Chesney Henry „Chet” Baker Jr. (December 23, 1929 – May 13, 1988) was an American jazz trumpeter and vocalist.
Baker earned much attention and critical praise through the 1950s, particularly for albums featuring his vocals (Chet Baker Sings, It Could Happen to You). Jazz historian Dave Gelly described the promise of Baker’s early career as „James Dean, Sinatra, and Bix, rolled into one.” His well-publicized drug habit also drove his notoriety and fame. Baker was in and out of jail frequently before enjoying a career resurgence in the late 1970s and ’80s.
Chet Baker – trumpet…. Amedeo Tommasi – piano…. Benoit Quersin – bass…. Daniel Humair – drums…. René Thomas – guitar…. Bobby Jaspar – tenor saxophone, flute…. „Well, You Needn’t” – 6:23
„These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” – 4:56
„Over the Rainbow” – 3:30
„Pent-Up House” – 6:51
„Ballata in forma di blues” – 10:06
„Blues In the Closet” – 7:41
Recorded – January 5–15, 1962, RCA Italiana Studios, Rome, Italy.
Baker was born and raised in a musical household in Yale, Oklahoma. His father, Chesney Baker Sr., was a professional guitarist, and his mother, Vera Moser, was a pianist who worked in a perfume factory. His maternal grandmother, Randi Those, was Norwegian. Baker notes that due to the Great Depression, his father, though talented, had to quit as a musician and take a regular job.
Baker began his musical career singing in a church choir. His father gave him a trombone, which was replaced with a trumpet when the trombone proved too large. His mother notes that he had begun to memorize tunes on the radio before he was given an instrument. After „falling in love” with the trumpet, he improved noticeably in two weeks. Peers called Baker a natural musician to whom playing came effortlessly.
Baker received some musical education at Glendale Junior High School, but he left school at the age of 16 in 1946 to join the United States Army. He was assigned to Berlin, Germany, where he joined the 298th Army band. After leaving the Army in 1948, he studied music theory and harmony at El Camino Collegein Los Angeles. He dropped out during his second year to re-enlist. He became a member of the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco, spending time in clubs such as Bop City and the Black Hawk. He was discharged from the Army in 1951 and proceeded to pursue a career in music.[10
In 1952, Baker joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Rather than playing identical melody lines in unison like Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Baker and Mulligan complemented each other with counterpoint and anticipating what the other would play next. „My Funny Valentine„, with a solo by Baker, became a hit and would be associated with Baker for the rest of his career. With the Quartet, Baker was a regular performer at Los Angeles jazz clubs such as The Haig and the Tiffany Club.
Within a year, Mulligan was arrested and imprisoned on drug charges. Baker formed a quartet with a rotation that included pianist Russ Freeman, bassists Bob Whitlock, Carson Smith, Joe Mondragon, and Jimmy Bond, and drummers Larry Bunker, Bob Neel, and Shelly Manne. Baker’s quartet released popular albums between 1953 and 1956. Baker won reader’s polls at Metronome and Down Beat magazine, beating trumpeters Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. In 1954, readers named Baker the top jazz vocalist. In 1956, Pacific Jazz Records released Chet Baker Sings, an album that increased his visibility and drew criticism. Nevertheless, Baker sang throughout the rest of his career.
Hollywood studios saw an opportunity in Baker’s chiseled features. He made his acting debut in the film Hell’s Horizon, released in the fall of 1955. He declined a studio contract, preferring life on the road as a musician. Over the next few years, Baker led his own combos, including a 1955 quintet with Francy Boland, where Baker combined playing trumpet and singing. In 1956 he completed an eight-month tour of Europe, where he recorded Chet Baker in Europe.
He became an icon of West coast jazz, helped by his good looks and singing talent. One of Baker’s 1956 recordings, released for the first time in its entirety in 1989 as The Route, with Art Pepper, helped further the West Coast jazz sound and became a staple of cool jazz.
In late 1959 he returned to Europe, recording in Italy what would become known as the Milano Sessions with arranger and conductor Ezio Leoni (aka Len Mercer) and his orchestra. Baker was arrested for drug possession and jailed in Pisa, forcing Leoni to communicate through the prison warden to coordinate arrangements with Baker as they prepared for recording.
Drug addiction and decline
Baker often said he began using heroin in 1957. Author Jeroen de Valk and pianist Russ Freeman say that Baker started heroin in the early 1950s. Freeman was Baker’s musical director after Baker left the Mulligan quartet. Sometimes Baker pawned his instruments to buy drugs. During the 1960s, he was imprisoned in Italy on drug charges and was expelled from Germany and the U.K. on drug-related offenses. He was deported to the U.S. from Germany for getting into trouble with the law a second time. He settled in Milpitas, California, performing in San Francisco and San Jose between jail terms for prescription fraud.
In 1966, Baker was beaten, allegedly while attempting to buy drugs, after performing at The Trident restaurant in Sausalito. He received cuts, and possibly broken teeth, which ruined his embouchure and made it difficult to play the trumpet. In the film Let’s Get Lost, Baker said an acquaintance attempted to rob him but backed off, only to return the next night with a group of men who chased him. He entered a car and became surrounded. Instead of rescuing him, the people inside the car pushed him back out onto the street, where the chase continued. His teeth were knocked out, leaving him unable to play trumpet. He worked at a gas station until concluding that he had to find a way back to music. He was fitted for dentures and worked on his embouchure. Three months later he got a job in New York City.
During most of the ’60s, Baker played flugelhorn and recorded music that could be classified as West Coast jazz.
Baker was photographed by William Claxton for his book Young Chet: The Young Chet Baker. An Academy Award-nominated 1988 documentary about Baker, Let’s Get Lost, portrays him as a cultural icon of the 1950s, but juxtaposes this with his later image as a drug addict. The film, directed by fashion photographer Bruce Weber, was shot in black-and-white and includes a series of interviews with friends, family (including his three children by third wife Carol Baker), associates and women friends, interspersed with film from Baker’s earlier life, and with interviews with Baker from his last years. In Chet Baker, His Life and Music, author De Valk and others criticize the film for presenting Baker as a washed-up musician in his later years. The film was shot during a few weeks in the first half of 1987 and ignores later highlights such as the Japanese concert.
Time after Time: The Chet Baker Project, written by playwright James O’Reilly, toured Canada in 2001 to much acclaim.
Baker was reportedly the inspiration for the character Chad Bixby, played by Robert Wagner in the 1960 film All the Fine Young Cannibals. Another film, to be titled Prince of Cool, about Baker’s life, was cancelled as of January 2008.
In 1991, singer-songwriter David Wilcox recorded the song „Chet Baker’s Unsung Swan Song” on his album Home Again, speculating on what might have been Baker’s last thoughts before falling to his death.
Jeroen de Valk has written a biography of Baker: Chet Baker: His Life and Music is the English translation. Other biographies include James Gavin’s Deep in a Dream—The Long Night of Chet Baker, and Matthew Ruddick’s Funny Valentine. Baker’s „lost memoirs” are available in the book As Though I Had Wings, which includes an introduction by Carol Baker.
He is portrayed by Ethan Hawke in the 2015 film Born to Be Blue. It is a reimagining of Baker’s career in the late 1960s, when he is famous for both his music and his addiction, and he takes part in a movie about his life to boost his career.
1. All Blues
2. My Funny Valentine
3. Well You Needn’t
5. In Your Own Sweet Way
7. I Fall In Love Too Easily
This 1988 concert turned out to be Chet Baker’s swan song, because he died just two weeks after this performance, after a still-unexplained fall from a hotel balcony. Baker is alternately heard with either the NDR Big Band, the Radio Orchestra Hannover, or a small group, sticking mostly to standards and classic jazz compositions. Baker, who could be very inconsistent during the period after his teeth were knocked out in a brawl, is in top form throughout this evening. Baker’s understated, haunting playing of „All Blues” has a special poignancy. He opens the evening with „My Funny Valentine” backed solely by guitar, with a delayed entrance by pianist Walter Norris (with whom he last played three decades earlier) and the 43-piece orchestra; his vocals quaver a bit but are quite sincere. Baker seems energized by the snappy chart of „Well, You Needn’t,” which features another old friend from his West Coast days, alto saxophonist Herb Geller. The leader is joined by a four-piece rhythm section anchored by Norris for an easygoing jaunt through Dave Brubeck’s „In Your Own Sweet Way.” The big band is again on-hand for the richly textured arrangement of John Lewis’ „Django,” with Baker making every note count. Baker basks in the upbeat return visit to „Look for the Silver Lining,” which he first recorded during his heyday with Pacific Jazz. His vocals take on a special meaning in the melancholy ballad „I Get Along Without You Very Well.” Geller and Norris are perfect foils for the trumpeter in the rapid-fire rendition of George Shearing’s „Conception.” Geller and Baker mix it up in the inspired workout of „Sippin’ at Bells.” To wrap the show, Baker reprises „My Funny Valentine,” again playing trumpet then singing, with Norris and bassist Lucas Lindholm as his sole accompanists. Originally issued on two separate discs by Enja in 1988, this reissue combines both volumes in one very affordable set. This concert is definitely one of the best recordings of the last decade of Chet Baker’s career; in any case, it should be considered an essential purchase. Release Date June 22, 2004 Recording DateApril 28, 1988