Chet Baker - Biography



When Elvis Costello went to see trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker at a London club in the summer of 1983, he found him to be in wonderful playing form and somehow able to ignore the boozy calls of a few drunks punctuating his performances. Introducing himself to Baker between sets, Costello asked if he was free to come to a recording session the next day. He was, and so Baker arrived at Air Studios and laid down the trumpet part for “Shipbuilding.” The trumpeter asked only union scale for the date; Costello remembers paying double scale. As Costello noted in a re-issue of Punch The Clock (1983/2001 Rhino), Baker “played beautifully even if he looks pretty deathly in the studio photos.”

Image was always important to Chet Baker. He capitalized on his soft handsomeness in the Fifties and made a generation of hip sophisticates swoon. His West Coast “cool” sound on trumpet, an intimate approach to the horn indebted to the example of Miles Davis, was described by Ralph Gleason as “soft but determined.” His detached-sounding vocals were like a “little boy lost,” producer Orrin Keepnews’ said of his description. Together with his looks, they combined to create a romantic image sealed by William Claxton’s classic photos of the moody star-to-be. A career built on glamour, though, seldom lasts, and a lifetime of drug addiction, hard living on the road, and general neglect made him appear much older than his years. That’s the Baker that Costello met in 1983, paradoxically playing as well as he ever had, but looking like a man just steps from his end.

Chesney Henry "Chet" Baker Jr. had come a long way since his birth on December 23, 1929 in Yale, Oklahoma. His father, a guitarist performing with country bands, encouraged his son musically. As a child, Baker sang in a church choir. After the family moved to Glendale, California, in 1940, his father bought him a trombone to learn. When the large horn proved to be more than the twelve-year-old could handle, he switched to the trumpet. He had his first formal music training at Glendale High. The instrument came very naturally to him, and his uncanny ear allowed him to play nearly anything after hearing it once. By 1946, Baker was ready to quit school. He joined the Army, facilitated by his parents who had to sign the papers for their underage son. His posting was in Berlin. Like many other musicians in the second half of the 20th century, he played in the Army band. At the end of two years of service, he returned to Los Angeles, where he studied theory and harmony at El Camino College. But that couldn’t hold him long, and he re-enlisted in 1950. This time he was stationed in San Francisco’s Presidio. He became a member of the Sixth Army Band, sitting in whenever he could at clubs like Bop City and the Black Hawk. He soon obtained a second discharge from the service to became a professional musician.

His first major gigs were with saxophonists Vido Musso and Stan Getz, but his star rose quickly when Charlie Parker chose him at an audition to play on a number of West Coast dates in 1952. That summer, he joined a quartet led by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. The piano-less group attracted attention in Los Angeles with a long run at the Haig nightclub, and well-received recordings on two small independent labels, Pacific Jazz and Fantasy. A darkly lyrical version of “My Funny Valentine” became a hit, and the tune remained prominent in his repertoire for the rest of his career.

The Mulligan quartet lasted only about a year, disbanding when Mulligan was sent to jail on drug charges in the summer of 1953. During the six months that the saxophonist was confined to the Sheriff's Honor Farm, Baker organized his own quartet, which initially included Russ Freeman on piano, Red Mitchell on bass, and Bobby White on drums. Baker spent the rest of 1953 gigging and recording for Pacific Jazz with the quartet, playing trumpet and, starting that October, singing as well. In November, he brought his quartet, now with pianist Jimmy Rowles, bassist Carson Smith, and drummer Shelly Manne, to the University of Oregon to back Charlie Parker (three songs were issued on Birth Of The Bebop [1986 Stash]). By the time Mulligan was released and tried to reform his quartet, Baker had become well known on his own and declined the invitation, citing financial reasons. The pair would reunite occasionally over the decades to come, including a prominent appearance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival.

Baker got his first taste of Europe during an extended sojourn in 1955 and 1956. Promising young pianist Dick Twardzick started the tour with Baker, but died of a drug overdose in Paris in October, 1955. Baker had his own problems with heroin at this point, and the negative examples of Twardzick and Charlie Parker (who had died the previous March) did little or nothing to deter Baker from a lifelong involvement with drugs and scrapes with the law.

Back in Los Angeles in the summer of 1956, Baker began to move in a more bop-oriented direction. A number of  Pacific Jazz recordings by a new quintet, a big band, and a sextet co-led by alto saxophonist Art Pepper followed in 1956. By the end of the year, Baker was in New York, where he made a flurry of recordings in December, including a reunion with Mulligan, a date with Mulligan backing singer Annie Ross, and his own date, which went largely unissued at the time. Baker still owed four albums on his contract with Richard Bock’s Pacific Jazz when Bock allowed Baker to move to another independent, Riverside Records in 1959. As producer and co-owner Orrin Keepnews describes it, Riverside agreed to credit Pacific Jazz on the cover and to make Baker understand that the New York label was now responsible for payments. Keepnews goes on to note that before long, the needy Baker “had achieved the distinction of forcing me to...an unlisted number.”

Baker’s four Riverside albums (Chet Baker Sings It Could Happen To You [1958], In New York [1958], Chet [1959], and Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Loewe [1959]) are notable for their hard bop orientation and Baker’s solid performances with bands comprised of New York’s finest, men like saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Zoot Sims, pianist Bill Evans, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. 

Baker returned to Europe in the late summer of 1959, settling in Italy and appearing in the film Urlatori Alla Sbarra in addition to continued touring. Arrested in Italy for drugs and sentenced to a jail term, nothing changed after his release in 1962. He continued to tour and record, and he continued to be an addict. Chet Is Back  was made with a pan-European sextet that included saxophonist Bobby Jaspar, guitarist René Thomas, and drummer Daniel Humair (reissued as The Italian Sessions [1996 RCA Victor]). After another few months of European concertizing, Baker returned to the States in the spring of 1964. A series of recording sessions in New York in 1965 for various labels found Baker playing exclusively on flugelhorn. An intense three days in August fronting a hard-driving quintet with tenor saxophonist George Coleman  resulted in no fewer than five albums on Prestige (reissued on three CDs as Stairway To the Stars, On A Misty Night and Lonely Star, all 1996  Prestige).

Baker hit bottom in the Sixties, returning to Los Angeles late in 1965 to make a series of albums playing pop songs with nameless ensembles like the Mariachi Brass and the Carmel Strings. Things fell apart when he was beaten by drug dealers in July 1966, causing severe dental problems. A struggling Baker quit music altogether by the end of the decade, and at the age of 39, it appeared that his musical career was over. Except that it wasn’t. After being fit with dentures, in a display of will he undertook a regimen of practice that surprised many of his associates and pulled himself back into playing shape by 1973. With the assistance of fellow brassman Dizzy Gillespie, Baker secured a gig at the Half Note in New York that fall and re-established himself on the jazz scene. One highlight of this period was a 1974 reunion with Gerry Mulligan in performance at Carnegie Hall. Baker played around New York until the spring of 1975, when he went back to Europe to continue his peripatetic life. Essentially a homeless man, he lived out of a suitcase, continually traveling. His career became an endless round of one-nighters, often with pick-up bands, and recording sessions for any label that would pay him. With Baker’s playing ability an open question on any given appearance, the voluminous discography of his last few years is daunting to even the deepest of his fans. Notable amidst the onslaught of albums are the quintet date Once Upon A Summertime (1978 Artists House), a series of trio releases with guitarist Jimmy Raney and bassist Niels Henning Ørsted-Pedersen for Steeplechase Records, duo and trio collaborations with guitarist Philip Catherine, and the two volumes of My Favorite Songs (1988 Enja), recorded in concert with alto saxophonist Herb Geller, the NDR-Big Band and the Hannover Radio Orchestra on April 28, 1988.

Just a couple of weeks later, on May 13, 1988, Baker was found in the street, dead with serious wounds to his head after a fall from his second-story hotel window in Amsterdam. Drugs were found at the scene, and in Baker’s body, but there were no signs of a struggle. The death was ruled an accident, although James Gavin, author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, believes that all the evidence points to suicide. Gavin’s book, filled with details of Baker’s usually less than honorable behavior towards everyone in his life, makes for fascinatingly sordid reading, particularly in light of the contrast between Baker’s often beautiful playing and his stereotypical junkie ways. As Gavin put it in an interview, “The paradox that fascinated me and a lot of people was, how could so much beauty come out of so much ugliness?”

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