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Chet Baker

An icon of West Coast cool jazz, Chet Baker rose to fame in '50s with his lyrical trumpet lines and spare, romantic singing. After being handpicked for a West Coast tour with Charlie Parker, he burst onto the scene as a member of Gerry Mulligan's pianoless quartet, whose recording of "My Funny Valentine" made him a star even beyond his cult jazz audience. Signed to Pacific Jazz, he released a series of popular albums beginning with 1954's Chet Baker Sings, which featured his definitive vocal take of "My Funny Valentine;" from then on his signature song. By the end of the decade, he had topped both the Downbeat and Metronome Magazine reader's polls, famously beating out two of the era's most renowned trumpeters Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. He was also named DownBeat top jazz vocalist in 1954. At the height of his success, drug addiction and numerous incarcerations dimmed his spotlight and found him living and working a peripatetic lifestyle in Europe for much of the '60s and '70s. He also suffered the loss of his teeth, which hampered his playing until he worked his way back to health and launched a comeback with 1974's She Was Too Good To Me. He was also the subject of fashion photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber's Oscar-nominated 1988 documentary Let's Get Lost, which helped renew interest in his work. Tragically, he died that same year after falling out of a second story window of his Amsterdam hotel. Baker recorded prolifically during the last few decades of his life, leading to a wave of posthumously released albums, including My Favorite Songs, Vol. 1-2: The Last Great Concert, which captured one of his final concerts in Germany with the NDR Big Band and Radio Orchestra Hannover. In 2001, in recognition of the album's lasting influence, Chet Baker Sings was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Ethan Hawke portrayed Baker in the 2015 film Born to Be Blue, and yet more archival recordings surfaced with 2023's Blue Room: The 1979 Vara Studio Sessions in Holland. Born in 1929 in Yale, Oklahoma, Baker's early years were marked by a rural, dustbowl upbringing. His father, Chesney Henry Baker,Sr., was a guitarist who was forced to turn to other work during the Depression; his mother, Vera (Moser) Baker, worked in a perfumery. The family moved from Oklahoma to Glendale, CA, in 1940. As a child, Baker sang at amateur competitions and in a church choir. Before his adolescence, his father brought home a trombone for him, then replaced it with a trumpet when the larger instrument proved too much for him. He had his first formal training in music in junior high and later at Glendale High School, but would play largely by ear for the rest of his life. In 1946, when he was only 16 years old, he dropped out of high school and his parents signed papers allowing him to enlist in the army; he was sent to Berlin, Germany, where he played in the 298th Army Band. After his discharge in 1948, he enrolled at El Camino College in Los Angeles, where he studied theory and harmony while playing in jazz clubs, but he quit college in the middle of his second year. He re-enlisted in the army in 1950 and became a member of the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco. But he also began sitting in at clubs in the city and he finally obtained a second discharge to become a professional jazz musician. Baker initially played in Vido Musso's band, then with Stan Getz. (The first recording featuring Baker is a performance of "Out of Nowhere" that comes from a tape of a jam session made on March 24, 1952, and was released on the Fresh Sound Records LP Live at the Trade Winds.) His break came quickly, when, in the spring of 1952, he was chosen at an audition to play a series of West Coast dates with Charlie Parker, making his debut with the famed saxophonist at the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles on May 29, 1952. That summer, he began playing in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, a group featuring only baritone sax, trumpet, bass, and drums -- no piano -- that attracted attention during an engagement at the Haig nightclub and through recordings on the newly formed Pacific Jazz Records (later known as World Pacific Records), beginning with the 10" LP Gerry Mulligan Quartet, which featured Baker's famous rendition of "My Funny Valentine." The Gerry Mulligan Quartet lasted for less than a year, folding when its leader went to jail on a drug charge in June 1953. Baker went solo, forming his own quartet, which initially featured Russ Freeman on piano, Red Mitchell on bass, and Bobby White on drums, and making his first recording as leader for Pacific Jazz on July 24, 1953. Baker was hailed by fans and critics and he won a number of polls in the next few years. In 1954, Pacific Jazz released Chet Baker Sings, an album that increased his popularity beyond his core jazz audience; he would continue to sing for the rest of his career. Acknowledging his chiseled good looks, nearby Hollywood came calling and he made his acting debut in the film Hell's Horizon, released in the fall of 1955. But he declined an offer of a studio contract and toured Europe from September 1955 to April 1956. When he returned to the U.S., he formed a quintet that featured saxophonist Phil Urso and pianist Bobby Timmons. Contrary to his reputation for relaxed, laid-back playing, Baker turned to more of a bop style with this group, which recorded the album Chet Baker & Crew for Pacific Jazz in July 1956. Baker toured the U.S. in February 1957 with the Birdland All-Stars and took a group to Europe later that year. He returned to Europe to stay in 1959, settling in Italy, where he acted in the film Urlatori Alla Sbarra. Hollywood, meanwhile, had not entirely given up on him, at least as a source of inspiration, and in 1960, a fictionalized film biography of his life, All the Fine Young Cannibals, appeared with Robert Wagner in the starring role of Chad Bixby. Baker had become addicted to heroin in the 1950s and had been incarcerated briefly on several occasions, but his drug habit only began to interfere with his career significantly in the 1960s. He was arrested in Italy in the summer of 1960 and spent almost a year and a half in jail. He celebrated his release by recording Chet Is Back! for RCA in February 1962. (It has since been reissued as The Italian Sessions and as Somewhere Over the Rainbow.) Later in the year, he was arrested in West Germany and expelled to Switzerland, then France, later moving to England in August 1962 to appear as himself in the film The Stolen Hours, which was released in 1963. He was deported from England to France because of a drug offense in March 1963. He lived in Paris and performed there and in Spain over the next year, but after being arrested again in West Germany, he was deported back to the U.S. He returned to America after five years in Europe on March 3, 1964, and played primarily in New York and Los Angeles during the mid-'60s, having switched temporarily from trumpet to flügelhorn. In the summer of 1966, he suffered a severe beating in San Francisco that was related to his drug addiction. The incident is usually misdated and frequently exaggerated in accounts of his life, often due to his own unreliable testimony. It is said, for example, that all his teeth were knocked out, which is not the case, though one tooth was broken and the general deterioration of his teeth led to his being fitted with dentures in the late '60s, forcing him to retrain his embouchure. The beating was not the cause of the decline in his career during this period, but it is emblematic of that decline. By the end of the '60s, he was recording and performing only infrequently and he stopped playing completely in the early '70s. Regaining some control over his life by taking methadone to control his heroin addiction (though he remained an addict), Baker eventually mounted a comeback that culminated in a prominent New York club engagement in November 1973 and a reunion concert with Gerry Mulligan at Carnegie Hall in November 1974 that was recorded and released by Epic Records. Also that year, he again marked his comeback with the excellent studio album She Was Too Good To Me, which featured altoist Paul Desmond. By the mid-'70s, Baker was able to return to Europe and he spent the rest of his life performing there primarily, with occasional trips to Japan and periods back in the U.S., though he had no permanent residence. Other notable albums released during this period are 1977's Once Upon a Summertime, 1977's Don Sebesky-produced You Can't Go Home Again (which found him surrounded by luminaries, including Desmond, Michael Brecker, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, among others), and 1980's Chet Baker/Wolfgang Lackerschmid (a gorgeously atmospheric collaboration with the German vibraphonist). By the '80s, he started to attract the attention of rock musicians, with whom he occasionally performed, for example adding trumpet to Elvis Costello's recording of his anti-Falklands War song "Shipbuilding" in 1983. In 1987, photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber undertook a documentary film about Baker. The following year, Baker died in a fall from a hotel window in Amsterdam. Weber's film, Let's Get Lost, premiered in September 1988 to critical acclaim and earned an Academy Award nomination. Baker recorded often throughout the latter-half of his life and consequently there has been a steady stream of posthumously released albums. My Favorite Songs, Vol. 1-2: The Last Great Concert arrived soon after his passing and captured one of his final concerts in Germany with the NDR Big Band and Radio Orchestra Hannover. His work has also been collected in several superb boxsets, including Mosaic's The Complete Pacific Jazz Studio Recordings Of The Chet Baker Quartet With Russ Freeman and Chet Baker: the Pacific Jazz Years, as well as The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings Of The Gerry Mulligan Quartet With Chet Baker. In 1997, Baker's unfinished autobiography was published under the title As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoir and the book was optioned by Miramax for a film adaptation, though never produced. A semi-fictional biopic starring Ethan Hawke as Baker, Born To Be Blue, arrived in 2015, though none of the trumpeter's actual recordings were featured in the film. In 2023, a long out-of-print collection of archival recordings, Blue Room: The 1979 Vara Studio Sessions in Holland, appeared featuring Baker with both pianist Frans Elsen's trio, as well as his own touring ensemble, including pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Jean-Louis Rassinfosse, and drummer Charles Rice.
© Matt Collar & William Ruhlmann /TiVo
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