Few musicians have embodied the romantic, and ultimately tragic, jazz figure as totally as Chesney "Chet" Baker (1929-88). Unschooled yet eloquent in his music, and a fast liver who somehow managed to survive for nearly six decades, the Baker mystique has only reinforced one of the most haunting trumpet styles and ingenuous approaches to jazz singing.
Baker, who never learned to read music, got his training in army bands, where he developed a spare and introverted voice on the horn. The Oklahoma native gravitated to Los Angeles after his discharge, and beat out all of the local competition in an audition for a short tour with Charlie Parker in 1952. Later that year, he began working with Gerry Mulligan in a quartet that established an instant personality through the absence of a piano and the intriguing counterpoint between trumpet and baritone sax. An early recording of "My Funny Valentine" by the Mulligan quartet caused a national sensation and made the fragile sound of Baker's horn emblematic of an entire "cool" attitude.
In 1953, Baker began a recording and performing relationship with pianist Russ Freeman that solidified his status as a major jazz star. One key to this success was Baker's singing, which sustained the wistful vulnerability of his trumpet work. Baker's good looks and growing reputation for high living also fed his notoriety, although a growing frequency of drug incidents (including one that claimed the life of pianist Richard Twardzik during a 1955 European tour by Baker's quartet) soon began to overshadow Baker's playing. Yet somehow, in this period as later in his career, Baker was able to keep his music under control, and to incorporate any technical lapses into the fabric of his image.
While the cool label became a Baker trademark, he was in fact a modern trumpeter who could play with the hardest boppers, as several recordings made in New York during the late Fifties demonstrate. By decade's end, Baker was living in Europe, where he hoped to pursue a film career as well as music; but further drug problems led to a prison sentence in and set Baker upon the peripatetic lifestyle that he pursued for the next quarter century. He returned to the in 1964, where he made several fine albums with George Coleman and Kirk Lightsey. Then his career seemed permanently ended in 1968, when Baker lost his teeth in an altercation with other junkies in San Francisco. He stopped playing for two years, then resurfaced again in New York in 1973, where he renewed his recording career. Much of his final decade was spent in Europe, often working with a trio completed by guitar and bass. Always in need of money to support his addictions, and still widely popular, Baker became one of the most voluminously documented jazz artists in history during the 1980s.
Prior to his mysterious death in Amsterdam, where he fell out of a hotel window, Baker was the subject of Bruce Weber's film Let's Get Lost, a fascinating study of hero worship and self-destruction.