Not many people came to Chet Baker‘s funeral at the cemetery near LAX. The thrill was gone. That funny valentine with the smooth, softly smoked voice, and the sad, sad sound of his trumpet had moved on to the big gig in the beyond. The music and the life don’t fit. No matter which version of his life story you believe, the gap between what sings and plays and the facts in his tale, sinks a hole in my heart.
Leaving the funeral, his wife warned: “Chet can hurt people even after he’s dead. Remember that.”
Chesney Henry Baker, Jr. was a trumpet player and singer with matinee idol good-looks, known for his emotionally remote performances, and a well-publicized drug habit.
Born in small town Oklahoma, Baker moved with his musical family to Los Angeles when he was 10 years old. He dropped out of high school when he was 16 to join the U.S. Army where he played trumpet in the Army band in Europe. Back in the USA, Baker started sitting in at San Francisco Be-Bop jam sessions, while he was a member of the Presidio Army Band.
When he was 23 years old, Baker joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. The quartet’s version of Rodgers and Hart‘s My Funny Valentine, featuring the now famous Baker solo, was a major hit, and it became the song with which Baker is still intimately associated. For me, it is the definitive version.
The quartet found quick success, but they lasted less than a year because Mulligan was arrested and sent to prison on drug charges. Baker went solo and in 1953, Pacific Jazz Records released his album Chet Baker Sings. In 1954, Baker was named the Downbeat Magazine Jazz Poll‘s favorite musician. He was just 25 and on his way to the big time.
Because of his handsome, chiseled good-looks, Hollywood studios showed interest and approached Baker with acting work. He made his film debut in a war flick Hell’s Horizon (1955) starring the equally handsome John Ireland. With no irony, Baker portrayed a trumpet player. Yet, he preferred the jazz musician’s life on the road to making movies and declined an offer of a studio contract.
Over the next few years, He became the icon of the “West Coast Jazz” sound, helped by his beautiful face and his stylish whisper of a singing voice. Baker:
“I don’t know whether I’m a trumpet player who sings or a singer who plays the trumpet.“
Baker was already a steady heroin user by this time and just as his star was rising, his musicianship began a decline because of the drugs. Sometimes, Baker would have to pawn his musical instruments to get the money to maintain his habit. In 1955, he made an eight-month long European tour, at that point, the longest for an American Jazz artist ever.
Baker was arrested on drug charges repeatedly during those years, both in the USA and in Europe. In the early 1960s, he served more than a year in prison in Italy, and he was expelled from Germany and Britain. He settled in Northern California where he played music in small San Francisco clubs between his short jail terms.
In 1966, Baker was severely beaten after a gig in San Francisco. He sustained severe cuts on the lips and all his front teeth were broken and the attack left him nearly dead. He stopped performing for two years while he recovered and he turned to methadone to break his habit. From that time on, Baker had to learn to play trumpet with dentures.
In the 1970s, Baker returned to Europe and he began performing again. The critics praised his firmer tone and more aggressive solos. Starting in 1978, Baker resided in and played concerts almost exclusively in Europe, returning to the USA once a year for a few performance dates. 1978 to 1988 was Baker’s most prolific era as a recording artist, putting out at least an album a year.
In 1983, another of my favorite artists, Elvis Costello, a longtime fan of Baker, hired him to play a solo on his heartbreaking song Shipbuilding, from the album Punch The Clock. Baker had been in my parental units’ record collection, but it was in the 1980s that I really got into Baker and fell in love with his sound. Shipbuilding was a top 40 hit.
Later, Baker often featured Costello’s gorgeous ballad Almost Blue in his live sets, and he recorded the song for the soundtrack of Let’s Get Lost (1988), fashion photographer Bruce Weber‘s smart documentary film about Baker’s life and music.
In the early morning of May 13, 1988, Baker was found dead on the street below his second story room at Hotel Prins Hendrik in Amsterdam. Heroin and cocaine were found in his hotel room. His death was ruled an accident.
If you want to know this amazing musician, and you really should, watch Let’s Get Lost, which shows him as a cultural icon of the 1950s, juxtaposed with his later image as a broken-down junkie. The film, shot in stark black and white, includes a series of interviews with friends, associates and lovers, along with footage from Baker’s earlier life, with interviews with Baker near the end of his life.
Let’s Get Lost shows the fragile, faded Baker as the epitome of cool. It is made with elaborate and obvious effort. When Weber starts interviewing people who loved the musician not from afar, as he did, but from too close: his bitter wife, his girlfriends, his neglected kids, you see how tough being cool has been, how many drugs it took, how much willful indifference, how much loss of his self was in the pale frame of Baker. The film is powerful; it’s among the few documentaries that deals with the mysterious, complicated emotional cost involved in the creation of pop culture, and the ambiguous process by which performers generate desire.
David Wilcox‘s song, My Old Addiction, is inspired by Baker’s life and music. I especially love k.d. lang‘s version on her album Drag (1997).
Baker was the inspiration for the character played by Robert Wagner in the film All The Fine Young Cannibals (1960). Ethan Hawke plays Baker in the film Born To Be Blue (2015).
You should download some Baker recordings. With his breathy walking-on-eggshells trumpet tone, similar in sound to his achy, whispered, weathered, weary vocals, Baker delivers mournful takes on standards like Just Friends, Someone To Watch Over Me, and But Not For Me. Costello duets with Baker on blue, smoky versions of The Very Thought of You and You Don’t Know What Love Is. Baker recorded over 50 albums. Everyone should have at least some of his stuff in their collection.
I recommend that on New Year’s Eve, snuggle up with your sweetie, or some stranger, near the fireplace, pour some brandy, and put on Chet Baker Sings (1953) and Chet Baker Sings & Plays (1963).