Chet Gets Lost

When in 1987 the book ‘The Hip’ by Roy Carr was published, the ‘model’ on the cover caused quite a stir.  It was a photo of a very cool looking dude in a white tee shirt, cuddling a trumpet. It is said that various casting agents rang the book’s publisher to enquire of his name, looking to book him for advertising campaigns for famous fashion brands.

Instead they were politely informed that the photo was in fact a real life trumpet player called Chet Baker and the photo had been taken something like thirty years earlier.

Yep he looked that good.

They used called him the ‘James Dean of Jazz’.

Yep, he was that cool.

The years that followed that photo-shoot in the late 50s were a roller-coaster ride however of drug abuse, broken promises, fading beauty and ultimately a tragic death.

And that story is the subject if my blog today.

Chesney Henry Baker was born in 1929 in Oklahoma. His father Chesney senior was a professional guitarist, so music was in the genes.  But during the great depression of the 1930s, Chesney senior had to abandon that career to take regular work to feed the family.

Young ‘Chetty’ as his mum called him was found to have a natural talent for the trumpet, memorising tunes straight off the radio, to then play instantly.

He joined the US army aged just 16 in 1946 and served in the 298th Army band stationed in Berlin. He left in 1948, to then study musical theory at college in Los Angeles before re-joining the army until 1951.

Upon leaving he then joined forces on the West Coast of the US with first Charlie Parker and then the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in 1952, having a hit with the tune ‘My Funny Valentine’, a tune that would accompany him on his life’s journey.

Signs of what was to come however appeared not long after as a drug bust meant an early prison sentence.

Yep, he was that hooked.

Upon release he began to win ‘Top Trumpet’ polls in jazz magazines against such competition as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. He also revealed a fine and mellow singing voice.

Yep, he could play.

His record ‘Chet Baker Sings’ is a firm favourite of your correspondent, who upon first hearing it in a record shop before purchasing, was not sure if it a was a male or female voice.

Yep, his voice is that sweet.

All in all, he was by his stage, very much the poster boy of the jazz scene. Of course Hollywood came calling, trying to cash in on his good looks and already burgeoning reputation, but in truth Chet preferred the life on the road as a musician, and after some dabbling in front of the cameras was soon off on further adventures.

He toured Europe, recording in Italy where he was once again arrested on drug charges. In footage from this period, he can be seen smiling and revealing a missing front tooth. His looks were beginning to go already, but he didn’t seem too concerned with any of that.

His use of Heroin is said to have started in the early 50s, so by the end of the decade he was a full-blown junkie. In the following few years he would find himself expelled from Germany and the UK following further drug issues.

In the late 60s he suffered a severe beating as a drug-buying trip went horribly wrong. His face was caved in resulting in the loss of more teeth and severe damage to his embouchure, which then resulted in him being unable to play his trumpet for a few years.

During this time he worked at a gas station to earn money to live.

However, a new set of dentures meant a new embouchure developed around them, enabling him to return to the world of jazz.

He first played in New York and then hit Europe again, where he pretty much settled from 1978. 

He played the trumpet solo on super fan Elvis Costello’s version of his song ‘Shipbuilding’ which gained him a new audience, curious to learn his backstory. Baker would later use Costello’s song ‘Almost Blue’ in his live sets as well as recording it.

Chet sadly died in Amsterdam in May 1988, found in the street with a severe head trauma thought to have been the result of a fall from his third floor room window at the Hotel Prins Hendrik.

A verdict of accidental death was recorded at the inquest.

He was 58. Somehow, someway, he recorded over 100 albums in his turbulent lifetime. 

That same year, the documentary ‘Lets Get Lost’ by Bruce Weber, hit my radar. It is uncomfortable viewing in places but he shows the free spirit that was Baker in full flow.

A 2015 film ‘Born To Be Blue’ featured the actor Ethan Hawke as Chet during his struggle to get his career back on track in the late 1980s.

Celebrated jazz critic Dave Gelly said of Baker, that he was ‘James Dean, Sinatra, and Bix (Biederbecke), rolled into one.’

Yep, he really was that good.

The Mumper of SE5