Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Chesney Henry Baker, 23 December 1929, Yale OK; d 13 May 1988, Amsterdam) Trumpet and flugelhorn, also singer. The family moved to California as a boy; he played in US Army bands '46-8 and '50-2; then with Charlie Parker, who told Miles Davis, 'You better watch out. There’s a little white cat out on the West Coast who’s gonna eat you up.' Contrary to popular belief Baker was not influenced by Davis, yet the fact that they both played 'My Funny Valentine' in equally yet differently heartbreaking ways was more than a coincidence: jazz was entering on hard times in the early '50s, both had a strong suit of lyricism and both were drug addicts. Edmund Wilson, on the subject of his tragic friend Scott Fitzgerald, wrote about 'the fair youth, untimely slain, who is ritually bewailed by women, then resuscitates ... when his legend has become full-fledged and beyond his own power to shatter it'. Baker was supposed to die young, like Bix Beiderbecke, but Bix used alcohol, which is quicker. Baker’s movie-star looks were soon ravaged by drugs, but he played beautifully for decades; his light, wistful tone and laid-back lyricism were at the centre of the West Coast 'cool jazz' scene; his music was not fiery or dramatic, but what it was about was beauty. He also sang in the early days, which the girls liked but the critics didn't; both his sincere, vibrato-less singing (hear 'My Buddy' '56) and his playing hold up extremely well. (The singing was edited out of some reissued LPs; Chet Baker Sings '54 on Pacific Jazz was a 10-inch LP, tracks added '56 to make a 12-inch record, rhythm guitar by Joe Pass added '60s to make stereo: Pacific Jazz did that sort of thing.)

Baker achieved national fame with Gerry Mulligan's pianoless quartet '52; when Mulligan was doing time for a drugs violation Baker became a leader. His first quartet featured Russ Freeman on piano '53-4 (b 28 May 1926, Chicago; d 27 June 2002, Las Vegas). Freeman was a good composer ('Maid In Mexico', 'Russ Job', 'Bea’s Flat', 'Fan Tan, 'Summer Sketch', several more) and contributed one of the best explanations of why people play jazz on the road: '[T]hree or four times in my life, while playing, I have suddenly become disembodied -- in the sense that I seem to be ... watching myself play ... you're just creating music and it's like pouring water out of a pitcher ... That's what you're after, that high. There are a lot of layers, though, that go with it. It’s a zig-zag existence and it's one of the reasons I stopped ... It became very painful to go through those periods where you get on a bandstand and you try something and it's not happening.' Freeman went into studio work and was later music director for TV's Laugh In. Baker's next pianist was also extremely talented; Dick Twardzik (b 30 April 1931, Boston; d suddenly 21 October 1955 in Europe, apparently an accident with drugs) also recorded with Serge Chaloff '54. West Coast Live '53-4 on Pacific Jazz CDs has Baker and Stan Getz, who did not get along and rarely played together.

Baker worked in Europe '59-64, and sometime in the mid-'60s he was beaten by San Francisco hoodlums in a drug deal that turned sour; he lost part of a tooth but continued playing until he had all his teeth removed in '68 (they'd been neglected because of his habit). He turned this into a dramatic story about losing all his teeth in the fight, but losing them was no joke for a horn player and he had to stop playing for a while. His comeback in the '70s included a reunion with Mulligan; he recorded prolifically and his early work was often reissued, cf. tasty ballad set Chet ’59 on Riverside, with Pepper Adams and Bill Evans. Around 100 CDs available '97 testified to his enduring popularity.

Witchdoctor '53 on Fantasy was made with the Lighthouse All-Stars including Freeman; Chet Baker, Boston, 1954 on Uptown is a broadcast from Storyville with Freeman in good sound; other CD reissues by this quartet were on Pacific Jazz, now an EMI label. Chet In Paris on EmArcy and In Europe on Philology feature Twardzik; Chet Is Back '62 on RCA was highly regarded. After 1975 he worked almost exclusively in Europe, and made too many recordings because he always needed money to support his habit. Later work included Chet Baker And Lee Konitz In Concert '74 on India Navigation, Blues For A Reason '84 on Criss Cross with Warne Marsh, many more on Enja, Timeless, Storyville, etc. Especially recommended: Someday My Prince Will Come, This Is Always and Daybreak, all on Steeplechase, all recorded on one very good night in 1979; Live From The Moonlight '85 on Philology, a good document from one of his best later years; and Chet's Choice '85 on Criss Cross, the best of three CDs made that year with guitarist Philip Catherine. The market for Baker seems inexhaustible: reissues kept coming, e.g. the studio Italian Sessions from '62 on RCA (with Bobby Jaspar on tenor sax), while In Tokyo on Evidence '87 was a quartet with Harold Danko on piano, a two-CD set from less than a year before his death. Chet Baker Featuring Van Morrison Live At Ronnie Scott’s on DRG and Let’s Get Lost on Novus (soundtrack from Bruce Weber's documentary film) are late souvenirs for completists only.

Baker died falling out of a hotel-room window; he might have liked the persistent rumours about another encounter with drug gangsters, but Dutch journalist Jeroen de Valk in his book Chet Baker: His Life In Music (2000) found that Baker’s life was less dramatic than he liked to pretend.