Posted by: Mark Nielsen | October 12, 2011

Chet Baker & Diane DiPrima – Getting Lost in the Late Fifties

Chet Baker (tr) & Paul Desmond (ts) playing Autumn Leaves, sometime late 50s or early 60s

After a necessary hiatus of a couple years, I’m regrouping this fall and starting to do research again for my novel, set in 1959 (most likely New York, with maybe some Boston, Chicago & L.A. situations thrown in). Current plans have me shifting my focus away from the “parental” figures in Massachusetts that I formerly started with, toward their poet/emerging beatnik seventeen-year-old daughter and her jazz trumpet-playing boyfriend.

The kids will be loosely based upon famed trumpeter, singer and heroin addict Chet Baker, and the first (perhaps only) Beat Generation woman welcomed into that tight-knit community, Diane DiPrima. I know it’s ambitious, but I’m hoping to explore the interplay of  “light” and “dark” — the creative freedom and fire in the jazz and literature of that era, stacked up against the relationship of drugs, alcohol and  twisted psychological profiles within the creative people themselves.

It’s also a murder mystery, based on the actual stabbing murder of one of the co-owners at the famous Birdland jazz club in New York. I’m finding it hard to gather a lot of actual news or research about the circumstances of the murder of Irving Levy on January 21, 1959. But jazz fans and New Yorkers are both special breeds unto themselves. So I may eventually turn up a few leads or tangential stories that nobody has bothered to connect the dots about in the intervening years.

Plus, it IS a work of fiction… so I’ll just fill in the gaps with plausible details and keep the reader focused on my story, not that of Levy or the murderer.

However, I will admit to having nagging doubts about whether anyone would want to read a work of “historical fiction” about a fairly recent era, or about some pretty obscure social/artistic scenes (even at their peak, these “cats” and bohemians were more counter-cultural than “popular”). But I’ve had a fire in the pit of my stomach to tell this story for a number of years now. If I don’t go for it, I’ll never know…

In fact, I was a jazz deejay for three years on my undergraduate college radio station, Northwestern’s WNUR (89.3FM), so maybe I’ve been working my way toward this novel for over 25 years! (Is it true that “it’s never too late”, if something’s worth doing?)

So, wish me luck, I suppose. If one has any ideas about good research angles, articles, books, etc. don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

In the meantime give a listen to some more Baker at Youtube (he’s a unique singer, too), or look into DiPrima’s life and poetry for yourself. Their lives read like maps of the rocky road out of the staid but secretly perverse Eisenhower years, through the Mad Men era, and on into the surreal and psychedelic artistic and hippy scenes of the late Sixties and beyond. (I think DiPrima’s still alive and working… so direct contact of some kind may be within the realm of possibilities for me, too.)



  1. […] Chet Baker & Diane DiPrima – Getting Lost in the Late Fifties ( […]

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