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A Rebellious And
Soulful Jazz Musician: Chet Baker

Blog
A Rebellious And Soulful Jazz Musician: Chet Baker

19.12.2017

Text: Haluk Damar
Illistration: Saydan Akşit

"James Dean, Sinatra, and Bix, rolled into one.”
Dave Gelly

When Charlie Parker asked Chet Baker to perform together in 1952, this offer marked the peak of Baker’s music career. Most of the jazz listeners know Chet Baker from his recordings, but his live performances between 1950-55 are still among the most praised performances of jazz history.

Baker joined the American army in 1950 and started playing in “Sixth Army Band”, which was located in San Francisco. It was the magical jazz clubs of this beautiful city that has launched Baker’s journey in the genre. While Baker had been sent to Berlin, Germany for his previous army deployment, this time he landed in a special city of jazz history, especially considering that Bebop jazz was getting more and more popular at the time. It was obvious by then that jazz loved Chet Baker and Baker loved jazz back. It was this love that pushed Baker to leave the army and pursue his career as a jazz musician.

Baker started to play with one of the most important names of tenor saxophone, Stan Getz, in 1951 and he was even outshining Getz in performances. These performances attracted the attention of another jazz giant, Gerry Mulligan. After joining the then very popular Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Baker quickly became one of the most anticipated names of the jazz scene. The harmony and competition between Mulligan’s baritone saxophone and Baker’s trumpet was spectacular. Baker and Mulligan duo avoided playing the same tune like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie did. Instead they strived for an almost telepathic communication and they could foresee where the other was heading towards. This extra insightful musical rapport between the two musicians is what made their collaboration uniquely special.

After Gerry Mulligan was arrested with drug related claims, Chet Baker decided to form his own band. Chat Baker Quartet, formed with Russ Freeman on the piano, Carson Smith on the bass and Larry Bunker - who was known from Bill Evans Trio - on the drums, went into studio during early 1953. This newly formed quartet became popular very rapidly, due to their impressive compatibility on stage. Chet Baker became much more dominant with his own band and the rest of the musicians backed his solos with great musical quality. This great harmony brought Chet Baker the best trumpet player title in 1953, surpassing even Miles Davis.

Baker’s popularity caught the attention of Hollywood as well. By 1955 Chet Baker was not only a musician but also an actor. But his main commitment has always been to music. That is why he rejected the long term contract offer from Hollywood and went back to stage. His performances between 1955 - 1957 made him the poster boy of West Coast Jazz.

Baker started to use heroin by 1957. According to Russ Freeman, Baker’s close friend since 50’s, Baker actually have been using drugs since 1951. He was even trading his own instruments for drugs. Later in 1960, Baker was arrested in Italy with drugs and went to jail for a year. He was also deported from England and West Germany for drug-related reasons. In 1966 he was hurt on his mouth during a bar fight and was no longer able to play the trumpet. He quitted his music career and started working at a gas station.

Baker went back to his music career in 1970’s. By then he was living in Europe and going to America once a year for special performances. This period between 1970 and 1985 is accepted as Baker’s maturity years by jazz critics. This period also marks the time when Baker became a full-on studio musician and started recording albums with small European record labels. Unfortunately most of these albums never found a wide audience. Baker continued to perform live on stage with names like Phil Markowitz, Philip Catherine and Stan Getz until 1988 when he fell to his death from his room’s balcony at a hotel in Amsterdam.

Besides being the poster boy of West Coast Jazz, Baker is also credited as one of the legendary trumpet players of jazz history. He is also counted among the most important stage musicians of the jazz scene. Together with Miles Davis, he is one the rare names who can blow their soul into the instrument. He is also a vocalist and an actor. He is the only trumpet player who could surpass Miles Davis’ popularity. “Chet”, “Playboys” and “Chet Baker Sings” are the three great jazz standards that he contributed to jazz history.

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