Sunday, November 29, 2020

MEET... Chet Baker

Born to a professional-guitarist father and a perfumier-pianist mother in 1929, Chesney Henry Baker would grow up to be one of the most critically acclaimed jazz musicians throughout the 1950s.

Alongside the trumpet, Baker was also vocally compared, by Gelly Dale (a Jazz musician biographer), to "James Dean, Sinatra, and Bix [Beiderbecke], rolled into one". Establishing his place as a forming father of the 'Cool Jazz' genre, Baker released such seminal tracks as  "I Fall In Love Too Easily" and "My Funny Valentine" - both found on the 1956 album, Chet Baker Sings.

After performing in Germany through the war in a U.S. Army Band, Baker started in the Jazz scene around 1952 as a trumpeter in Vido Musso's, then Stan Getz's bands. 

After supporting Charlie Parker (an acclaimed jazz saxophonist) on a west coast trail, Baker joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet cementing him firmly in the Californian jazz club scene, regularly performing in the Haig and the Tiffany Club. After Mulligan's arrest on drug charges, Baker found his leading-man break. Forming his Jazz band and subsequently releasing albums such as Chet Baker & Strings, Chet Baker Ensemble, Chet Baker Sings and Plays (not released until 1964) and the aforementioned, Chet Baker Sings.

Baker's career wasn't plain-sailing, however. In the late 1950s, as his popularity was arguably coming to its peak, Baker started to use heroin. Drugs became a usual factor into his touring and, as can be expected, tended to be the cause of his problems. In one instance, Baker was to record in Italy, in what would be named the Milano Sessions. However, before the recording date, Chet Baker was charged and arrested for drug possession in Lucca, Italy; The producer of the session had to discuss through the prison warden Baker's plans for recording with his orchestra. 

Drug possession became a running theme for Baker throughout the 1960s, thwarting chances for Baker to perform in Europe, eventually being deported from Germany back to the U.S. Around 1966, Baker was robbed and beaten outside of a club he had just performed in, just outside of San Francisco. The attack left Baker with a ruined 'embouchure' - the shaping of facial muscles, lips and teeth to the mouthpiece of a wind or brass instrument, a skill you build as you train in your instrument. His 'broken' embouchure ultimately led Baker to give up music.

Around the end of the 1960s to early 1970s, Baker aimed to retrain his embouchure (with the help of dentures), after finding himself working at a gas station. He ultimately wanted to get back into Jazz, and so he moved to New York. Throughout the 70s, Baker supported quartets and other jazz musicians in the bebop and cool jazz scenes. He later moved to perform in Europe from 1978 until he died in 1988.

Chet Baker was a titan of the west coast/American jazz scenes. He was a well-respected musician who won the affections of Elvis Costello and Van Morrison. His smooth crooner-like voice became a stand out feature of his music, alongside his elegantly orchestrated trumpet melodies. If you are looking to have a listen to Baker's music, start with listening through his 1956 album, Chet Baker Sings - It is a fantastic album that will make you fall in love with his voice.

- Charlie Cowburn


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