Chet Baker Biography

Chesney Henry Baker, 23 December 1929, Yale, Oklahoma, USA, d. 13 May 1988, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. One of the more lyrical of the early post-war trumpeters, Baker’s fragile sound epitomized the so-called ‘cool’ school of white west coast musicians who dominated the American jazz scene of the 50s.

Baker studied music while in the army, and soon after his discharge in 1951 he was playing with Charlie Parker. He gained international prominence as a member of Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet, with their dynamic reading of ‘My Funny Valentine’ becoming a notable hit. The song remained Baker’s all-time favourite and his frail ‘blue note’ vocal is one of the most distinctive recordings in the history of jazz. When the quartet disbanded in 1953 due to Mulligan’s enforced imprisonment for a drugs offence, Baker continued to build a reputation as musician, vocalist, womaniser and junkie. After another short stint with Parker and a period with Stan Getz, Baker formed his own group with pianist Russ Freeman, which proved to be hugely popular. His debut album as a solo artist was The Chet Baker Quartet, a compilation of each of his single 78s. It received rave reviews and put Baker in the first division alongside Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. That year (1953) Baker won the DownBeat reader’s poll, beating off Davis, Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. He also became something of a pin-up and arguably had as many female fans as male, just because of his stunning good looks.

Baker struggled to keep his band together for the next three years, but he was not cut out for the life of a band leader, nor was he able to withstand the pressures and temptations that fame brought him. He succumbed to drug addiction and the rest of his life was a battle against heroin dependency. Inevitably, his music frequently fell by the wayside, as did his occasional acting career. His role in the 1955 low-budget movie Hell’s Horizon pleased his female fans but made critics shudder. By 1956 he had fallen from favour. His playing had become mundane and he was deeply affected by the death of pianist Dick Twardzik from a heroin overdose. His business affairs were in a mess since he had parted with Russ Freeman, who was a great stabilizer for Baker in his early years as a performer. His continuing attempts at singing were only pleasing his fans, as most critics were appalled that he could get away with such fragile off-key interpretations of the great American songbook.

Baker relocated to Italy where he felt he would be more appreciated, but he was still plagued with marital problems and an out of control drug habit. He was imprisoned for a second time for forging prescriptions to obtain drugs and for smuggling pills from Germany into Italy. Although he recorded the credible Chet Is Back in 1962 he was eventually deported from Italy, and found himself in the only European country that would take him, England. Even then his drug problems continued and he was put in prison once again for forging doctor’s prescriptions, this time awaiting trail in Pentonville. Although he was found guilty he was simply deported again, this time to France. His time in Paris was not kind to him as he found he was cold shouldered by the jazz-loving French. Although he worked continually during these years, it was simply to feed his heroin habit. He was caught once more trying the forgery scam and was arrested and sent back to his home country in March 1964. He expected a hostile reception and he received indifference. Unable to work in New York initially, he was taken in by Tadd Dameron. This was a brief respite as Dameron was to die soon after from cancer. He gradually found work and started recording again. The improbably titled The Most Important Jazz Album Of 1964/65 was slammed by the critics and sold little.

Further troubles came when Baker was beaten up in the street and had his top row of teeth knocked out. For a year he could not touch a trumpet, and yet slowly his determination rose and he mastered the instrument with newly fitted teeth (paid for by Pacific Jazz Records owner Richard Bock). By the end of the 70s he once again relocated to Europe, and although he continued to record, his drug habit ruled his life. At the beginning of the 80s, although emaciated and grey, he was a little more in control of his life although not over his addiction. He was once again a regular visitor to international jazz venues and also made a few incursions into the rock world, guesting on Elvis Costello’s magnificent ‘Shipbuilding’. Probably his best work from this later period comes on a series of records he made for the Danish SteepleChase label with a trio that comprised Doug Raney and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. By this time his clean-cut boyish good looks had vanished beneath a mass of lines and wrinkles - fellow trumpeter Jack Sheldon, told by Baker that they were laugh-lines, remarked, ‘Nothing’s that funny!’.

In his brief prime, Baker’s silvery filigrees of sound, albeit severely restricted in tonal and emotional range, brought an unmistakable touch to many fine records; however, his lack of self-esteem rarely allowed him to assert himself or to break through the stylistic bounds imposed by exemplars such as Miles Davis. The 1988 movie, Let’s Get Lost, charts the closing years of the erratic and often tragic life of this largely unfulfilled yet remarkable musician, who died when he fell, or possibly jumped, from an Amsterdam hotel window. A commemorative plaque was erected in 1999, which would indicate an accident.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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