that's a right and good things for parents to say. If you can't handle that, then you can't handle a life in the arts. My father's a mathematician and he didn't feel that being an actor was a suitable way to spend your life, it wasn't something an adult does. But if I can't prove to him that I have something to contribute, then how will I handle it when the New York Times says I stink?
Life in the arts is a constant carousel of rejection, and I always liken it to baseball — if you can bat .250 or something, you're a professional. If one in four goes well, you're doing great.
Three out of four times you'll fail and you're still good.
You have to be comfortable with that, I think, or else you become too risk-averse. And when that happens, you're not really contributing. You're just doing something that everyone else is doing.
As you grow older, do you find that the roles that are more attractive to you now are different than 10 years ago? Are you looking to do riskier things? How does your criteria evolve?
Here's the thing I wasn't aware of when I was in my early 20s: I wasn't aware of how much the film industry is oriented towards young people. Because it was oriented towards me, I thought, Yeah, okay, this is great!
It's a very funny thing that the parts get a lot better. When I was in "Great Expectations," for example, I was really uncomfortable, because I was just being asked to play the [young innocent]. I wanted to be Jack Nicholson, I wanted to be Kris Kristofferson, someone with some character, but you just haven't lived enough to have it.
Funnily enough, the trouble is that most of the film industry is geared towards young people, and they're not really that interested in telling more complicated stories. So it's a conundrum. I'm old enough to play Macbeth and that's a far better part than Romeo, but in the film industry, most people want to see "Romeo and Juliet" over and over and over again.
In "Born To Be Blue," you perform the Chet Baker song, "I've Never Been In Love Before." We'll listen to your version first, and then Chet Baker's version, then talk about the two.
You're brutal. You're brutal!
Hey, there's at least one critic who says you sang it better than Chet Baker did. [laughs] What's it like listening to that?
Here's the one thing I was doing that Chet's not — I'm imitating, or I'm building on something that already exists. That kind of flat, disconnected, almost empty sound was something new that he was doing, and something that you could project yourself into, and it's ultimately why I took the part.
There's something about the way Chet sings that is an acting performance. One jazz critic said that Chet Baker doesn't sing, but he's the memory of someone singing. And I thought that was actable, that there's something really lonely, disappointed and detached there, something where you feel so sad that you don't even care that you're sad anymore, and that I could play that.
He had that unbelievable quality, which isn't so much in the one you just played, but some of his vocal performances make you think he might not live through the performance, or that he might not finish, that he might just get so bored of doing it.
Because the phrasing's so unusual?
It's so unusual. There's that great one that goes, "I make a date for golf / You can betcha that it rains." It's just so sad! You feel that he might just get bored and start playing the trumpet again. But he captures something that, when you're in the right mood...when there's a certain mood in your life, there's a certain Wednesday when it's raining and something isn't going how you want, that you can put [the song] on and not feel so alone. And that's what music's here to do. I loved trying to do that, even though it was a scary thing to undertake.
Chet Baker had a quick rise to fame and almost in a instance it was gone. As an artist, do you worry about the unsteadiness in your industry?
I feel like a cat, you know? I'm just trying to stay alive all the time. I did my first movie when I was 13, "Dead Poets Society" came out when I was 18. The fact that I still get to be on your show and talk about something as interesting as Chet Baker is something that I now have a tremendous amount of gratitude for. But the trouble with early success ... "Reality Bites" came out, I was 24, and a lot of doors were opening for me, so I could relate.
Chet was about 24 when he was playing with Charlie Parker, doing that first tour that really set him aside. Then he started playing with Gerry Mulligan and then he became kind of famous, and there's a couple things that happened there that are interesting. I've seen this happen with me and my friends, which is that whenever you get celebrated more than you feel you're worth, somewhere ... [we know] all human beings are created equal.
We know we're not that special, and when you get treated super special — doors get opened, cigarettes get lit, everybody's handing you money — there's a feeling of inadequacy that creeps in. It's a very human feeling that you're not worth it, and then that gets met with a huge...
Because people are treating you as better than you feel yourself to be?
Yeah, the problem with early success, you have this kind of built in insecurity that you aren't as fabulous as you are, and then time happens. Before you know it, it doesn't leave you anywhere to go, and that I could relate to. I feel that [in] your early 20s and your 40s, there's a hurdle. It's that first hurdle into adulthood and I think we lose a lot of young people in their early 20s, and then there's another hurdle in your 40s ... Like, Wow, I've done this. What do I do now?
Does making a movie about somebody as complicated and talented as Chet Baker make you think differently about your life as an artist?
The great value of what I love reading about biographies is seeing your life in context. I'll give you a really obvious example, as embarrassing as this is: Chet got terrible reviews for his singing. The person who gave me the compliment about my singing — they're not really giving me a compliment as much as they're saying, That guy could never sing to begin with!
We put it in the movie a little bit, but people like Dizzy [Gillespie] would say to [Baker], You got to stop singing, man. Nobody's gonna take you seriously. People said that to me when I started writing. Look, they're suspect when your main motivation is not making money. There are people who think, Why isn't he just acting in movies and making money? Does he want to be taken seriously? People are very suspect when you just say, No, I really just want to do this.
When you're considering whether or not you're going to write a graphic novel, be in a remake of "The Magnificent Seven," act opposite Greta Gerwig, is the checklist about the satisfactions and the interests the same?
I sometimes worry that my problem — my big, fundamental screw-up in life — was that I took "Dead Poets Society" way too seriously. I was 18 doing that movie. I was just out of high school and I was with these brilliant men, Peter Weir and Robin Williams. The whole thesis of that movie — "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Sound your barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world," all this great Walt Whitman-"Song of Myself" teachings — I really just bought hook, line and sinker. And I've been trying to follow my bliss since then. I'm glad that Chet Baker didn't stop singing. To really contribute, you have to risk falling on your ass, and you have to risk not making everybody comfortable.
“Born To Be Blue” opens in select theaters on March 25.