Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Baker, Chet (Chesney Henry Jr.)

Trumpeter Chet Bakerís leading-man looks and unquenchable addictions made him a kind of James Dean of jazz, swirled in an air of tragic romance. His soft stylings as a vocalist, combined with a cottony tone and subtle rhythmic improvisations on his horn, proved irresistible to audiences. Yet despite his brilliance, his life can be summed up as a tragic fall that began with fame and ended on the sidewalk two stories below his hotel window at age 58.

Born on December 23, 1929 in Yale, Oklahoma, Chesney Henry Baker, Jr. was a shy child with natural musical talent. His father, Chesney Sr. was a guitarist of some notoriety who played off and on in Texas-swing and hillbilly bands on stage and radio.

After moving to Glendale, California in 1940, Baker was given a trombone by his father, who loved the work of trombonist Jack Teagarden. But the bulky trombone was unmanageable for Chet, then 12 years old, and so it was traded for a trumpet. Performing with junior and high school bands, he gained a reputation for his ability to play by ear. This talent led to the rumor that Baker had never learned to read music, which would be one of many speculations hounding him throughout his life. He dropped out of high school at age 16.

At the same time, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker's modern-jazz band was doing after-hour performances at clubs in Los Angeles. Baker met Parker when he was just 17, jamming at Billy Bergís club.

Much of Bakerís legitimate musical training came when he enlisted in the Army in 1946. Playing in the 298th Army band in Berlin, he fashioned his soft tonal style. Discharged in 1948, his training continued, studying briefly in Torrence, California at El Camino College. Baker started to play club gigs at the time, but with college to pay for his meager earnings quickly ran out. He quit school in 1950, reenlisted and ended up playing in the Sixth Army Band stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco, where he performed in jam sessions at two of the West Coast's leading jazz clubs at the time, Jimboís Bop City and the upscale Black Hawk.

After being transferred to Arizona, Baker went AWOL, an event that led to his discharge from the Army for psychological reasons. From there he dove into jazz, returning to Los Angeles where he performed with former Stan Kenton tenor saxophone sideman, Vido Musso, and then with saxophonist Stan Getz.

In May of 1952, Charlie Parker invsited Baker to audition for a short gig at the Tiffany Club in LA. Under Parkerís wing, Baker recorded his first album, Inglewood Jam: Bird and Chet Live at the Trade Winds released on June 16th.

Bakerís airy phrasing seemed the perfect match for the developing era of cool jazz, ushered in on the West Coast by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, recently arrived from New York, ironically in search of a drug-free lifestyle. Baker had sat in with Mulligan on Monday nights at The Haig, a small Hollywood club on Wilshire Boulevard, and was soon invited to join Mulliganís ďpianolessĒ quartet of sax, horn, drums and bass. They enjoyed enormous success as the two bad boys of Pacific Jazz, and released a popular two-album set, The Original Quartet With Chet Baker, with a rotating cast of bassists and drummers, like Chico Hamilton. The recordings, such as "Bernie's Tune," offered 42 short, melodic tunes almost in juxtaposition to bebop; it came as no surprise that bebop enthusiasts criticized the work.

                 Chet Baker, artwork by Michael Symonds

Still, the quartet quickly found its own partisans, and enjoyed a string of sell-out gigs which lasted nine months. Bakerís rendering of "My Funny Valentine" encapsulates his irresistible appeal to audiences: his unique vocals and horn transformed a forgotten song into a cool jazz sensation, one which audiences would forever beg him to play.

The Mulligan-Baker quartet disbanded suddenly after the saxophonist was arrested on a narcotics charge. With Mulligan in prison, Baker, now a heroine user too, formed a new quartet and became an instant sensation as a lyrical trumpeter and vocalist. The Chet Baker Quartet paired him with pianist and composer, Russ Freeman and drummer Shelly Manne, who can be heard on the October, 1953 recording of "Winter Wonderland."

Performing and recording successfully with his quartet over the next few years, Baker vaulted to the top of Metronome and Down Beat Magazineís Readers Polls in 1953 and 1954, beating out the era's two top trumpeters, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. Down Beat readers also voted Baker top jazz vocalist in 1954.

Chet Bakerís West-Coast popularity took him on a different path than most jazz mainstreamers, first with the release of the album Chet Baker Sings, which included "Always Look For The Silver Lining," and "But Not For Me," and "There Will Never Be Another You." He landed an acting role in the film Hellís Horizon in 1955, but turned down a studio's offer of an acting contract. Some of his friends reasoned this decision was due to the Hollywood studios' policy in the 1950s that actors had to be clean of drugs.

Instead, Baker went to Europe, where he found narcotics easy to come by, and toured with his quartet until spring of 1956, an eight-month tour that marked the longest tour of an American jazz artist on the continent. Baker returned to the US and recorded a quartet album for Pacific Jazz in November which included "Summer Sketch," and "Love Nest." He recorded Chet Baker & Crew, an album with saxophonist Phil Urso that bent towards bebop, which included. "To Mickey's Memory." He also recorded "Picture of Health," again with Urso and tenor saxophonist Art Pepper.

He toured for a month with the Birdland All-Stars in early 1957 and ending that year at a lauded session in New York with Gerry Mulligan, which produced Reunion with Chet Baker and The Genius of Gerry Mulligan; two albums produced by the notable Richard Bock for Pacific. These two albums served as Bakerís launch pad back to Europe.

He settled in Italy in 1959, earned a firebrand reputation as a rebel with a horn, where he acted in the film Urlatori Alla Sbarra, and ended up under arrest for narcotics, serving a year and a half in prison. Ironically while in prison, he missed an offer to star in the Hollywood movie All the Fine Young Cannibals, a part which instead went to Robert Wagner. Bakerís drug habit had taken over, and for the next four years he bounced around European countries, canceling gigs due to ill health, drug busts and deportations.

Baker returned to the U.S. in 1964 and settled into an opaque backdrop of addiction. His front teeth were broken in a supposed drug-related beating. Fitted with dentures, he switched to the flugelhorn and its smoother mouthpiece. In the 1970s he began supplementing his heroine addiction with methadone, and made a halfhearted return to the jazz scene which culminated with a 1974 reunion concert with Gerry Mulligan at Carnegie Hall.

In 1977, he recorded the album You Can't Go Home Again with bassist Ron Carter, Tony Williams on drums, Kenny Barron at the piano and the equally self-destructive Paul Desmond on alto saxophone. The haunting title track is based on the slow movement of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto.

Despite his handicaps, Baker retained his compelling, moody performance style and had a consistent audience. Later based overseas, he produced a number of albums on European labels. In the last ten years of his life, he preferred playing in small clubs with trios and quartets, but managed a few concert appearances in New York, San Francisco and Tokyo for packed houses. One haunting Tokyo performance from June of 1987, less than a year before his death, is captured on the album Chet Baker in Tokyo, which includes an unforgettable version of "Stella By Starlight."

On May 13, 1988, after three failed marriages and an erratic career, Chet Baker was found dead on a sidewalk two stories below his room at an Amsterdam hotel. The autopsy revealed the presence of narcotics but concluded nothing about the cause of the fall.

Even in decline, Baker maintained his mastery of midrange improvisations, many of which have been resurrected today by an obsessive coterie of fans, who post rare live performances on YouTube and MySpace. A subject of documentaries and several books, including Bruce Weber's Let's Get Lost and an incomplete autobiography, As Though I Had Wings, he was voted into the Down Beatís Jazz Hall of Fame one year after his death.

Select Discography

Inglewood Jam: Bird and Chet Live at the Trade Winds, Verve, 1952

Gerry Mulligan: The Original Quartet With Chet Baker, Pacific Jazz, 1952

Chet Baker Quartet with Russ Freeman, Pacific Jazz, 1953

Chet Baker & Crew, World Pacific, 1956

Gerry Mulligan Quartet Reunion with Chet Baker, Pacific Jazz, 1957

You Canít Go Home Again, A & M Horizon, 1977

Contributor: Dave Krikorian