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Chet Baker

Picture from the cover of the book mentioned below.


The text below is taken in excerpt from a short biography in the discography-book

"CHET - the music of Chesney Henry Baker"

by Thorbjørn Sjøgren, Jazzmedia APS, Copenhagen 1993. I strongly recommend the book, which probably has the by far most extensive discography.


Bibliography, filmography and soundclips


Chet Baker was born on December 23, 1929, in Yale, Oklahoma. His father, Chesney Baker, sr., played guitar semi-professionally in a local Country-and-Western band.

In 1940 the family moved to Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles. Chets earliest musical activities happened when his mother "used to drag me around to the amateur contests that they had in L.A. on sunday afternoons. I had to compete with girls playing accordeon or tap-dancing. I never won, but I was second once. Even at that time I was singing the current ballads. I sang in a church choir at the same time - 1941 and 42". When Chet was 13 years old his father bought him a trumpet, and Chet started taking lessons at Glendale Jr.High School, but as he was more inclined to play by ear than by the written music, this was not too succesful.

However, during his high school years, he played in the school's marching band as well as in a dance band during evenings, but at 16 he quit school for good and - after adding one year to his age - went into the US Army. He was soon transferred to Berlin, Germany, in a clerk´s position, but before long ended up as a member of the 298th Army Band. "I stayed in Germany for a year and it was the first time I got to listen to any jazz. They had V-Discs coming over the Armed Forces Network - Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie - so I guess those were my earliest influences, especially Dizzy. Before that I heard more of Harry James than anyone else - tunes like "You made me love you"".

Following his discharge in 1948, he returned to Los Angeles, for a short time studying music theory at El Camino College, but most often hanging around and listening to whoever of the young, promising trumpet players came through town, Red Rodney, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, or playing with the Californian talents, often jamming at "The Lighthouse", "Bop City" and "Blackhawk"

For whatever reason, he reenlisted in the army in 1950, joined the Presidio Army Band in San Francisco..."I played in the band all day, went to sleep in the evening, got up about 1.a.m., I'd go and play until 6, then I'd race back for the reveille, play in the band and go back to sleep". This routine continued for about a year, until Chet was transferred to Ft. Huachuca in the Arizona desert. Though still able to play in the band there, life away from L.A. did not appeal too much to him, and after a couple of months, he deserted. After having reported to the military authorities again, he went through psychiatric tests at a military hospital and was finally declared unfit for military service.

The first commercially issued recording that Chet Plays on, comes (not surprising) from a jam session at the "Trade Winds Club" on March 24, 1952, and around the same time he played with Freddie "Snickelfritz" Fischer's dixieland/show band and with tenor saxophonist Vido Musso. Soon after this, however he got what might be called "his local breakthrough", as he was hired by altoist Charlie Parker for some West Coast gigs and a short trip to Canada..."At that time I was living in Lynwood, California. I was married, my wife worked in a dress shop,and I came home one afternoon and there was a telegram from, I think, Dick Bock that said that Bird was holding audition for a trumpet player at the Tiffany Club at 3 o'clock, so I ran up there. When I got to the club, every trumpet player in L.A. was there. I got up and played two tunes and he (Charlie Parker) stopped the audition and hired me on the spot. I was 22 at the time."

On several occasions, Baker has told about that time, displaying great affection for Parker: "Bird was certainly a very strong influence on me. He was a very nice man. He protected me any way he could. He didn't have a car, so I used to drive him around to places. He drank a lot of Hennessey and did some other things, too, but he did not try to give me anything or even let anyone else give me anything in terms of drugs. He was very protective to me, and he was great at trying to secure a few more bucks for the rhythm section than what the contract called for."

When Gerry Mulligan put together his quartet in the summer of 1952, he also chose Baker as his front-line partner, possibly because he had already played with him at jam sessions around L.A. Whatever the reason for not including a piano in the group (there are conflicting reports about this matter), the quartet, which started playing at the Haig on Monday nights (Red Norvo's trio was the six-nights-a-week attraction), took over the stage after Norvo, and their tenure lasted until June, 1953, when Mulligan had to do a 90-days sentence. The quartet was an almost overnight-sensation and drew capacity crowds to the small club, located at Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. But dis- agreement on salaries prevented Mulligan and Baker from getting together again after the former's release, and Baker took over the residency at the Haig as well the bassist and drummer, making the group another sort of quartet by including pianist Russ Freeman. Being by now managed effectively by Joe Glaser's office, the quartet set out on its first national tour in March, 1954, quicly gaining attention, both from critics and from the record-buying audience, and Baker by now starting winning polls in both Down Beat and Metronome Magazine.

With Baker's carelessness about financial matters and dislike of conflicts, it was inevitable that the quartet should split up. This it did in the summer of 1955, and a few weeks later, Baker started his 7-month European tour which ended up being twice as long as had been scheduled from the beginning. Joining him from the start were pianist Dick Twardzik, bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Peter Littman, but unfortunately only a few recordings of that quartet were made, and on October 21, 1955, Twardzik died of an overdose,in his hotel room in Paris. For the remaining tour, which was the most extensive, yet done by an American jazz musician, Baker had to rely on many different backings: some were not up to his own standards, but he also got in touch with first-rate musicians, with whom he played during his later visits to - and, travels around - Europe: Lars Gullin, Bobby Jaspar, and Jacques Pelzer, just to name a few.

Back in the states in April, 1956, he immediately formed a new group and continued recording for Pacific Jazz (also for Riverside), his playing now oriented a bit more towards the current "neo-bop" trend. Though there was no shortage of work, he soon got into trouble: "When I came home, I started using drugs. I got busted several times, went to the federal hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, then i got busted in New York and spent four months on Riker´s Island (actually, Baker was released two months early because of good behavior), and I decided to leave the United States for a while". Contributing to this decision might also be the fact that he had no Cabaret Card, without which he could not legally work in places, serving alcohol.

In-the autumn of 1959 Baker went to Italy, this time as a soloist, and for the following four and a half years he worked in Europe. On many occasions later on, he has spoken openly about his ups and downs during that period, including his time in prison in Italy, and it is evident that he has never seen himself as the unhappy or romantic outlaw or misfit, that part of the press often labelled him. Rather the opposite: He always had a very realistic and matter-of-fact attitude towards the problems (partiularly concerning drugs) that he ran into, sometimes spiced with a dash of self-irony.

And as he was cheated and taken advantage of, moneywise, some suspicion would not have been surprising. But no matter what costs his habit had in other areas, he was basically kind to people around him and trusted them.( Many years later, when I myself was involved in a recording session with him, I had done the necessary preparations, and when we discussed the money, I told him: "Only thing is, you'll have to trust me". And I'll never forget his answer: "I don't see why I shouldn't". And he even cared to ask: "Any special songs you'd like me to play ?".)

Back in USA again on March 4, 1964, things were different from when he left in '59: Not only did he bring a wife and son (Carol Jackson, an English show-dancer, whom he had met in Italy in 1960 and their son Dean, born in England on Christmas day, 1962), but as rock music was rapidly taking over, work for a jazzman, and particularly for one, who had been off the US scene for almost 5 years, was not too easy to get. When he was ripped off by his manager, he went to California with the family. Soon after this, his downhill slide started: he recorded several albums for the World Pacific label (now owned by Liberty Records), commercial music of no jazzvalue,.and in August 1966 he was knocked down and badly hurt. Worst of all (for a trumpet player): His teeth were knocked and kicked out, and for several years he was hardly able to play, as can be witnessed by the few record dates he had.

From 1970 Baker gave up playing altogether and lived on welfare with his wife and children (In addition to Dean, they now also had son Paul and daughter Melissa), but in 1973 he took up the trumpet again, and one incident in particular triggered his comeback: During a visit to Denver to see his old friend Phil Urso, he stopped by at a club, where Dizzy Gillespie was playing. When Gillespie heard that Baker was playing regularly again and was interested in getting gigs, he called up the Canterino Brothers, who were running New York's legendary "Half Note". Baker then played three weeks at the Half Note in July, and this was the beginning of his comeback.

However, working opportunities were still limited in the States, so in July 1975, Baker again tried his luck in Europe, after 11 years' absence. And although he had been out of focus for almost this entire period, he was definitely not a forgotten man in Europe. Though he did not set up any sort of permanent headquarters, he spent the main part of his remaining 13 years in Europe. Constantly on the move, playing the most remote locations, under the weirdest circumstances, with accompanists ranging from the sublime to the amateurish. If he had a few weeks at one place, he stayed with friends: Dutch trumpeter Evert Hekkema gave him an extra key to his apartment, so he could just come and go as he pleased. But mostly it was long car rides, hotel rooms, small clubs, and the next day the same all over again.

Once in a while, he was back in the States for a short while: to see the family in Oklahoma (he was still married to Carol at the time of his death), to do a gig or a record date, but he returned to Europe pretty soon, and he ended up being the most frequently-recorded among the American jazzmen in Europe: a complete Chet Baker-collection will hold approximately 200 albums, some available on LP, some on CD, but half of this number made during his last fifteen years.

"As l rely 100 % on the ear, I react strongly to everything that goes on around me. The conditions that I've had while learning to play, do not exist anymore. I feel like I belong to a species, threatened by destruction. Sad, in a way, but that´s what they call progress, isn't it ?" "I play every set as if it were the final one. It has been like this for years. I don't have too much time left, and it's important to show the musicians I'm playing with - more than anybody else - that I give everything I've got in me. And that I expect them to do the same. Music comes from within, and it happens thanks to the musicians I'm playing with. I love to play, and I think that's the only reason I've been brought into the world."

Chet Baker died on May 13, 1988, in Amsterdam, Holland. He (allegedly) fell from the window of his hotel room in the early morning hours. He was 58 years old.

Another Chet fan, Dorena Kerry, has informed me that he is buried beside his father in Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California.


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Comments (please don´t ask general questions about Chet, I have so little time) : Jesper Svarre


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