Chet Baker, 1929-1988

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Chet Baker (sheet music Jazz transcriptions)

The tragic story of Chet Baker, the trumpeter whose death is a mystery

Chesney Henry Baker Jr., Chet Baker (Yale, Oklahoma, United States, December 23, 1929 – Amsterdam, Holland, May 13, 1988) was an American jazz trumpeter and singer. He is one of the most popular jazz musicians in history.

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As a child, Chet Baker sang love songs on radio contests. A documentary film, released in Barcelona around 2008, Let’s Get Lost, from 1988, shows us a very clichéd jazz musician, although clichés carry a lot of reality, a musician hooked on opiates and stimulants, with a life tortured by excesses. The movie All the Fine Young Cannibals is also loosely based on his biography.

Chet Baker, a talented improviser and singer of a unique style with a tragic history of drug addiction. His death was shrouded in mystery: suicide or accident.

Chet Baker was found dead in the early hours of May 13, 1988, on the street. He was in a fetal position, his head and part of his face were smashed, and his posture would indicate that he did not die immediately. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and striped pants, and he reportedly fell from the second floor of the Prins Hendrik hotel in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where he had occupied room C-20 for a long time and where the police found heroin and cocaine. Chet was 58 years old.

Doubts about his death were immediate, since those who knew him admitted that he lived under the influence of heroin (he had been dragging an addiction for more than 30 years), but they ruled out that suicide was an option for the artist who had concerts scheduled in Scandinavia.

One version indicated that the hotel had prevented him from entering his room for lack of payment and that he decided to climb the two floors to recover, at least, his trumpet, but this possibility would have been virtually ruled out.

Another pointed out that it would have been the result of a reckoning for the debt he had with several traffickers who, tired of excuses, threw him out the window. Finally, the expert said that it could have been an accidental death.

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Cultor of cool jazz

Baker was one of the main exponents of Cool Jazz, the jazz of the West Coast of the United States, a style strongly embracing the harmonies of bebop, but rhythmically attached to swing. His interpretive style had an intimate, sober, modest tone, but beyond jazz, the trumpeter attracted a good part of his audiences for his photogenic appearance and his peculiar vocal style. Some called him the James Dean of jazz.

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Chet Baker managed to become a cult idol in a short time, a star in the world of music, which not only did not solve his drug problems, but rather made him a coveted prey for the police. He was someone special, a jazz musician, white, famous and good looking.

Despite a persistent heroin addiction, which would have started lukewarmly around 1952, Baker recorded 230 albums as a leader during his 36-year career.

He has recorded with Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Jim Hall, Archie Shepp, Joe Pass, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, Bud Shank, Ron Carter, Lee Konitz, and Roland Hanna, among others. He came to master more than 500 songs, that is, he had a privileged memory.

Its beginnings were in jam sessions in different places in California, such as in the Hermosa Beach area and in the famous Lighthouse club, which was on the beach and was a permanent meeting place for jazzmen from the West Coast. His first group was that of saxophonist Vido Musso, from which he went on to Stan Getz’s quintet, with whom he recorded an excellent version of Out Of Nowhere, on March 24, 1952; At the end of May of that year, he got the audition to accompany none other than Charlie Parker at Tiffany’s Club. Chet Baker also sang, something that in his last years he did more, due to the difficulty in playing the trumpet.

Playing with bird

In his autobiography As if I had wings. Lost memories, Baker recounts those moments: “It was incredible to be on stage with Bird. The first song was very fast, after which the rest of the evening was quiet. Charlie Parker was an impeccable instrumentalist even though he scooped up shit and drank Hennessy non-stop; he gave the impression that all that did not produce the slightest effect on him ”.

In August, the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan puts together his famous pianoless quartet in Los Angeles, a novelty for the jazz scene, with Baker on trumpet, Chico Hamilton on drums and Bob Whitlock on double bass. Successful due to its excellent compositions and a fresh and airy sound that imposes an innovative sound aesthetic, the quartet records one of the great albums of cool jazz, The Gerry Mulligan Quartet with an emblematic version of My Funny Valentine, a theme that Miles Davis recorded years later.

Baker had limitations as a musician, for example a not very wide register, a poor ability to read sheet music and a technique that was little special, as a soloist he is among the most outstanding of his generation. His intuition for melodic improvisation was superlative and his expressiveness was moving.

first time in prison

In October 1952, Baker was arrested for the first time and his problems with the law began. In June 1953, Mulligan is arrested for heroin possession and the group disbands and Chet almost unwittingly begins his career as leader. They were intense years for the trumpeter who between 1952 and 1953 recorded 35 albums, some as a leader and others within different groups and ensembles.

All of this work is rewarded by countless offers for club shows, concerts and recordings that Baker cleverly handled.

In 1954, he released several recordings, but two were very successful, Chet Baker Sings (the original record did not mention that he sang) and Chet Baker Quintet With Strings. Yes, Baker sang as if he had never heard anyone before; he is surprised by his natural and direct style with which he achieved a deep emotional penetration in the listener; his way of singing is more stylized than his way of playing the trumpet.

Since that time, Baker has never stopped singing in his live performances. Chet Baker, trumpeter and singer with a tragic history.

The times of fame

In a short time he achieved a fame that took him on tour in several cities in the United States and that is consolidated by having won the surveys of Metronome and Donwbeat magazines as Best Trumpeter and Best Jazz Vocalist.

His icy beauty even takes him to Hollywood, where he films Hell’s Horizon and photographer William Claxton does historic photo shoots that he puts together in the work ‘The Young Chet’.

In 1959 he received his first conviction for drug possession; six months in Rikers Island, New York, of which he serves four months for good conduct and when he leaves he travels to Europe.

It is in the 1960s when drugs begin to significantly interfere with his career. In the early 1960s he traveled to France and from there to Italy, where he had already been and had good friends and contacts. After undergoing a sleep cure in Milan due to his strong addiction to opiates, he is arrested in August for falsifying prescriptions and possession of drugs that lead him to spend fifteen months in prison.

He goes out and celebrates it by recording in Italy the excellent Chet Is Back! (1962). On the presentation tour he is arrested in Germany and expelled to Switzerland and then to France. He moves to England with his third wife, Carol, but in March 1963 he is deported to France and from there he travels to Barcelona. He is again found with drugs during a tour of Germany, and in March 1964 he is deported to the United States, where he will remain until the mid-’70s.

Debt problems

In the United States, Chet Baker moves between New York and California although his career was seriously affected in July 1966 as a result of a beating he suffered in San Francisco related to his drug debts and which caused him to have his mouth broken. and a tooth (the incident was exaggerated, even by Baker himself) and that he was removed from the scene for a while due to embouchure problems with the instrument.

Now, the general deterioration of his teeth that led him to need a false one has to do with the use of drugs and not with that fight. So, although the beating was not the determinant of the decline of his career, he did have an emblematic weight in his decline.

At the beginning of the ’70s he stopped playing: he worked at a service station and began a treatment with methadone that improved him mentally and physically. Helped by his colleague Dizzy Gillespie, he planned his return to a New York club and a famous meeting with Gerry Mulligan, on November 24, 1974, at Carnegie Hall, in which John Scofield and Ron Carter participated and which was edited as Carnegie Hall Concert: Gerry Mulligan & Chet Baker. Chet Baker’s death is shrouded in mystery. The police concluded that it was an accident, but there is talk of murder or suicide.

Return to europe

Soon after, Baker returned to Europe and settled in different countries, France, England and finally the Netherlands. He traveled often to Japan and from time to time to the United States. He kept recording and playing, with some periods where he disappeared from the scene for a while.

In the ’80s he caught the attention of some rock musicians, such as Elvis Costello, who invited him to record the trumpet on the theme Shipbuilding, against the Malvinas War. His activity is incessant; he records with French, Italian, German musicians and builds a permanent circuit in Europe. His last concert was in England on April 1, 1988. Baker’s youthful appearance was replaced by a grim cowboy face, wrinkled and prematurely old.

Chesney Henry Baker Jr. was born Yale, Oklahoma, on December 23, 1929; his father was a professional guitarist and Chet participated in different choirs and singing competitions in his childhood. When he was thirteen years old, his father, a great admirer of Jack Teagarden, gave him a trombone that, due to his size, he could not play; weeks later the trombone disappeared and a trumpet arrived.

‘It’s just that my father also liked Bix Beiderbecke,’ the musician said in his memoirs. He had an enormous musical capacity, an intuitive and intelligent musician, virtues that somehow played against him in becoming a diligent student. He memorized and did not need to read, which meant that he did not finish his studies at the El Camino College Conservatory at the age of 16.

He enlisted in the army twice, the first time, in 1946, he was stationed in Germany, but military life did not work out for him, although it gave him an enriching experience.

Baker was married three times; Charlaine, Halima and Carol were his wives; he had four children, Chesney, with Halima, and Dean, Paul, and Melissa, with Carol. It was inevitable that the effects of a life steeped in drugs would not decline, yet strangely enough the music of Chet’s later years was imbued with a sweetness and an almost architectural order, a true paradox in the face of a life totally messy.

Chet Baker is buried in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in California, next to his father.

Baker dixit: “I get the feeling that most people are impressed by just three things: how fast you play, how high-end you get, and how loud and loud you bring out of the instrument. This is a bit infuriating to me, but I’m much more experienced now and have come to understand that probably not even two per cent of the public can hear properly. When I say I mean the ability to follow a trumpeter and discern his ideas.

With Enrico Rava

Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava met Chet Baker in the 1970s.

One of the musicians who knew Chet Baker best was the Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava. ‘When Chet wasn’t playing he was at home in Torino and there I was, trying to say something clever or surprise him with some witty remark. Nothing ever came of it; he would just look at him and nod when he made a joke or something like that,’ the Italian said.

He remembered that when he would ask him a question about technique, Chet had no idea how to convey this or that idea to him. ‘He was self-taught, like me, so he only knew how to play the songs, but not how he did it. He felt that he was quite frustrated that he couldn’t explain how he played them,’ he said.

According to Rava, he often sang more than he played because of a persistent cold sore on his lip that made life miserable. ‘It was very painful but he neither complained nor stopped his performances, but he could hardly play the trumpet,’ he recalled.

To Rava, Chet was special. He could be very sweet and warm, but the dire need for money to support his addiction made him, at times, unscrupulous. “I think I could kill you for a few coins”, and he recounted his experience with that side of Baker: “One afternoon I came home with a personal recorder, they were one of the first to be launched on the market and he was precisely at home. It was a beautiful device and we spent the whole afternoon trying it out. I had to go play and he stayed. Upon my return, he had left with the recorder, ”recalled the musician.

“Unfortunately, drugs did not allow him to manage his career so that he could have some financial peace of mind. The day to day was all she could plan. He came to touch the cap in the streets of Rome ‘, concluded Rava.

A documentary as a requiem

On September 15, 1988, four months after his death, Let’s Get Lost, the documentary dedicated to Chet Baker, directed and produced by photographer Bruce Weber, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, in which he also appears of the trumpeter, his third wife, Carol Baker, pianist Russ Freeman and photographer William Claxton, among others.

The film traces an arc between the musician of the fifties, young and successful, and the one of the eighties, struck by the long-standing addiction to heroin and virtually forgotten by the music business. A contrast between that James Dean and the sleazy-looking cowboy he had become. A documentary that was being filmed when Baker died.

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