Editor’s Note: We are beyond fortunate to be able to print as an exclusive three essays on music, specifically jazz, by Mr. G. Bruce Boyer. After reading Mr. Boyer, you are going to want to hear the music. I have put together a playlist here for you of some of Mr. Boyer’s recommendations. Thank you to Mr. Boyer:
Chet was always an anti-hero.
Ria Wigt, quoted in Chet Baker: His Life and Music, By J. de Valk (Berkeley Hills Books, Berkeley, California, 1989).
He was a person of great anomalies and contradictions. A trumpeter of virtuosity compared favorably to Miles Davis, he was mainly self-taught and played almost entirely by ear. He took no interest in jazz older than bebop, yet when he chose to sing his style and repertoire were purely traditional. He was a depressive personality, but his music is lyrically sweet and melodic. When he sang ballads there was the shy tone of youth about them, the timid sound of first love. He took drugs to devastating effects, yet played with a crystalline flawlessness. His style was famously laid back, effortless and flowing, yet his moods were violently extreme. He reputedly rarely practiced and was considered lazy by other musicians, yet his complete recorded oeuvre consists of over 200 albums in his short 59-year-old life.
When Chet Baker (1929 – 1988) first rose to jazz fame in the early 1950s, it seemed as though he had everything: incomparable natural talent, grace and charm, and unnervingly good looks. He was already a well-known figure on the L. A. jazz club scene, recording, and playing in concerts with Charlie Parker when he was barely out of his teens. When Gerry Mulligan arrived in L. A. in 1952 he met Chet and they started playing together, forming what became the most popular and influential quartet in West Coast jazz ( with Bob Whitlock and Chico Hamilton). Mulligan professed that Chet was perhaps the most gifted trumpeter with whom he’d ever played or even heard.
But then of course there were the drugs. He’d started using heroin probably by the time he was 25 and only intermittently was able to break the habit. It seems as though hard drugs were part of the jazz milieu and heroin became the stuff of legend, the way writers of the 1930s and 40s are all said to have had a bottle of bourbon next to their typewriters. But drug use was not a myth, and the examples of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Art Pepper, Anita O’Day, Gerry Mulligan, Billie Holiday, and Miles Davis, to name only a handful of the most gifted musicians among hundreds are testimony. Parker is often said to have set the style of the tormented, driven genius whose music and habits were emulated and imitated by others. But the prevalence of narcotics was deeply cultural, and Chet Baker took up the style with a vengeance. Mulligan remembered Chet’s life in the 50s as one long party.
He had been born in a small town in Oklahoma, but grew up in Glendale, California, just north of L. A. His parents bought him musical instruments – first a trombone, then a trumpet – and he attended public school but was never serious about formal education. He was an autodidact about most things, and musicians with whom he played have attested he never even knew what key he played in.
L. A. in the early 1950s , Hollywood, Malibu, the beach scene and jam sessions. The new generation of serious actors – Brando and Dean, and Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman – listening to serious jazz at little boits with names like The Lighthouse and The Haig. Dancing to swing bands was for the older crowd who still wore tuxedos and party gowns at the flashy nightclubs around town. The hot record label for new talent was Pacific Jazz, and the music was soft and easy, light and “White”, as opposed to East Coast jazz which was hard-edged, smoldering and heavy and “Black”. The cover of Chet Baker’s “Chet and Crew” album for Pacific in 1956 shows him and the other members of the band cruising along on a sailboat, blue sky above and blue Pacific beneath. It looks like a USC boating frat party. It can only be imagined what Thelonious Monk and Ben Webster would have thought about all this California stuff.
Young Chet was strikingly handsome, a twin for James Dean. Pompadored, swept-back hair, square jawed, and cool eyes but a warm smile, he was catnip to the gals. Tall and slim, the only thing that marred his movie star looks was a missing incisor; it had been knocked out in a childhood fight, and Chet never replaced it for fear it might adversely affect his playing. It didn’t matter to scores of women, and Chet played like an angel.
He had started off, when he was with Charlie Parker in the early years, wearing loose-fitting gabardine suits in the classic zoot suit mold, with hand-painted ties and spread collared “Mr. B” shirts of the period. Hair slicked back with brilliantine into a D.A. in back, sideburns, and a loose wave casually falling over his forehead, he was the picture of the inner-city, hip zoot suiter. But like every other young musician of the 50s, he soon took up the Ivy League Look of seersucker and button downs. This change in sartorial style had come about first when Chet was brought from the West Coast to the East Coast to play the Newport Jazz Festival. Legend has it that George Wein and Charlie Bourgeois, the guys who started the festival, thought Chet’s zoot suit might get him laughed off the stage, took him to Charlie Davidson’s Andover Shop in Harvard square to be outfitted in Ivy League clothes. He came away from that grooming lesson with short hair, trim khakis, oxford cloth button downs, and narrow ties. He loved the casualness of Shetland crewnecks and cardigans, and wore them with T-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes, a warm-weather blend of Ivy and California surfer style.
The look worked well for the romantic ballads he loved to sing in his silk-and-smoky delivery. It was a sort of boy-next-door aura of melancholy, vulnerable youth for females a bit too young for the more Show Biz glitter of Sinatra and Mel Torme. Chet’s more unstudied, quiet approach with a quartet worked better at a college concert full of coeds than he would have in a Las Vegas lounge where slick acts were the rule, and pop performers wore sleek black mohair Continental-styled tuxedos and Chelsea boots, toupees and ruffled dress shirts.
He could have been a film star, he could have become anything. Instead, he was a great musician who became a drug addict with mountingly serious health concerns. As the years flew by, he neglected his family, his teeth fell out, he ping-ponged between heroin and methadone, adding gargantuan quantities of cocaine. He rarely ate anything but junk food and completely neglected his health, and he traveled restlessly from gig to gig without ever having a home. Some think he finally committed suicide, but it appears more likely he simply slipped into a somnambulant drug haze and accidently fell head-first out of a second-story window to the hard pavement below. To see photos of him in the last year of his life is to see a 58-year-old man who looks 80. He had been a Golden Boy from the West, and it had all turned to dross. But in the early recorded music the gold is still there, and we still see him in jeans and a loose sweater, brown shiny hair falling over his forehead as he bends forward into a perfect series of soft notes that seem to inevitably follow each other, playing with all the emotional intensity, warmth, and soulful love in his heart. He was one of those musicians who, in his style and reverence for the music and commitment, made us think that jazz was important.
Select Discography: Six of the Best Early Chet Baker in no particular order
Complete 1953 -62 Vocal Studio Recordings, Valentine Records, 2014.
The Original Quartet with Chet Baker, Blue Note, 1998.
The Best of Chet Baker Sings, Blue Note, 1989.
The Complete legendary Sessions: Chet Baker and Bill Evans, 101 Distribution, 2009.
Together: Complete Studio Recordings of Chet Baker and Paul Desmond, Sony Import, 2008.
Too Cool: Chet Baker, EMI, 2009.
Career: 1952 – 1988, Shout Factory, 2008.
G. Bruce Boyer