On September 27th Simon Drew will return to the Doo-Bop basement for a tribute to one of the most iconic musicians of all time, ‘Prince of Jazz’ Chet Baker. What makes Chet Baker so special? Read on to find out more.
“Chet Baker was one of the great musical stylists of the 20th century. His perfect trumpet tone mixed with his rich and limited vocal style came together to create music that was unique and immediately recognisable. He lived a hard life, and if you listen carefully you can hear that life in his renditions of songs like My Funny Valentine or Born To Be Blue. I fell in love with his music when I was younger and only played the trumpet, and I hope that my tribute to Chet will have you falling in love with his music too.” Simon Drew
The Prince of Jazz: Chet Baker
The Prince of Jazz, The Prince of Cool, The James Dean of Jazz, whatever name you refer to Chet Baker by, he certainly left his mark on the jazz world.
Chet Baker was one of the front men of the West Coast cool-jazz of the 50s. The trumpeter attracted attention not only for his musicality, but also his voice, good looks, and brazen drug addiction. Born to a guitarist father and pianist mother, Baker sang in amateur competitions as a child, moving to play the trombone at 14 when his father brought it home. The instrument proved to be too big and cumbersome for the teenager, so he moved to the trumpet. Baker was able to undertake a couple of years of music training in school, but dropped out at 16, and spent the rest of his life playing by ear, never learning to read music.
After dropping out of school Baker enlisted in the army, playing in bands, before finally leaving in 1950 and hitting the West Coast club scene. His big break came in 1952 and he began playing with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, a band which caught attention as they played with only a baritone sax, trumpet, bass, and drums – no piano. They were revolutionary! It was during this time that the famous version of Baker’s My Funny Valentine was recorded, however the group didn’t last long as Mulligan was imprisoned on drugs charges.
At this time, Baker went solo and formed his own quartet, later releasing Chet Baker Sings, in 1954. The album was both highly acclaimed and polarising. Baker dared to be different. Rather than the up-tempo, busy sounds jazz aficionados were used to, Baker played and sang with a haunting simplicity never seen before. After the release of this album, he would continue to sing for the rest of his career.
With his chiselled jaw and smouldering eyes, Baker was hounded by Hollywood and made his movie debut in a B-grade film in 1954. Declining a studio contract not long after to focus on his music, Hollywood would continue to hound the musician until he appeared in All The Fine Young Cannibals in 1960.
During the late 50s Baker spent time in prison and attempting to escape further punishment, fled to Europe, but it wasn’t long before he was incarcerated in Italy for possession. He was later deported and bounced around the continent due to addiction related crime, before landing back in America in 1964. Back in the States, Baker played again in New York and Los Angeles. Then in San Francisco in 1966, Baker was beaten badly and had his front teeth knocked out, making it impossible to play the trumpet until he had dentures fitted. This period was detrimental to his career and reflective of his collapse into the grip of drug addiction. By the end of the 60s he was playing infrequently and not at all by the early 70s.
With drug addiction comes the need for constant income and often Baker took on recording contracts at whim, recording over 100 albums throughout his career, although his style and quality is inconsistent, he is still considered one of the jazz greats.
The mid-70s saw Baker try and rebuild his career and in 1974 he and Mulligan played a reunion concert at Carnegie Hall. By the end of the decade, Baker had joined A&M’s Horizon jazz imprint and contemporised his sound with the electric, funk-infused album You Can’t Go Home Again, which even had a hint of disco. Baker’s attempt to reinvigorate his career didn’t go quite as planned and in 1978 he returned to Europe, where he continued to play for the next ten years.
It was in Amsterdam, in 1988, that Chet Baker fell to his death from his hotel window. Much mystery still surrounds the event, was it a suicide? Was he pushed?
Over his life, Baker never learned to read music, nor follow the rules of jazz or conformist society. Baker proved that you didn’t need to be a Juilliard graduate to make great jazz – all you needed was an instinctive grasp of its vocabulary, the ability to play and improvise with deep feeling, and, crucially, your own unique sound.
Three decades after his death, the world’s fascination with Chet Baker is as strong as ever. When he was at his best, the music he made with his horn was pure poetry, and that’s why it continues to resonate with listeners, both young and old, today.