Chet Baker: A Rough Life Full of Smooth Trumpet Playing and Singing

Chet Baker: A Rough Life Full of Smooth Trumpet Playing and Singing

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Chet Baker’s life was as rough as his vocal and trumpet sounds were smooth. His vibe is unmistakable and had a big influence on some of the biggest stars in 1950s jazz.

Both of Baker’s parents were musicians – his dad a guitarist, his mom a pianist – who had to take non-musical jobs during the Depression. Fortunately for Baker, born in 1929, they supported their son’s musical ambitions and dreams although theirs had been dashed. He started singing as a young child, and by the time the family moved from Yale, Oklahoma to Glendale, California, his father decided he was ready to learn an instrument. Trombone proved too large. Trumpet, however, was just right.

Baker and high school did not get along, so he dropped out and joined the Army. He put in two years studying music at El Camino College and then re-enlisted, being offered the chance to play in the Army Band at his post in San Francisco. On his nights off, he gigged in clubs. Then, in 1952, he got his big break – a chance to audition for Charlie Parker. “Bird” hired him before he’d even finished playing. A few months later, Gerry Mulligan hired him as trumpeter for his quartet.

In the early 1950s Baker helped invent the sexy West Coast cool jazz sound. When he started adding vocals to recordings, his success only grew. Brazilian guitarist and singer João Gilberto, the father of the bossa nova sound in jazz, credited Baker with influencing the sensual, half-whispered way he delivered lyrics.

But, like many jazz artists of his generation, Baker fell into heroin addiction. He lost gigs, signed to shoddy record deals in desperation, and was in and out of jail. Then, in 1966, while trying to buy heroin, he was badly beaten. His broken teeth were a deathblow to trumpet playing. Although Baker got dentures, his embouchure was ruined. It took nearly seven years for him to figure out how to play again.

Baker died in 1988, nearly forgotten by all but jazz aficionados. But that same year, Bruce Weber directed and Elvis Costello produced a documentary about Baker called Let’s Get Lost, and he started to regain recognition. It was a rediscovery well worth making.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Chet Baker.

  1. Track: “Long Ago (And Far Away)”
    Album: Chet Baker Sings and Plays
    Label: Pacific Jazz
    Year: 1955

The first time Baker sang on an album was the aptly titled Chet Baker Sings in 1954. He made its sequel, Chet Baker Sings and Plays, in 1955. That record became central to the definition of West Coast cool jazz.

Some of the tracks feature Baker’s quartet – Russ Freeman on piano, Bob Neel on drums, and Carson Smith on bass – while others use string arrangements. Baker’s rendition of Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin’s “Long Ago (And Far Away)” gets the quartet treatment.

  1. Track: “Worryin’ the Life Out of Me”
    Album: Chet Baker Big Band
    Label: Pacific Jazz
    Year: 1956

The big band sound suited Baker well. He used to say that he got his vocal phrasing from the way he played trumpet; that lyrical, expressive trumpet style is on wonderful display amid a rich chorus of horns.

“Worryin’ the Life Out of Me” was written by trombonist Miff Mole. The arrangement for nine-piece band is by saxophonist Phil Urso, who’s also playing. Baker doesn’t sing on this track, but his trumpet sure does.

  1. Track: “Summer Sketch”
    Album: Quartet: Russ Freeman/Chet Baker
    Label: Pacific Jazz
    Year: 1957

Baker and pianist Freeman continue their work as the core of Baker’s quartet, which now includes Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. Freeman wrote most of the tracks.

“Summer Sketch” is characterized by a use of dissonance reminiscent of pianist/composer Bill Evans. Freeman lays out the relaxed theme, evoking a lazy summer day, and is joined by the quartet at the 2:14 mark. Notice Baker’s careful, restrained use of vibrato on his sustained notes.

  1. Track: “I’ll Remember April”
    Album: Stan Meets Chet
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1958

The Stan in the title Stan Meets Chet is the great tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. It was their only studio album together. While the rumors that they disliked each other may be true, I disagree with the theory that their mutual animosity harmed this album. There are only four tracks (one of which Getz plays on his own), so there’s plenty of time in each tune for the masters to explore both the music and each other’s ideas.

“I’ll Remember April” opens with them sharing the theme. While Getz takes the first long solo, Baker holds harmonic notes in the background. Marshall Thompson’s hi-hat work keeps the energy up but never frantic. Baker’s turn, starting at 3:45, is understated and searching.

  1. Track: “I Could Have Danced All Night”
    Album: Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Loewe
    Label: Riverside
    Year: 1959

Baker’s sound on both voice and trumpet was ideal for the Great American Songbook, making this collection of Lerner and Loewe songs a joy. An invaluable bonus is the lineup of people who stopped by the studio to help out: Herbie Mann on flute, for instance, and Zoot Sims on tenor and alto saxophone.

“I Could Have Danced All Night,” the dreamy, romantic song from the musical My Fair Lady, is one of those tunes that has the whirling feel of a waltz despite being in 4/4 time. Baker felt that so strongly that he arranged the tuned in 3/4 time, for the opening and closing chorus! But because we’re expecting the original meter, the change causes an underlying syncopation. That enigmatic rhythmic quality remains when the duple meter is restored.

  1. Track: “Flowers on the Wall”
    Album: A Taste of Tequila
    Label: World Pacific
    Year: 1965

By the mid-1960s Baker was considered unreliable and unsignable. Producer Richard Bock was willing to take the risk, but only by employing a marketing gimmick: jazz flugelhorn paired with the hugely popular Tijuana Brass style. Thus, Baker made multiple recordings with a band called the Mariachi Brass.

It’s not Baker’s best playing by any means, yet it represents a fascinating – maybe “weird” is the better word – moment in the history of jazz when these two styles attempted to join. The choice of repertoire is odd, too: “Flowers on the Wall” was a country song by Lewis DeWitt (made famous by the Statler Brothers).

  1. Track: “Bud’s Blues”
    Album: Boppin’ with the Chet Baker Quintet
    Label: Prestige
    Year: 1965

Boppin’ with the Chet Baker Quintet is the last album before Baker’s teeth were ruined that truly represents him as a jazz artist; that is, it’s not just a marketing ploy he was forced to record. The personnel in this quintet include George Coleman on tenor saxophone, Kirk Lightsey on piano, Herman Wright on bass, and Roy Brooks on drums.

It’s no surprise that Baker would be attracted to “Bud’s Blues,” a tune by bebop saxophonist Sonny Stitt whose lush, warm sound was his hallmark. Yet Baker’s interpretation in his solo (starting at 6:50) plucks dissonant, angsty strands from the tuneful theme.

  1. Track: “Ray’s Idea”
    Album: Live at Fat Tuesday’s
    Label: Fresh Sounds Records
    Year: 1981

Incredibly, Baker did eventually get his embouchure functioning again after his teeth were broken. This wonderful live quartet album from 1981 is proof. Baker’s top-notch colleagues are Hal Galper on piano, Bud Shank on alto sax, Ron Carter on bass, and Ben Riley on drums.

“Ray’s Idea” is a bebop tune co-written by Gil Fuller and Ray Brown. Baker’s solo is at 6:50. It doesn’t have the clarity and smoothness he had in the early days, but the musical ideas are just as good.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

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