Diversions: Remembering Chet Baker

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I sat through a lot of austere Christian prayer services as a child, but I don’t recall ever reaching anything close to a state of “meditative bliss” until I was in my late 40s, living in England and listening to a compact disc by jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. And neither drugs nor alcohol were involved (at least on my end).

My first musical instrument as a junior-high student in the early 1960s was the cornet, but I don’t recall hearing or playing Chet Baker’s music, despite his fame during the preceding decade. Most likely, my band instructor did not think him a suitable role model for a young brass player. Although Chet hit fame in the early 1950s playing with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and singing his signature version of “My Funny Valentine,” he was better known for his run-ins with the law on drug charges. [1] Meanwhile, I moved on to the French horn, the only true left-handed instrument in the band.

With his “James Dean” good looks, Baker had both admirers and critics among the jazz community. He had a unique breathy trumpet style with occasional intonation problems, especially after he had his two front teeth knocked out in a failed drug buy in 1966. His singing had what American Idol judge Randy Jackson would later famously call a “pitchy”  vocal delivery, but it was as uniquely breathy as his playing style, allowing him to seamlessly intermix the vocals with his trumpet in alternate verses in his songs. Other tunes associated with Chet during those early years were “Let’s Get Lost” and “Just Friends.” [2] His more-accessible version of laid-back West Coast jazz saw him beat out other trumpeters like Miles Davis in popularity polls.

In the early 2000s I came across one compact disc of Baker’s in the public library while living in the oddly-named town of Maidenhead, England, near Windsor Castle. My spouse was traveling for work almost every week, often to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and my daily commute was long and stressful. Too many roundabouts with a stick shift and on the wrong side. I remember being quite exhausted one evening when I put the Chet Baker CD into the stereo, and 45 minutes later I was still awake, but transfixed in a “numinous” state after listening to the entire thing without moving. It was clearly some combination of fatigue and natural hypnosis, but it was both a pleasant and relaxing meditative state.

That experience set me on an acquisition spree for Chet Baker music, and I curated the most “mellowing” selections I found onto several custom-burned CDs, and these became my regular evening de-stress meditation regimen for some time. I still can’t tell you why this worked for me. This playlist went all-digital at some point and it currently has over 100 selections. [3]

Elvis Costello produced a very compelling video of Chet in 1986, two years before his death, playing at Ronnie Scott’s famous jazz club in London. The entire video is available on YouTube, and features duets with Costello and Van Morrison. View at least the opening scene below, as Baker prepares to play. Here you see a man thirty years into a heroin addiction, but his unique playing style still comes through, even as his singing is strained. Van Morrison comes in at about one hour and 36 minutes, with an uncharacteristic version of “Send in the Clowns.”

In 1988, Chet Baker was found dead on an Amsterdam street. He had either fallen, jumped, or been pushed from a high window above the street. A police official at the time commented that any of the three was a likely scenario, and they closed the case.

 


Notes:

  1. Here is an early version of “My Funny Valentine”:

2. Here is a version of “Let’s Get Lost”:

3. For starters, this playlist includes:

  • Time After Time
  • Walking Shoes
  • How Deep is the Ocean
  • I Wish You Love
  • Everything Depends on You
  • Forgetful
  • Someone to Watch Over Me
  • I’m Glad There is You
  • Little Girl Blue
  • The Night We Called it a Day
  • Polka Dots and Moonbeams
  • I Get Along Without You Very Well
  • Here’s That Rainy Day
  • Oh, You Crazy Moon

 

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