A late career surge, aided by Elvis Costello and Bruce Weber’s 1989 documentary film Let’s Get Lost, put the ill-fated Chet Baker back on the musical map for new generations
Chet Baker (1929-1988) once said, “I don’t know whether I’m a trumpet player who sings, or a singer who plays the trumpet.”
Either way, Baker’s unmistakably intimate playing style and smooth, seductive vocals captivated listeners from the time he burst onto the jazz scene in 1953. He quickly became the epitome of West Coast “cool jazz” and proved to be one of the (if not THE) most popular jazz trumpeters of the 1950s. He also greatly influenced bossa nova pioneers like João Gilberto who strived to emulate Baker’s low, whispery vocal delivery. In addition to playing with his own quartet, Baker shared the stage with legendary jazz greats Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, and Stan Getz, to name a few. With his Brylcreemed hair and childlike features, Baker was cast in small acting roles in America and Italy. Indeed, the film All The Fine Young Cannibals, starring Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, was deemed a (somewhat) biographical interpretation of Baker’s life.
Unfortunately, during the late 1950s, Baker became addicted to heroin, which greatly affected his career, as he was frequently being jailed or deported back to the United States. His drug-infused lifestyle prevented him from committing to recording contracts and often led him to make ill-advised business transactions with recording studios and managers. Despite his immense talent, he lived the next thirty years as a functioning junkie, fearlessly facing each obstacle that set back his career. Baker is often described as ‘an American dream being dragged through the mud’, and in a sense, this is true. For many, he was a man who embodied the 1950’s and sang tender love songs. But, as Baker himself once said, “Having to live up to the fantasies of others is a big drag.”
“My old addiction changed the wiring in my brain. So that when it turns the switches, then I am not the same.” – Chet Baker “Unsung Swan Song”
Chet Baker was born Chesney “Chet” Baker Jr. on December 23, 1929 in Yale, Oklahoma. Baker’s parents were musically inclined, and in later years were supportive of his career as a musician. His father, Chesney Henry Baker Sr., was a professional guitarist who was forced to obtain a ‘regular’ job during the Great Depression, and his mother Vera was a gifted pianist who worked in a perfumery. As a child, Baker sang in amateur competitions, and in the choir at his local church. By the time he was eleven, the Bakers moved from Oklahoma to Glendale, California, where he received formal musical training at Glendale Junior High School. At the age of thirteen, Baker’s father bought him a trombone, as he wanted to encourage his son to play a musical instrument. The trombone proved to be too large an instrument for the adolescent Baker, and he soon switched to the trumpet. According to his peers, he adapted to the new instrument within a few weeks and seemed to play almost effortlessly. It was clear that Chet Baker had found his calling in life.
In 1946, at the age of sixteen, Baker dropped out of high school and his parents signed him up for the Army. While stationed in Berlin, Germany, he played in the 298th U.S. Army Band. Two years later, he was discharged and he enrolled at El Camino College in Los Angeles where he studied music theory. After two years of college, Baker re-enlisted in the Army and became a member of the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio (which then served as an army post) in San Francisco. During this time, he was greatly influenced by the music of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, and he began to perform at local nightclubs in San Francisco. It wasn’t long before he was discharged from the Army, allowing him to live his dream of becoming a professional jazz musician.
“When he (Chet) went to El Camino College, he played in the band, but his bandmaster said that he would never make it as a musician because he kept putting in things. You know, he’d put in little riffs…and the first time that Chet played a concert he got a telegram from him saying ‘Congratulations! I never thought you’d make it’.” – Vera Baker (Chet Baker’s mother)
In 1952, Baker received a telegram from Dick Bock (then head of World Pacific Records) that Charlie “Bird” Parker was holding an audition for a trumpet player at the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles. Although Baker was still new on the scene, he had some experience performing with saxophonist Vic Musso and the now legendary Stan Getz, and he was determined to land the gig as Bird’s trumpeter. When he arrived to the audition, it is well documented that Bird requested that Baker approach the stage and asked him to perform a handful of tunes. Baker was halfway through his performance when Bird informed the audience that the audition was over. He was hired on the spot. It was then that Baker received his big break, accompanying Parker on gigs around the West Coast and Canada. That same year, Baker joined baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in the piano-less ‘Mulligan Quartet’, which became an immediate success. Within a few months, the band (on the newly formed ‘Pacific Jazz Records’ label), released Gerry Mulligan Quartet, an album featuring Baker’s famous rendition of “My Funny Valentine”. Unfortunately, before the year was out, Mulligan was imprisoned on a drug charge and the Mulligan Quartet was no more.
“My phrasing as a singer has been influenced by a lot of my playing. If I hadn’t been a trumpet player, I don’t know if I would have arrived at singing that way. I probably wouldn’t have. I don’t know whether I’m a trumpet player who sings, or a singer who plays the trumpet. I love to do both.” – Chet Baker
The following year, Baker formed his own quartet with pianist and composer Russ Freeman, bassists Bob Whitlock, Carson Smith, Joe Mondragon, and Jimmy Bond and drummers Shelly Manne, Larry Bunker, and Bob Neel. Together they played live shows and received positive reviews in the local jazz magazines. In 1954, Baker began to contribute smooth delicate vocals to his songs, and released the album Chet Baker Sings on the Pacific Jazz label. While the album was hailed by a number of fans and critics, for many it neglected the trad jazz style of his previous performances, and disappointed fans who were partial to old school jazzers like Baker’s idol, Gene Krupa. Nonetheless, Baker would continue to sing for the remainder of his career.
With his movie star looks and rebellious nature, Baker was often compared to James Dean. In 1955, he made his acting debut as a jockey in Hell’s Horizon, a war film featuring actor John Ireland and Bill Williams. Upon the film’s completion, he was offered a studio contract, which he declined because he was planning a tour of Europe. During his time there, Baker recorded the album Chet Baker in Europe.
In 1957, having released his latest album Chet Baker & Crew, Baker toured the States with the Birdland All-Stars before embarking on a tour of Europe with his own group. By 1960, he began to tire of his nomadic lifestyle, and settled in Italy. During his stay in Italy, Baker would occupy room 15 at the Hotel Universo where he would often sit on the windowsill and play his trumpet. To this day, his hotel room is highly sought out by his fans. It was here that he would appear in the film Uriatori Alla Sbarra (or Howlers of the Dock), a comedy in which he is credited as ‘l’americano’. Baker was embraced by his Italian fans who dubbed him ‘l’angelo’ (the angel) and tromba d’oro (the golden trumpet).
Be it the hectic touring schedule or personal conflicts, it was around this time that he would become addicted to heroin, and that’s when things began to fall apart. Although Baker had been imprisoned for brief periods of time, he was eventually jailed on narcotics-related charges during his stay in Italy. The trumpeter would remain in jail for a year and a half before his release.
In 1962, Baker celebrated his release from jail by recording the album Chet is Back!. The album featured the tunes “Pent-Up House” and “Well, You Needn’t,” which critics referred to as “Bop-oriented.” It has also been noted that Baker began playing the flugelhorn on various recordings throughout this decade. As the 1960’s progressed, Baker’s heroin habit worsened, and he was repeatedly thrown in jail. After being tossed from country to country, he was eventually deported back to the United States.
“I’m running out of everything now. Out of veins, out of money.” – William S. Burroughs
By the mid-1960s, Baker’s drug addiction was spiraling out of control. In July 1966, he suffered a severe beating in San Francisco after an attempt to buy heroin off a local dealer. In the documentary film Let’s Get Lost, directed by Bruce Weber, Baker stated that he was at a hotel in Sausalito when a man began following him as he was ascending the stairs. Fearing the man would rob him, he put his hand in his pocket as if he had a gun, and the man eventually left. The following day, five young black men were waiting for him outside. Desperate to leave the scene and to escape a beating, he jumped into a nearby car, but was thrown out by the vehicle’s occupants. Baker had no choice but to fight the men, who knocked him out, leaving him with a bloody mouth and several broken teeth. Contrary to popular belief, Baker did not lose all of his teeth during his encounter with the hustlers. His teeth were already in poor shape due to years of drug use. Unfortunately, due to the poor state of his teeth, his embouchure had been ruined, and he had no choice but to be fitted for dentures.
The ensuing years proved hard for Baker, who was unable to play the trumpet. In a 1980 interview (featured in the film Let’s Get Lost), he recounts that he was completely broke, taking odd jobs and pumping gas from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., which he described as the hardest job. After several years of working at local stores and gas stations (where surprisingly, he was never recognized), Baker came to the realization that he must return to his music. It took him six months to try and find a way to play with dentures, which was no simple feat, as he had to develop a new embouchure. After three years, Baker regained his skills. In 1973, his pal, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, helped arrange a few comeback shows for him. His first show since the incident in Sausalito was played at the ‘Half Note Club’ in New York City, and the following year, Baker played a reunion show with Gerry Mulligan at Carnegie Hall. While years of hard living had altered his voice, critics praised his performances, describing them as the best of his career.
Throughout the seventies, Baker remained an addict, though he would take methadone in order to control his addiction, and manage his life. In 1975, he returned to Europe where he would give the majority of his performances, traveling to the United States for the occasional show. Baker, despite his heroin addiction, was embraced by his European audiences, who viewed him as a fragile and delicate soul, rather than a junkie. Unfortunately, a large number of his European recordings were released without his permission, and he never received royalties.
Concerning his personal life, Baker was notorious for abusing and conning women. According to various sources in James Gavin’s book, Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, Baker’s feelings toward women had always been “violently ambivalent”. He was dependent on them, yet at the same time, mistreated them. Needless to say, the heroin only contributed to his mood swings and violent outbursts. Oddly enough, despite his abusive behavior, women would continue to flock to him. It was apparent that they had fallen for an illusion, in hopes that someday he would become the angelic trumpeter who sang songs of love and romance. According to jazz singer Ruth Young, “None of these songs had any meaning for him, truly. He could have been singing Charmin commercials. He was coming from a musical place, and the words were mere notes to him.”
“It seems to me that most people are impressed with just three things: how fast you can play, how high you can play, and how loud you can play. I find this a little exasperating, but I’m a lot more experienced now, and realize that probably less than 2 percent of the public can really hear. When I say ‘hear’ I mean following a horn player through his ideas and be able to understand those ideas in relation to change.” – Chet Baker
By the 1980s, Baker was revered by many rock musicians. In 1983, he would play the trumpet on Elvis Costello’s song “Shipbuilding” for his 1983 album Punch the Clock. Three years later, he would rejoin Costello and Van Morrison at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London where he would perform a number of his classic songs, including “Just Friends”, “My Ideal” and “Shifting Down”. Baker was well received by critics and fans, although it was evident that his health was poor.
In 1986, director Bruce Weber met Baker at a club in New York City and persuaded him to do a photo shoot. The photo shoot was originally going to be a three-minute film, but it eventually turned into a series of interviews that were incorporated into the 1989 film Let’s Get Lost. The film is a biographical account of Baker’s life, and features a series of interviews with Baker, his family, and close friends. In addition to having a soundtrack consisting of Baker’s early recordings, he also recorded several performances that are included in the film, and the soundtrack album Chet Baker Sings and Plays from the Film “Let’s Get Lost”. The recordings feature an impressive lineup of Baker on trumpet, Frank Stazzeri on piano, Nicola Stilo on guitar, John Leftwich on bass, and Ralph Penland on drums. While Baker was a good sport during these interviews and photo sessions, it was evident that he suffered from severe withdrawal toward the end of filming. As the film comes to a close, Weber tells him how hard it is to see him looking so ill, to which Baker replies “Well Bruce, you want me to level with you and tell you the truth, but in doing that, it only creates pain on your part. Having to live up to the fantasies of others is a big drag.”
“People said I’d never make 35, then I’d never make 40, 45. Now I’m almost 50, so I’m beginning to think they might be wrong.”
On May 13, 1988, after weeks of performing with the NDR Big Band and Hannover Radio Orchestra, Baker was found dead on the street below his second-floor hotel room in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The autopsy would reveal that heroin and cocaine were found in his bloodstream, though the death was ruled an accident. This conclusion did not sit well with Baker’s wife and a number of his friends who assumed he had been a victim of foul play, but the Dutch police investigated no further.
Despite announcements made in newspapers around the world, only 35 people attended Baker’s funeral. To most Americans, he was a former heartthrob turned junkie, and they felt no sympathy towards the ill-fated jazz man. “It was sad. It was not a celebration,” recalled Baker’s high school chum Bernie Fleischer “But nobody expected him to last this long anyway.”
Following his death, the film Let’s Get Lost was released on April 21, 1989, and would go on to receive an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature. In 1997, Baker’s unfinished autobiography was published under the title As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoir. In recent years, the world continues to celebrate Baker’s legacy. In 2015, the Chet Baker Jazz Festival was held in his hometown of Yale, Oklahoma. The following year the Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue was released, starring Ethan Hawke as Baker. As of 1987, Baker has been an inductee in the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.
“I came home one day and there was a telegram from Dick Bock saying that there was an audition for an engagement with Charlie Parker at the Tiffany Club at 3:00. So I raced up there. It’s very dark inside and it’s very bright outside, so I couldn’t see anything for about five minutes. As my eyes got accustomed to the darkness, I looked around the room and every trumpet player in Los Angeles was in there. Evidently someone had spoken to him about me, probably Dick Bock again, and he asked over the microphone if I had arrived yet, and I said yes I was in the room, and he invited me up to the stand. We played two tunes together and he made an announcement over the microphone that the audition was at an end.” – Chet Baker (From his 1986 interview with Elvis Costello)