Wednesday, 22 May 2013


Chesney Henry "Chet" Baker, Jr. (December 23, 1929 – May 13, 1988) was an American jazz trumpeter, flugelhornist 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 David 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 regularly before enjoying a career resurgence in the late 1970s and '80s.

A person of great anomalies and contradictions. A trumpeter of virtuosity compared favourably to Mr Miles Davis, he was mainly self-taught and played almost entirely by ear. He took no interest in jazz older than bebop, yet when he chose to sing his style and repertoire were purely traditional. He was a depressive personality, but his music is lyrically sweet and melodic. He took drugs to devastating effects, yet played with a crystalline flawlessness. His style was famously laid-back, effortless and flowing, yet his moods were violently extreme. He reputedly rarely practiced and was considered lazy by other musicians, yet his complete recorded oeuvre consists of more than 200 albums in his short 58-year-old life.


When Mr Chet Baker (1929-1988) first rose to jazz fame in the early 1950s, it seemed as though he had everything: incomparable natural talent, grace and charm, and unnervingly good looks. He was already a well-known figure on the LA jazz club scene, recording and playing in concerts with Mr Charlie Parker when he was barely out of his teens. When Mr Gerry Mulligan arrived in LA in 1952 he met Mr Baker and they started playing together, forming what became the most popular and influential quartet in West Coast jazz (with Messrs Bob Whitlock and Chico Hamilton). Mr Mulligan professed that Mr Baker was perhaps the most gifted trumpeter he'd ever played with or even heard.

But then of course there were the drugs. He probably started using heroin by the time he was 25 and was only able to intermittently break the habit. Hard drugs were part of the jazz milieu and heroin became part of the legend in the same way that in the popular imagination all writers in the 1930s and 1940s had a bottle of bourbon next to their typewriters. However, drug use among jazz musicians was no myth; Messrs Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis, and Mses Anita O'Day and Billie Holiday, were only the most talented of hundreds of jazz junkies. Mr Parker is often said to have set the example of the tormented, driven genius whose music and habits were emulated and imitated by others, and Mr Baker took up the style with a vengeance. Mr Mulligan remembered Mr Baker's life in the 1950s as one long party.

He had been born in a small town in Oklahoma, but grew up in Glendale, California, just north of LA. His parents bought him musical instruments - first a trombone, then a trumpet - and he attended public school but was never serious about formal education. He was an autodidact about most things, and musicians with whom he performed have attested that he never even knew what key he played in.

In the early 1950s the scene in LA was centred on Hollywood, Malibu, the beach scene and jam sessions. The new generation of serious actors - Messrs Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman - listening to serious jazz at little boîtes with names including The Lighthouse Café and The Haig. Dancing to swing bands was for the older crowd, who still wore tuxedos and party gowns at the flashy nightclubs around town. The hot record label for new talent was Pacific Jazz, and the music was soft and easy, light and "white", as opposed to East Coast jazz which was hard-edged, smouldering and heavy and "black". The cover of Mr Baker's Chet Baker & Crew album for Pacific in 1956 shows him and the other members of the band cruising along on a sailboat, blue sky above and blue Pacific beneath. It looks like a floating frat party for students of the University of Southern California. It can only be imagined what Messrs Thelonious Monk and Ben Webster would have thought about all this.

As a young man Mr Baker was strikingly handsome, a doppelgänger for Mr James Dean. With swept-back pompadoured hair, square jaw, cool eyes and a warm smile, he was catnip to the girls. Tall and slim, the only thing that marred his movie star looks was a missing incisor; it had been knocked out in a childhood fight, and Mr Baker never replaced it for fear it might adversely affect his playing. It didn't matter to scores of women, and he played like an angel.

In the early years when he played with Mr Charlie Parker he wore loose-fitting gabardine suits in the classic zoot suit mould, with hand-painted ties and the spread-collared "Mr B" shirts of the period. Hair slicked with brilliantine into a DA at the back, sideburns and a loose wave casually falling over his forehead, he was the picture of inner-city hip. But like every other young musician of the 1950s, he soon took up the Ivy League look of seersucker and button downs. He wore his hair short now, and took to trim khakis and Oxford cloth button-down shirts and narrow ties. He loved the casualness of sweaters, T-shirts, jeans and tennis shoes, a warm-weather blend of Ivy and surfer style.

The look worked well for the romantic ballads he loved to sing in his silk-and-smoke delivery. It was a sort of boy-next-door aura of melancholy and youthful vulnerability for females a bit too young for the show biz glitter of Messrs Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé. Mr Baker's apparently unstudied, quiet approach worked better at a college concert full of co-eds than it would have done in a Las Vegas lounge - where slick acts were the rule and pop performers wore sleek black mohair tuxedos and Chelsea boots, toupees and ruffled dress shirts.

Mr Baker could have been a film star, he could have become anything. Instead, he was a great musician who became a drug addict with mounting health concerns. As the years flew by he neglected his family, his teeth fell out, he Ping-Ponged between using heroin and methadone, but consistently used gargantuan quantities of cocaine. He rarely ate anything but junk food and completely neglected his health, and he travelled restlessly from gig to gig without ever having a home. Some think he finally committed suicide, but it appears more likely he simply slipped into a drug haze and accidently fell headfirst out of a second-storey window to the hard pavement below. To see photos of him in the last year of his life is to see a 58-year-old man who looks 80 years old.

However, in the early recorded music the gold is still there, and we can still picture him, in jeans and a loose sweater, brown shiny hair falling over his forehead as he bends forward to play a perfect series of soft notes with all the emotional intensity, warmth, and soulful love in his heart. He was one of those musicians who, in his commitment, style and reverence for the music, made us think that jazz was (is) important.

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