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Chet Baker: His Life and Music by Jeroen de Valk

In this solidly researched biography of Chet Baker, Jeroen de Valk has attempted to dispel myths about Baker, pointing out that he was not a has-been, but quite popular in Europe during his last dozen years, and that he was not pushed out of a window, but accidentally fell, causing his death. Moreover, he claims accurately that Baker continued to play well until his 1988 death. De Valk overrates Baker, but he was a distinctive, lyrical trumpeter and uniquely moving singer.

Born in 1929, Baker joined the Army at 16, where he played in a band and heard bop records. He claimed that his first major influence was Dizzy Gillespie, and his playing on live selections from 1952 on Chet Baker Live at the Trade Winds and Bird and Chet Live at the Trade Winds (both on Fresh Sound) supports this. Though his bop lines are Gillespielike, however, his small tone and limited range will remind some listeners of Miles Davis. Later in his career he was strongly marked by Davis, but in 1952 was synthesizing influences. He takes a lot of chances on the Trade Winds CDs, and his solos are substantive, although not always cleanly executed.

When Baker recorded with Gerry Mulligan in that year, however, he played less aggressively, partly because he performed in a bop setting with Parker, while Mulligan’s music had more of a Lester Younglike quality. Not given enough credit for marking nonsaxophonists, Young had a strong influence on Baker. Like Young, Baker had a lazy attack, often laying behind the beat, played smooth, legato eighth-note lines and used little vibrato. What’s particularly impressive about his work is his ability to play melodically lovely, smooth and graceful solos, producing a small, velvety tone and working mostly in the middle and lower register. No wonder he was so popular.

In 1953 Baker formed a quartet with pianist Russ Freeman that was aesthetically and commercially successful. The trumpeter was on his way, and during the middle and late ’50s had a large following. In 1956, however, he spent time in jail for drug usage, and was also incarcerated in 1959 and 1960. In the late 1950s Baker began absorbing ideas from Davis and other postboppers. This is apparent on Chet, Plays the Best of Lerner and Lowe and In New York, cut for Riverside in 1958 and 1959 with Johnny Griffin, Pepper Adams and Bill Evans. During the 1960s Baker fell out of favor with the jazz public in the States as part of a reaction against West Coast-style jazz.

From 1969 to 1974 Baker was out of the jazz scene due to drug, psychological and dental problems. But he came back in 1974, moved to Europe in 1975, and lived the rest of his life as a “high-class hobo,” always on the move, with no permanent address, constantly high, but often working for good money.

De Valk has put together a believable portrait of Baker. Despite his admiration for his playing, he’s pointed out the trumpeter’s character flaws, such as unreliability and a lack of consideration for others. There are a number of enlightening interviews here of Baker himself, his widow Carol, his manager Wim Wight, tour manager Peter Huijts, landlord Evert Hekkema and musicians Mulligan, Freeman, Teddy Edwards and Bud Shank.

De Valk also deserves credit for citing some very good latter-day Baker recordings. He thinks the 1988 two-CD Evidence set Chet Baker in Tokyo is his “best recording ever.” It is very good, and surprisingly forceful in places. Other impressive Baker CDs cut abroad include No Problem, with Duke Jordan, and Diane, a wonderful duo record with Paul Bley, both on SteepleChase, and The Last Great Concert (Enja), done mostly with large ensembles. But Baker’s later work isn’t as original as his 1952 to 1956 work; Miles Davis’ influence on him is often apparent. For that reason I’ll have to stick with the conventional wisdom that Baker’s 1952 to 1956 playing was his best.

Originally Published