The Troubled Life and Musical Genius of Jazz Trumpet Icon Chet Baker.
The life and death of trumpet icon Chet Baker is very emblematic of the American jazz scene, particularly the 1950s West Coast 'cool jazz scene'. There was so much promise and possibility in the music.There was also too much heroin. A very apt comment about Baker is that in his early career he had the promise of James Dean, Frank Sinatra and Bix Biederbecke rolled into one. There was a very long fade out for Baker though. He didn't die young like Biederbecke and grow into a jazz legend. When the end came for troubled Baker, he was much older than his 58 years. The boy from Oklahoma who started out with just his ability to play a melodic trumpet was a used up junkie who took a mysterious dive out of a Amsterdam hotel room window.
Chet Baker's complicated journey through lfe began in Oklahoma in 1929. Young Chet came by music early and was encouraged by both parents. School wasn't going much of anywhere so the boy ran off and joined the army at 16. He played his trumpet while in the army and, in 1950, after getting his discharge, began to pursue a career. The big breakthrough came when Charlie Parker selected Baker to play a few dates with him. In 1952, Baker joined the Gerry Mulligan trio and hit pay dirt. The trio became the hottest act in jazz for the year they were together. Mulligan and Baker complimented and played off of each other in their music had chemistry.
When Mulligan was arrested and went to jail on that old jazz bugaboo, drugs, Baker set out on his own. Everything was fine for a while. The Chet Baker Trio was popular in both live sets and records. Chet Baker also made his film debut during these years. The sky seemed to be the limit for the handsome southern boy who in jazz magazines was polling above all other trumpet players, even Miles Davis. Heroin addiction had came to stay by the late fifties. Baker increasingly began working in Europe as his drug use escalated. In the early Sixties, he served over a year on a drug charge in Italy. He was kicked out of Britian and Germany and returned to scrounge a living in second rate clubs. In 1968 Chet Baker suffered a beating that knocked out most of his front teeth which makes it really hard to play trumpet. This dilemma was solved by false teeth so that Baker scratched out a modest living into the 1980s. A mild resurgence took place in that decade as other musicians such as Elvis Costello, sought out Baker to work with.
According to CounterPunch, Chet Baker was found in a fetal position with his head crushed outside the hotel where he was staying in Amsterdam. The police ruled that he had jumped out a window. No one really knows what happened. He was 58 years old.
The last word on Chet Baker, who despite all his personal failings could be a sublime musician, comes from writer and music teacher Ted Gioia. He wrote in an essay that Chet Baker was one of the greatest melodic soloists of mid century American music. That should be his epitaph.