Those who would like to hear a clip of music related to this post, can scroll down and click on the embedded YouTube file before continuing on.
One of the most romantic and tragic musicians of the twentieth century was jazz trumpeter and singer, Chet Baker. He was another of those gifted but troubled artists for whom a balance between private and public life was an ongoing struggle. The movie star good looks and rare musical talent were fatally paired with heroin addiction, troubled relationships and frequent incarceration.
For many years the Chet Baker sound was only vaguely familiar to me from unnamed background music in dark cocktail lounges and the occasional mention of his name in passing conversation. His heyday was a tiny bit early for me to remember him or his music from my youth. Prior to about ten years ago when I found one of his 1954 recordings discounted in Tower Records, Chet Baker’s music was not anything I could talk about. The 1954 recording I stumbled upon was Chet Baker Sings, an album recorded with his own group, Pacific Jazz. I read later that it was a record that increased his popularity, but on the other hand alienated him from his traditional jazz fans, who preferred his trumpet without the vocals. I am unable to comment on that particular nuance of purist jazz, but for me that early album was a huge eye-opener.
Chet Baker arrived in California from Oklahoma, where he was born in 1929. He was a big part of what was called in the 50s the “cool jazz” school. He first gained notice in 1952 as a member of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. It was with this group that he recorded the almost iconic “My Funny Valentine.” Most will describe Chet Baker’s trumpet playing as sweet-toned, clear and almost without vibrato. He matched his vocal style and feeling to his playing—gentleness and unmistakable clarity. One of the amazing facts about his lifelong playing was that he never learned to read music. Instead he had a perfect ear.
Thanks in large part to his ongoing heroin addiction, Baker’s life was a litany of troubles. He spent long months in jail, he lost teeth in a street fight, and that coupled with the deterioration of his teeth led to dentures. He had to learn to play the trumpet all over again to compensate and stopped playing for almost two years.
He spent the last ten years of his life in Europe, and even though his troubles continued there, jazz critics consider his later recordings his best. He died in 1988 after falling from a window in his Amsterdam hotel, a few days after his last performance at the jazz bar Dizzy in Rotterdam.
For those unfamiliar with this musician, a whole world of musical genius awaits you in the recordings of Chet Baker.
The YouTube clip is one of “Let’s Get Lost” written and recorded in 1988 for a Bruce Weber documentary of the same name, a rather gritty film of the musician’s life.