Chet Baker landed on the jazz scene and was instantly recognised as a new star, was a central figure in establishing the West Coast school of cool jazz, enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame, which then led directly to his downfall through drug addiction, and to eventual obscurity. This is the standard account of Baker’s career, but, while there are some truths, it’s not entirely accurate; reality having been perhaps more complicated, and less doom-laden.
It is true that Baker was quickly gaining a reputation for himself in the West Coast scene. Following a tour there, Charlie Parker, ever skilled in talent spotting, once jokingly warned Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, “You better look out, there’s a little white cat on the coast who’s gonna eat you up.”
Indeed, the Baker name had soon made the mainstream: DownBeat congratulated themselves in 1953,
Now it’s for sure. Our suspicions that the 23-year-old trumpet man from Yale, Okla., was a major star are confirmed by this LP…Until now the great modern horn stars could be counted on the digits of one hand. To the names of Dizzy, Miles, Joe Newman, Shorty Rogers and Clarke Terry must now be added an extra finger on the hand: Chet Baker has arrived.
To the public, Baker brought an all-round performance: soulful playing, sweet vocals, and handsome countenance. Baker was less sure of his qualities, ”I don’t know whether I’m a trumpet player who sings or a singer who plays the trumpet”.
Critics were less easily seduced by Baker’s charms, characterizing his playing as “simple” and “melodic”, but this ignores the fact that, he could play fast lines (sixteenth notes) with astonishing authority, and he could outline quickly-progressing chords as clearly and precisely as any of the great jazz musicians. Nevertheless, he always placed simplicity and melodic logic first […] and described his successful improvisations as “simple and strong”.
Baker’s approach was therefore well-founded, and he intended to seek particularly accessible statements with good reason,
An improvisation is like telling a story. You have to start your solo as if you’re telling a story to a kid. You can’t just say a whole bunch of words they wouldn’t understand; you’ve got to start with a simple phrase, then develop it.
Perhaps also unfair was the way critics’ too closely compared Baker to Miles Davis, despite Davis’ move away from the early sound that he shared with Baker. This would have been better expressed in more equitable terms that, undoubtedly the two men had shared an approach; Joachim-Ernst Berendt perhaps puts it best, “Chet Baker is a better interpreter of the ideas of Miles Davis than Miles himself”.
Something that made Baker’s abilities even more impressive was his lack of knowledge about music theory. Unlike Davis who was well versed in theory, Baker was able to read music as far a single line of melody, but chord sequences and harmonies, even key signatures, were a mystery to him.
Chesney Henry “Chet” Baker, Jr. was born on December 23rd., 1929, to Chesney Baker, Sr., a professional guitar player, and Vera (née Moser), a worker in a perfume factory, but also a talented pianist.
Baker first exposure to music was singing in a church choir and singing ballads in local amateur talent competitions, before his father guided him towards brass instruments, firstly a trombone, but settling on the smaller trumpet which was more manageable for the 10-year old. His career almost ended before it had even begun when, shortly after beginning trumpet, he lost his upper-left front tooth in a school fight. While this forever compromised his volume and technique, to some extent, Baker was able to work around the injury.
His first formal music tuition was received at Glendale Junior High School which ended when he left school aged 16, and lied about his age to enrol in the US Army. He joined the 298th Army band during his posting to Berlin, returned home in 1948, and studied theory and harmony at El Camino College, Los Angeles, but was failing classes due to his “deficient education”, so dropped out in the second year, to re-enlist in 1950. This time, Baker joined the Sixth Army Band in San Francisco, which gave him access to jazz clubs like Bop City and the Black Hawk where he began to sit in on sessions. Meeting Charlaine at the Lighthouse Club, a whirlwind romance produced a short marriage, a quick divorce, and a posting to a military base that didn’t encourage music. His sights already set, Baker obtained a general discharge from the army, to pursue a career as a professional musician.
Freelancing, Baker’s first recording was on March 24th, 1952, as a sideman with Sonny Criss and Wardell Gray, caught informally by a candid taper. Other work came easily, and his reputation spread. He notably played with Stan Getz, a pairing that would be infamously revisited, and auditioned for Charlie Parker which won him the gig touring, and clearly left an impression.
Baker’s early breakthrough arrived when he joined up with Gerry Mulligan’s Quartet, producing a huge hit with their recording of ‘My Funny Valentine’, and featuring Baker’s bittersweet solo, (the original recording is on the Fantasy album Gerry Mulligan Quartet, 1953, re-released by Original Jazz Classics). The accolades rolled in: DownBeat readers voted him the best trumpeter in the world (a landslide win over Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Clifford Brown), two years running, in 1953 and 1954. The future prospects for the Quartet were cut short when Mulligan was arrested for drug possession.
Baker rallied and formed his own quartet, re-recording some of the sides he had previously made with Mulligan, this time adding his own vocals. The 1954 release of Chet Baker Sings would massively increase his exposure and popularity, but was not well received by diehard jazz fans. Nonetheless, several more successful recordings raised his profile to iconic status, placing him at the centre of the West Coast “cool school” of jazz, alongside Art Pepper, Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Jimmy Giuffre, Shelly Manne, Russ Freeman, Bill Holman, André Previn, and, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond.
Other standout albums from this early period include, Big Band (1957), Stan Meets Chet (1958) with Stan Getz, It Could Happen To You – Chet Baker Sings (1958), In New York (1958), Chet Baker Plays The Best Of Lerner & Loewe (1959), the self-titled Chet (1959), Chet Baker Introduces Johnny Pace Accompanied By The Chet Baker Quintet (1959), and Playboys (1959) with Art Pepper.
Baker continued to win polls, was cast in the movie Hell’s Horizon, turned down an acting contract for his music, for which he was in sufficient demand to warrant a succession of European tours (one such is captured on Chet Baker In Europe: A Jazz Tour Of The Nato Countries, 1956). On his return to the US, Baker married Halema, following another whirlwind romance of six weeks. The marriage was again short-lived as he was imprisoned for possession of narcotics while on tour, a drug habit that he had found at some indiscernible point during the 1950s, and one that he would never lose.
Addiction would mostly sabotage his attempts to maintain his career during the next decade-and-a-half: he would often be without an instrument because his would be in a pawnshop, he was in an Italian prison for over a year on drugs charges, he was expelled from both West Germany and the UK, and finally deported to the US for repeat, drug-related offences. Setling in northern California, he gigged in San Jose and San Francisco to diminishing audiences when not in gaol for attempting to obtain narcotics through prescription fraud.
During this period, Baker met Carol whom he married in 1964, and was also almost beaten to death by drugs contacts in 1968. The resulting further damage to his front teeth would mean that he would have to wear dentures to play which dramatically impacted his embouchure. It would take four years before he had regained anything like his previous sound.
Maintaining himself by taking odd-jobs, but also relying on the support and companionship of friend Diant Vavra, Baker would continue recording, but much less often, and play in public, but very little. An album noted from this period is the much maligned Blood, Chet And Tears, recorded for Verve in 1970, on which Baker attempts to emulate the funk of Herb Alpert, with varying degrees of success.
It might be obvious to assume that quality of his playing and improvisation never recovered after his beating, and as a victim of his drug dependency, but there are some remarkable recordings since then. His fellow musicians even went as far to remark that his playing improved when using drugs,
Like it or not, Chet played his best when he was full of good shit. After “the guy” came, I remember there being a ferocity and a joy to the music, and Chet’s playing was unbelievable. Chorus after chorus, he would just keep blowing.
A perhaps prudent few-year gap in recording followed, until Baker has further repaired his playing. Returning to New York in 1973, he met and started a relationship with jazz singer Ruth Young. It was a turbulent, decade-long affair that was featured as part of the Oscar-nominated 1988 documentary about Baker’s life, Let’s Get Lost.
The start of their relationship coincided with a turning point: Baker returned to the studio, with, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, Steve Gadd, Hubert Laws and Paul Desmond, for a session recorded by Rudy Van Gelder and produced by Creed Taylor, resulting in the album She Was Too Good To Me (1974). More significantly, Baker performed again with Gerry Mulligan, a repertoire that of course included the now classic ‘My Funny Valentine’, captured on the two-volume Chet Baker / Gerry Mulligan Carnegie Hall Concert (1974).
Baker seemed to have rediscovered himself, even considering it an improvement on their original outing,
They’re nice, these records with Mulligan. There’s no doubt about it. We created a new sound that was popular with a broad public. But the records after 1974 have greater value, much more depth.
The problem now arises for the completist collector, that from then on until his death, despite recording and performing extensively, Baker would predominantly tour Europe, often accompanied by Ruth Young, forming groups with renowned musicians, such as Philip Catherine, but making records for mainly obscure or rare European labels. Some recordings were made in the US, and he would return annually to perform.
He would also tour with Stan Getz, an uncomfortable relationship for the reformed addict, whereas, “Baker missed half of the dates and tried to get back to France quickly via Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, carrying heroin. Stan was traveling with him and was fairly freaked out by the risk involved.”
Baker found a new audience for his playing when in 1983, Elvis Costello, a longtime fan, hired him to play a solo on his song, ‘Shipbuilding’.
Highlights from the late period include, Tender Variations (1979), the soundtrack to German language film Der Windhund, with, Billy Cobham, Ron Carter, Larry Coryell and Hubert Laws; Studio Trieste (1982), with Jim Hall and Hubert Laws; and a lauded album of his final concert, recorded in Tokyo, two weeks before he died.
When he was 58 years old, Baker appears to have accidentally fallen out of an Amsterdam hotel window in the early hours of the morning on the 13th May, 1988. Heroin was found in his bloodstream, and in his room, along with cocaine. His body was sent home to California and he was buried next to his father and he was survived by his mother Vera, wife Carol and his four children.
In 1987, Baker had been inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. Other awards include, being elected to DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1989, being inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in 1991, and most recently, having had two distinct days named after him in Oklahoma and Tulsa.