Diversions: Remembering trumpeter Chet Baker

Trumpeter and singer Chet Baker died 33 years ago this week in Amsterdam. He was found dead on the street underneath his room, and with traces of heroin and cocaine in his system. The circumstances behind his death were never officially determined, but one biographer has commented that it was equally likely that he either fell from the window, or jumped, or was pushed. None of these would have been a surprise his friends or the authorities.

By 1988 Baker had been on and off heroin for over thirty years. He had switched from trumpet to flugelhorn for a time because his trumpet was stolen. Or perhaps simply lost. Or maybe just damaged. The story was fluid. His front teeth, so crucial to playing trumpet, had been knocked out by goons collecting a drug debt. Or maybe they deteriorated and had to be replaced with a denture due to his bad lifestyle habits. Myth and fact intermingle freely in Baker’s life story, and at any rate his embouchure problems kept him from playing for a couple of years, surviving that period by working in a gasoline station.

My first musical instrument in the late 1950’s, the time of Baker’s biggest commercial success, was the cornet, but I do not recall ever hearing Baker’s name or playing his music. Perhaps our band director was sheltering us from his already-bad reputation. It was not until I was living in England in the early 2000s and came across a large collection of his music in the local library that I started building my own playlist of favorite Chet Baker tunes.

Chet Baker

Starting out as an instrumentalist/sideman with saxophonists Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Charlie Parker, Baker’s biggest hit was his rendition of the Rogers and Hart tune My Funny Valentine, recorded in several different versions over the years. On this and many other songs Baker would often combine a verse in his smooth, breathy trumpet style with a verse mirrored by a similar breathy vocal. To use a term popularized in recent years by music producer Randy Jackson, his delivery on both trumpet and vocal was often “pitchy,” but this fragile-sounding style became his trademark.

While Baker would also branch into more upbeat and progressive jazz, it is possible to build a long playlist of just his “mellow” tunes. My own “Mellow Chet Baker” iTunes playlist has 110 recordings in it. Here is a small sample from Spotify:

Here is Chet in 1964, missing one tooth and playing the flugelhorn on Time after Time, written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne:

In 1986, Elvis Costello filmed a concert and interview with Baker at a London jazz club, and it turned out to be one of Chet’s last recordings. Van Morrison also shows up in the film, now on YouTube in its entirety, with an interesting rendition of Send in the Clowns, accompanied by Baker. The film opens with Chet sitting silent for an uncomfortably-long period, preparing to play. Once a handsome “James Dean-looks” idol during the 1950s, he shows the effect of thirty years of heroin use, yet he still manages to create an evocative performance.

Here is Chet Baker with Van Morrison (at 17:25) and Elvis Costello (at 45:50) in 1986, “Live at Ronnie Scott’s”:

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