Chet Baker PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 21 October 2008 10:57

 Chet Baker

Chesney Henry "Chet" Baker Jr.

Born: December 1929, Yale, Oklahoma, 23

Died: 13 May 1988 Amsterdam

Age: 58

Cause of death: Accidental death falling out of Hotel window, possibly suicide.

Notable because: Possessed with so many opportunities, looks, geography and talent his life was consumed by drugs. Appears on the Elvis Costello track 'Shipbuilding.' Died with Heroin and cocaine in his bloodstream.


Baker rose to prominence as a leading name in cool jazz in the 1950s. Baker's good looks and smoldering, intimate singing voice established him as a promising name in pop music as well. But his success was badly hampered by drug addiction, particularly in the 1960s, when he was imprisoned.

He mounted a successful comeback in the '70s, but died in 1988 after falling from a hotel window.

Baker was born and raised in a musical household in Yale, Oklahoma; his father was a professional guitar player. Baker began his musical career singing in a church choir. His father introduced him to brass instruments with a trombone, which was replaced with a trumpet when the trombone proved too large for him.

Baker received some musical education at Glendale Junior High School, but left school at age 16 in 1946 to join the United States Army. He was posted to Berlin where he joined the 298th Army band. Leaving the army in 1948, he studied theory and harmony at El Camino College in Los Angeles. He dropped out in his second year, and re-enlisted in the army in 1950. Baker once again obtained a discharge from the army to pursue a career as a professional musician. Baker became a member of the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco, but was soon spending time in San Francisco jazz clubs such as Bop City and the Black Hawk.

Baker's earliest notable professional gigs were with saxophonist Vido Musso's band, and also with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, though he earned much more renown in 1951 when he was chosen by Charlie Parker to play with him for a series of West Coast engagements.

In 1952, Baker joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, which was an instant phenomenon. Several things made the Mulligan/Baker group special, the most prominent being the interplay between Mulligan's baritone sax and Baker's trumpet. Rather than playing identical melody lines in unison like bebop giants Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the two would complement each other's playing with contrapuntal touches, and it often seemed as if they had telepathy in anticipating what the other was going to play next. The Quartet's version of "My Funny Valentine", featuring a memorable Baker solo, was a major hit, and became a song with which Baker was intimately associated.

The Quartet found success quickly, but lasted less than a year because of Mulligan's arrest and imprisonment on drug charges. In 1954, Baker won the Downbeat Jazz Poll. Baker formed a quartet with Russ Freeman in 1953-54 with bassists like Carson Smith, Joe Mondragon, and Jimmy Bond and drummers like Shelly Manne, Larry Bunker, and Bob Neel. The quartet was successful in their three live sets in 1954. The first set was at Ann Arbor in Michigan, and the other two in Los Angeles. In some songs in the set, Baker not only played trumpet, but also "boobams", a set of little tuned drums made from bamboo wood. These were also used in some of his early studio recordings played by one of his percussionists. They were used until he retired them in late 1956. The final album which the novelty drums were used was Chet Baker and the Crew. Over the next few years, Baker fronted his own combos, including a 1955 quintet featuring Francy Boland, where Baker combined playing trumpet and singing. He became an icon of the West Coast "cool school" of jazz, helped by his good looks and singing talent.

A heroin user since the 1950s, the effects of drug addiction eventually caught up with Baker, and his promising musical career declined as a result. Baker would constantly pawn his instruments, for money to maintain his drug habit. In the early 1960s, he served more than a year in prison in Italy on drugs charges, and was later expelled from both West Germany and England for drug-related offenses. Baker was eventually deported from West Germany to the United States after running afoul of the law there a second time. He settled in Milpitas in northern California where he was active in San Jose and San Francisco between short jail terms served for prescription fraud.

In 1966, Baker was severely beaten (allegedly while attempting to buy drugs) after a gig in San Francisco, sustaining severe cuts on the lips and broken front teeth, which ruined his embouchure. Accounts of the incident vary, largely because of Baker's lack of reliable testimony on the matter. It has also been suggested that the story is a fabrication altogether, and that Baker's teeth had just rotted due to heavy substance abuse -- two missing teeth can be clearly seen in a 1964 performance in Belgium (on Chet Baker: Live in '64 and '79), suggesting this is indeed the case. From that time he had to learn to play with dentures.

Between 1966 and 1974, Baker mostly played flugelhorn and recorded music that could mostly be classified as early smooth jazz or mood music.

After developing a new embouchure due to his dentures, Baker returned to the straight-ahead jazz that began his career, relocating to New York City and began performing and recording again, notably with guitarist Jim Hall. Later in the seventies, Baker returned to Europe where he was assisted by his friend Diane Vavra who took care of his personal needs and otherwise helped him during his recording and performance dates.

From 1978 onwards, Baker resided and played almost exclusively in Europe, returning to the USA roughly once per year for a few performance dates.

Between 1978 and 1988, Baker recorded more than ever before in his life; however, as his extensive output is strewn across numerous, mostly small European labels, none of these recordings ever reached a wider audience, even though many of them were well-received by the critics, who maintain that this was probably Baker's most mature and most rewarding phase. Of particular importance are Baker's quartet featuring the pianist Phil Markowitz (1978-80) and his trio with guitarist Philip Catherine and bassist Jean-Louis Rassinfosse (1983-85).

In 1983, British singer Elvis Costello, a longtime fan of Baker, hired the trumpeter to play a solo on his song "Shipbuilding", from the album Punch the Clock. The song was a top 40 hit in the UK, and exposed a new audience to Baker's music. Later, Baker would often feature Costello's song "Almost Blue" (inspired by Baker's version of "The Thrill Is Gone") in his live sets, and recorded the song on Let's Get Lost.

The video material recorded by Japanese television during Baker's 1987 tour in Japan showed a man whose face looked much older than he was; however, his trumpet playing was more alert, lively and inspired than ever before. Fans and critics alike agree that the live album Chet Baker in Tokyo, recorded less than a year before his death and released posthumously, ranks among Baker's very best.

At about 3:00 am on Friday May 13, 1988, Baker was found dead on a street below his second-story room at the Prins Hendrik Hotel in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with serious wounds to his head. Heroin and cocaine were found in his hotel room, and an autopsy also found these drugs in his body. There was no evidence of a struggle, and the death was ruled an accident. However, the lack of witnesses has fueled subsequent unsubstantiated rumors, including some suggesting that Baker was murdered or committed suicide.

Baker's body was brought home for interment in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. A plaque outside the hotel now memorializes him.

Jeroen de Valk has written a biography of Baker which is available in several languages: Chet Baker: His Life and Music is the English translation, Chet Baker: Herinneringen aan een lyrisch trompettist (remembrance of a lyrical trumpet player) is the Dutch edition (updated and expanded in 2007), and it is also published in Japan and Germany. James Gavin has also written a biography: Deep In A Dream — The Long Night of Chet Baker.

Chet's own "lost memoirs" are available in the book As Though I Had Wings, which includes an introduction by Carol Baker.

One of the chapters in Geoff Dyer's book But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz deals with Baker. It should be noted, however, that Dyer's account is largely fictitious and treats certain facets of Baker's life very liberally.

Baker was immortalized by the photographer William Claxton in 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 lovers, interspersed with film from Baker's earlier life, and with interviews with Baker from his last years.

Time after Time: The Chet Baker Project, written by playwright James O'Reilly, toured Canada in 2001 to much acclaim.

The musical play Chet Baker - Speedball explores aspects of his life and music, and was premiered in London at the Oval House Theatre in February 2007, with further development of the script and performances leading to its revival at the 606 Club in the London Jazz Festival of November 2007.

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, and claiming to be a new take on the life of "the legendary trumpeter whose heroin addiction contributed to his (reported) suicide in 1988," was planned for release in 2008. Josh Hartnett was in talks to star in the film but dropped out after several disagreements with the producers. Plans for the film have been canceled as of January 2008.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 December 2008 16:14

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