Sex, drugs and jazz

Watch smoke curl in the air as it drifts across beams of light, illuminating a jazz quartet belting out cool jazz. Listen to a baby-faced trumpeter singing softly into the microphone, playing old standby pieces in a way that stops conversation cold.

Chet Baker sang with a simplicity that made familiar songs ambiguous and enchanting, he was a national sensation by the time he was 23. Thirty five years later, he was found dead after falling two storeys from a hotel window.

Not quite musical, not quite biography, Crow Theatre’s production of Time After Time: The Chet Baker Project is the story of one man’s pursuit of the truth behind Chet Baker, a pursuit that leads the audience on an intimate exploration of the man and the music he made so well.

"This is jazz as it was meant to be seen," says Crow’s Theatre artistic director Jim Millan. "Watching an artist torture a note out of this twisted piece of metal, it gives some insight into how a man with everything at 23 could fall into a world that would ultimately destroy him."

It is fitting, in many ways, trying to get to know Baker through his music. After all, the only place intimacy ever found him was on stage. His dog was abandoned in a parking lot, his wives were abandoned for drugs and other women and his friends seemed to fall behind, if they weren’t first destroyed by Baker’s wild life.

There was a desperation to Baker’s life that made him intriguing. It took him three years to learn to play the trumpet again after his front teeth were broken in an apparent assault, he struggled with addictions to heroin and cocaine for nearly his entire life and yet, he continued to make hauntingly beautiful music until the end.

"Chet was unaware of how profound his music was," says Millan. "But he did his best to throw it all away."

Though Baker’s life is a fascinating story, it is ultimately the live presence of the actors and musicians that make this production memorable. While Danny DePoe (a professional trumpeter whose uncanny resemblance to the late, great Baker won him the role) and a three-piece jazz ensemble fill the Big Secret Theatre with mesmerizing jazz, Randy Hughson picks through the shadows as Ted, a man obsessed with finding the truth behind the music.

Enigma and jazz virtuoso, Chet Baker was the perfect celebrity figure, and Time After Time is a compelling journey into the jazz that made him famous. Theatre fans and jazz aficionados alike can find something here, even if the person of Chet Baker remains a mystery.

"There are people who have sold insurance who have had harder lives," says Millan. "But people want to know the truth behind the idol, know there’s something behind the music."

Though the truth may be elusive, the experience is certainly worth it.

Time After Time: The Chet Baker Project runs until Oct. 4 at the Big Secret Theatre. For tickets or information, call 264-3224.

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