Chet Baker (December 23, 1929 — May 13, 1988)
was a famous American jazz trumpeter
and vocalist. He is best known for his silky, fragile vocal work and tristesse
instrumental style. Though a truly gifted artist, there is little doubt that his disarming personal charisma
contributed to his international popularity during the heyday of jazz in the 1950s and 60s. His loose, almost effortless mastery of the horn sometimes came across as carelessness, if one can judge by the sheer volume of "throwaway" recordings he cut during his career. Even so, Baker lived his life and played his music in a way that appealed to his own personal sense of timing and taste. He is justly regarded as one of jazz
's great performers.
Born Chesney Henry Baker, Jr. in Yale, Oklahoma, his father was a semi-professional guitarist in a number of local Country and Western bands. After moving his family to Glendale, California in 1940, Chesney Sr. began to encourage his son to pursue an interest in music. His mother started taking him to amateur contests held around Los Angeles on Sunday afternoons, and he exhibited a modest talent for performing. "I never won," he remarked in an interview, "but I came in second once. Even at that time I was singing the current ballads." His father bought him a trumpet when he turned 13, and Baker started taking lessons at Glendale Jr. High School. His training was impeded by an abiding inclination to play by ear rather than by the written music.
"As l rely one hundred percent on the ear, I react strongly to everything that goes on around me. The conditions that I've had while learning to play do not exist anymore. I feel like I belong to a species, threatened by destruction. Sad, in a way, but that's what they call progress, isn't it?"
Baker joined the marching band
when he got to high school and played in a dance band at night, but this was not enough to satiate his growing restlessness. He dropped out of high school in 1946 and joined the Army (lying about his age in order to do so). After being stationed in Berlin
as a clerk, he began playing trumpet with the 298th Army Band, and got his first exposure to jazz via the Armed Forces Radio Network
. Jazz greats Stan Kenton
and Dizzy Gillespie were among his earliest influences.
Following his discharge from the service in 1948, Baker returned to Los Angeles and began pursuing a degree in music at El Camino College. He spent most of his time hanging out in clubs, jamming with local bands and going to concerts of up-and-coming trumpeters like Miles Davis, Red Rodney and Fats Navarro. Perhaps deciding once again that school was not his gig, Baker reenlisted in the Army in 1950 and joined the Presidio Army Band in San Francisco. There he spent all his free time as a session player in clubs like like Bop City and The Blackhawk. His introduction to famous alto sax players Charlie Parker and Paul Desmond occurred during this period. The following year he was transferred to Fort Huachuca in Arizona. Though still playing with an Army band, he found that life in the desert was a far cry from his familiar habits, and he went AWOL after only a few months. He eventually reported back to military police, where upon he was subjected to a psychological evaluation and discharged after being declared unfit for military service.
Moving back to L.A., Baker picked up where he'd left off, jamming with locals at the Trade Winds Club and The Haig, where he was part of some historic Pacific Jazz recording sessions. He married his girlfriend, who worked as a dress maker, and settled in Lynwood. Baker got his first "big break" in 1952, when he heard that Charlie Parker was holding an audition for trumpet players at the Tiffany Club. He showed up to find that "every trumpet player in L.A. was there," and after playing just two songs, Bird stopped the audition and hired him for a brief series of gigs on the West Coast and in Canada. Baker's affection for Parker is a subject that he was always happy to discuss in interviews.
"Bird was certainly a very strong influence on me. He was a very nice man. He protected me any way he could. He didn't have a car, so I used to drive him around to places. He drank a lot of Hennessey and did some other things too, but he did not try to give me anything or even let anyone else give me anything in terms of drugs. He was very protective of me, and he was great at trying to secure a few more bucks for the rhythm section than what the contract called for."
Recreational drug use became part and parcel of the growing underground
music scene during the late 1940s, and while Parker's influence on Baker may have been a guiding one, it was certainly not very lasting. Baker started out smoking reefer
from time to time, but would later develop a serious narcotic
s habit. It was hard to avoid — among his circle of friends and colleagues, the stuff was everywhere — an occupational hazard
Baker's tour with Parker led him to a gig with Gerry Mulligan's famous pianoless quartet later that summer. Baker's personal relationship with Mulligan was often tempestuous, but the musical chemistry they created on stage together was magical. They played to capacity crowds at The Haig until June of 1953, when Mulligan had to do a 90-day sentence for drug possession. Disagreements over salaries led to Mulligan's departure as leader of the group after his release, and Baker brought Russ Freeman and his piano in to create The Chet Baker Quartet, which started touring the States in March of 1954. The new group quickly captured the attention of music critics and the record-buying public.
Given Baker's tendency to avoid conflicts and his general carelessness with finances, his quartet split up in the summer of 1955. Undaunted, Baker assembled a new group and set off for Europe on a tour that would last nearly eight months. While this was the most extensive European tour ever conducted by an American jazz musician, its success was fraught with setbacks, including the overdose death of his pianist, Dick Twardzik.
Upon returning to the States the following spring, Baker formed a different group and began recording again for Pacific Jazz and Riverside Records. His sound began to follow the current neo-bop trend, and the quartet stayed busy both on the stage and in the studio. His burgeoning drug habit finally caught up with him, however, and he was busted several times resulting in numerous incarcerations, including a four month stint at Rikers Island. After reentering society in 1959 without his Cabaret Card privileges (which permitted performers to legally work in establishments that served alcohol), he decided to return to Europe.
The next four and a half years were one of the bleakest periods in Baker's life. He started working as a solo artist in Italy, and spent time in their prisons and hospitals as well. While his publicity dwindled to little more than nasty rumors and unflattering portrayals in popular trade magazines, Baker never saw himself as the sad, romantic outlaw and misfit that his public image had become through the eyes of the press. In spite of his ups and downs, being ripped off and cheated, and a poorly managed heroin addiction, he maintained a very realistic attitude about his situation and rarely let his misfortunes affect his kindness towards and trust of others.
Baker got married again in 1960, this time to an English show-dancer named Carol Jackson, and their son Dean was born on Christmas Day in 1962. His extended European tour came to a close in 1964 when he was deported back to the United States by German authorities. He took up playing the flugelhorn after his trumpet was stolen overseas, and finding that Rock and Roll music was taking over, work for a jazz player was now hard to come by. After getting swindled by his manager in New York, Baker moved to San Francisco with his family and started recording albums of commercial music for the World Pacific label. He also made several recordings for Pacific Jazz and Verve in the late Sixties, but they were disappointing and uninspired, with poor arrangements and often set to rock tempos.
One evening in August of 1966 while trying to score heroin on the street, Baker was assaulted by several thugs who beat him severely and kicked his teeth out. If he were a keyboard player, this would be akin to getting all of his fingers broken. He was unable to play at all for several years, and started actively controlling his drug addiction with methadone. Gradually, he learned to play again with dentures, but made very few records during this period, and eventually gave up music completely in 1970, living on welfare with his wife and now three children.
In 1973, Baker picked up the trumpet again, and a chance encounter with Dizzy Gillespie during a visit to Denver led to a three week gig at New York's legendary Half Note. It was the start of his comeback, but as working opportunities were still limited in the States, he decided to return to Europe again in the summer of 1975. Baker spent most of his remaining years there, constantly on the road performing or in the studio. Never forgotten overseas, his popularity saw a resurgence, as his music now projected more beauty, passion and emotion than it ever had before. His style was different this time around, and his work displayed greater range and authority. He returned to the US every once in a while to visit his family in Oklahoma or to record or perform a few gigs. He was still married to Carol, but rarely saw her or his children.
Photographer and film director Bruce Weber began working on a musical documentary of Baker's life in 1987 entitled Let's Get Lost. A hauntingly beautiful cinematic biography, it attempts to romanticize Baker's rollercoaster life of jazz, drugs and sex. Unfortunately, the numerous interviews with Baker, his mother, wife, girlfriends and fellow musicians tend to run rather long, and end up painting a portrait of the artist that is somewhat less flattering than the director obviously intended. Still, it is the final glimpse that most of us will ever have of Chet Baker.
"I play every set as if it were the final one. It has been like this for years. I don't have too much time left, and it's important to show the musicians I'm playing with — more than anybody else — that I give everything I've got in me. And that I expect them to do the same. Music comes from within, and it happens thanks to the musicians I'm playing with. I love to play, and I think that's the only reason I've been brought into the world."
Early one May morning in 1988, Baker fell from his hotel room balcony in Amsterdam
. The circumstances surrounding the incident remain in question, but a police investigation ruled the tragedy an accident. He landed on his face and broke his neck, ending his life at the age of 58. He is buried beside his father, Chesney Sr., in Inglewood Park Cemetary in Inglewood, California
A complete discography of Baker's work is much too lengthy to list here, as it contains over 200 albums, both on LP and CD. A respectable catalog of his work can be found on the web at http://www.chetbaker.net/ which includes nearly every record label release through April 1988.
I found a great deal of conflicting information while researching this writeup, including discrepancies regarding dates, lengths of time, and a curious item suggesting that Baker originally started playing trombone, switching to trumpet when he joined the military. If you have information from a reliable source that contradicts stated facts in this writeup, please message me. Thank you.
Sjøgren, Thorbjørn. Chet: The Music of Chesney Henry Baker. Jazzmedia APS, Copenhagen 1993.
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