Photo Courtesy Jackie Lepage
Few musicians have embodied the romantic, and ultimately tragic, jazz figure as
totally as Chet Baker. A lyrical, self-taught improviser with a soft touch that
seemed to kiss the notes as they flew by, Baker laid claim to Miles Davis'
cool, laid-back approach early on and made it his, for life. With his wan,
Hollywood good looks and bad-boy reputation, Baker became the posterboy for
West Coast cool jazz. In a style that combined restraint with a certain nervous
agitation and a strong dose of sentimentality, particularly on ballads, Baker
captured the imagination not only of jazz lovers, but of a general public
fascinated as much by his lifestyle as his music. Baker's high, whispered
vocals, even more popular now than in his heyday, captured the same sleepy
intimacy as his trumpet, particularly on such tunes as "I Fall in Love Too
Easily," and "Everything Happens To Me."
Baker, who never learned to read music, got his training in army bands, where
he developed a spare and introverted voice on the horn. After moving to Los
Angeles, Chet toured briefly with Charlie Parker and came to national attention
later that year while working with Gerry Mulligan's quartet,
establishing an instant personality through the absence of a piano and the
intriguing counterpoint between trumpet and baritone sax. An early recording of
"My Funny Valentine" by the Mulligan quartet caused a national sensation and
made the fragile sound of Baker's horn emblematic of an entire "cool" attitude.
In 1953, Baker began a recording and performing relationship with pianist Russ
Freeman that solidified his status as a major jazz star. He soon formed his own
group, and for the middle to late 1950s made a series of successful discs that
boosted his path to stardom. One key to this success was his singing, which
sustained the wistful vulnerability of his trumpet work. His good looks and
growing reputation for high living also fed his notoriety, although a growing
frequency of drug incidents soon began to overshadow his playing.
His world collapsed in 1960 when he was sentenced to a prison term while on
tour in Italy. He returned to the U.S. in 1964, where he made several fine
albums with George Coleman and Kirk Lightsey. Then his career seemed
permanently ended in 1968, when Baker lost his teeth in an altercation with
other junkies in San Francisco. He stopped playing for two years, resurfacing
again in New York in 1973, where he renewed his recording career. Although he
never became free of the shadow of drugs, he resumed his place among the
world's leading jazz trumpeters. Just before he died on May 13, 1988, in
Amsterdam, under mysterious circumstances, falling out of a second story
window, Baker played himself in a revealing documentary by Bruce Weber, Let's
Get Lost. The beginning of an autobiography, As Though I Had Wings, appeared
posthumously in 1997.
Chet Baker born December 23rd 1929, Yale, Oklahoma, died May 13 1988,
Photo Courtesy Jackie Lepage
In 1989, Baker was elected by the Critics into the Down Beat Hall of Fame.