Born Chesney H. Baker, December 23, 1929, in Yale, OK; died due to injuries from a fall, May 13, 1988, in Amsterdam, Holland; married three times. Education: Took courses at El Camino College, late 1940s. Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Army, 1946-48.
Periodically earning critical acclaim during a career made erratic by drug addiction and other personal problems, Chet Baker was a key force behind the "cool jazz" movement that originated on the West Coast and gained popularity in the 1950s. Baker "produced solos with an introspective beauty that epitomized the sensibilities of the 'cool' school," according to Len Lyons and Don Perlo in Jazz Portraits. He established his reputation first as a trumpeter playing with Gerry Mulligan's quartet, then as an instrumentalist and singer with his own combos. His movie-star good looks, similar to those of 1950s screen idol James Dean, helped ensure his popularity and made him a symbol of the cool jazz movement.
Baker played totally by ear and was a master of creating moods with his playing and singing. A sense of foreboding and sadness permeated his performances, and his often tragic life seemed to mirror his style. Avoiding any excess in his playing, Baker performed with what Owen Cordle in Down Beat called a "fragile lyricism" with "an undercurrent of melancholy." His soft and mellow singing voice matched the style of his trumpet playing, and he achieved a major hit with his signature version of "My Funny Valentine," which he performed with Mulligan. As Richard Mulligan wrote in GQ, "Grace[ful] and understated, [Baker's] voice was both haunted and haunting, imbued with a sexuality that made the issue of gender seem irrelevant by its urgency." Baker's interpretations gave new life to numerous ballads, which he favored, and he put his definitive stamp on many previously unknown songs.
The so of a musician who could not break into the professional ranks, Baker came to California from Oklahoma in 1940. He started playing trumpet during his teens and by age 17 was jamming with famed saxophonist Charlie Parker at Billy Berg's club. He further developed his skill as a member of the Army band in Germany after he was drafted into the service in 1946. While playing with the Presidio Army Band back in California in 1950, he began showing up at be-bop jam sessions in San Francisco. Developing his talent rapidly, Baker moved to Los Angeles two years later and worked with Parker once more.
According to an Interview writer, Baker was "the maverick jazz trumpeter whom Charlie Parker once told Miles [Davis] and Dizzy [Gillespie] to watch out for." While in Los Angeles, Baker joined up with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan's quartet. Considered somewhat radical at the time for jazz groups, Mulligan's band did not include a pianist. Mulligan's group became famous on the jazz scene, and Baker's reputation rose along with Mulligan's. The pair were part of a group of white musicians who softened the intense sound of be-bop ushered in by black musicians, and the result proved popular with the listening audience.
Referring to the West Coast jazz of the 1950s, Cordle said in Down Beat that "Baker's intuitive lyricism curled around Mulligan's thematically playful lines in a complementary counterpoint that practically defined the genre." Baker's restrained style of play, which verged on the classical, was likely influenced in part by Miles Davis's "Birth of the Cool" jazz sessions, and it proved to be highly effective in tandem with Mulligan's. "The harmonic textures created by the interaction of the two horns replaced the traditional background of explicit chords on piano or guitar," according to a writer for Jazz Portraits.
As his playing began attracting legions of jazz fans, Baker soared to the top of jazz polls conducted by Metronome and Down Beat. After his recording of "My Funny Valentine" propelled him into major stardom, he left Mulligan to form a quartet with California pianist Russ Freeman, who was known for his freewheeling style. Baker's appeal as a singer nearly equaled his popularity as an instrumentalist; following the release of the album Chet Baker Sings and Plays in 1954, he also earned a spot on Down Beat's poll of jazz vocalists. Years later, Baker told a New York Times interviewer, "I don't know whether I'm a trumpet player who sings or a singer who plays the trumpet."
Baker began a tour of Europe with Freeman's quartet in 1955 that lasted eight months. No other jazz musician from the United States had ever performed for such an extended period on that continent, and for the rest of his career Baker maintained an active presence overseas both as a performer and recording artist. Until late in the decade, the musician maintained his status as a top jazz artist by performing often and releasing a number of widely praised albums.
By the late 1950s, Baker's reputation began to slide for both personal ad other reasons. His addiction to heroin was starting to debilitate him, and a backlash against his similarity to Bix Beiderbecke's style fueled growing criticism. He worked sporadically in Europe from the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, in between dates cancelled for health reasons and due to arrests for drug possession. He spent almost a year and a half in an Italian prison, and at various times was deported from Great Britain, Switzerland, and Germany. Imprisonment also caused him to be replaced by Robert Wagner in the 1960 movie All the Fine Young Cannibals, which was based on a jazz musician similar to Baker. By the late 1960s Baker spent most of his time in Europe, because illegal drugs were less difficult to procure there than in the United States.
Just when Baker seemed to be rejuvenating his waning career in 1968, he was severely injured during a beating by thugs in San Francisco. Most of his teeth were knocked out during the fight, and it took nearly two years of recovery before he could perform again. At this point he made an attempt to free himself of addiction, periodically entering methadone treatment programs. During this period he learned a new use of applying his lips and tongue to the trumpet's mouthpiece, and also began playing the flugelhorn to expand his repertoire. By the late 1970s his playing shifted into an even more expressive and forceful style, as shown on his albums She Was Too Good to Me and Studio Trieste.
Baker's various attempts at comebacks in his later years were long and difficult, and he often played in pain. He performed with a variety of musicians during the 1970s and 1980s, including in a reunion with Mulligan, but was never able to fully shake the drug problems that limited his ability to work. Baker would often disappear for months at a time, then resurface at a club with a new set of fellow musicians. Critics by this time had basically written him off as not having fulfilled the potential of his youth.
Various small combos led by Baker in the 1980s distinguished themselves by their laid-back and wistful style. He often played without a drummer to keep the sound as mellow as possible. In 1987 fashion photographer Bruce Weber made a documentary about Baker called Let's Get Lost. Weber followed the artist around for a year to make the film. A few months before the movie was to have its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Baker died as the result of a fall from a second-floor hotel window in Amsterdam, Holland. Heroin was found in his bloodstream, and it remains unknown whether the fall was accidental or a suicide. At the time of his death, Baker was scheduled for a tour of Holland.
Although plagued throughout his life by his drug dependence, legal problems, and failed marriages, Chet Baker nevertheless made his stamp on the history of jazz both as singer and instrumentalist. His highly introspective style will remain as the ultimate symbol of the "cool" jazz movement.
by Ed Decker
Chet Baker's Career
Played trumpet in 298th Army Band after being drafted, 1946-48; began playing with Charlie Parker, 1946; performed in Presidio Army Band; started sitting in at San Francisco be-bop jam sessions, 1950; became a vanguard of the West Coast "cool jazz" movement, early 1950s; began playing in quartet led by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, 1952; started own quartet with pianist Russ Freeman, 1953; released Chet Baker Sings and Plays, 1954; released several acclaimed albums, mid-1950s; began touring in Europe, 1955; recorded in Europe, late 1950s~early 1960s; imprisoned for 16 months in Italy, early 1960s; recorded several albums on Prestige label, mid-1960s; led trio that recorded on World Pacific label; became musical director for television program Laugh In; staged comeback that included reunion with Mulligan, 1970s; played in recording sessions with Elvis Costello, 1970s; recorded with Shelly Manne and Andre Previn; sang and played on the soundtrack for Round Midnight, 1985; led a series of small combos, late 1980s.
Chet Baker's Awards
Named number four male vocalist in Down Beat poll, 1954; inducted into Down Beat Hall of Fame, 1989.
- Selective Works
- Chet Baker Sings and Plays, Pacific Jazz, 1954.
- Chet, Riverside, 1959.
- Yo Can't Go Home Again, 1977.
- This Is Always, 1979.
- The Touch of Your Lips, 1979.
- Peace, 1982.
- Blues for a Reason, 1984.
- Candy, Sonet, 1985.
- Chet's Choice, Criss Cross, 1985.
- Strollin', Enja, 1985.
- Trumpet Artistry of Chet Baker '52-'53, Pausa.
- It Could Happen to You: Chet Baker Sings, Riverside.
April 2005: Newly discovered tapes at the Library of Congress include a live recording of a Carnegie Hall benefit concert, dated November 29, 1957, and featuring Baker with the Zoot Sims Quartet, and others. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2005/04/25/arts/music/25jazz.html, April 25, 2005.
- Lyons, Len, and Don Perlo, Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters, William Morrow, 1989.
- Periodicals American Film, May 1989.
- Down Beat, August 1988; August 1989; July 1994.
- Esquire, December 1988.
- GQ, April 1989.
- Interview, February 1989.
- New York Times, May 14, 1988.