Chet Baker: Twenty Years

Chet 1.jpgChet Baker’s life of beauty and pain ended twenty years ago tonight on an Amsterdam sidewalk. He may have killed himself. That is unlikely, in my opinion. He may have fallen from his hotel window. He may have been thrown or pushed. Either way, as hard as Baker was on nearly everyone else in his life, he was even harder on himself. Far from the first gifted artist to burn himself out, Chet did it rather slowly compared with Charlie Parker, Bix Beiderbecke, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe. It is a tribute to the toughness of his Oklahoma country genes that despite decades of self-abuse, he lived nearly fifty-eight years.

 Jazz is an art most of which disappears at the instant of its creation. We can be perversely grateful that Baker supported his destructive habit by recording whenever anyone asked him to. There may be a major jazz artist with a larger body of recorded work, but I can’t think who it might be. An astonishing percentage of it is good. He did some of his best playing on record in his final years, when the conventional wisdom was that he was a creative shadow of his young self. He made the brilliant Chet Baker in Tokyo  in concert less than a year before he died. It includes the ultimate version of his signature piece, “My Funny Valentine.”

Because YouTube has withdrawn most of its clips of Baker under threat of legal action, there is little internet video of him. This brief clip from a performance of “Nardis” is an exception. This web site is a grab bag of things Baker and has links to several clips, including scenes from his dreadful 1950s movie Hell’s Horizons. Be patient; the site has maddening buffering problems as the clips come up. This Jazz Icons DVD is the best bet for extended exposure to Baker playing on camera.

The best biography of Baker is probably yet to come because Jeroen de Valk is revising his substantial 1989 account of the trumpeter’s life. Those who think that Baker was trashed in James Gavin’s hateful Deep In A Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker are looking forward to a more balanced treatment in de Valk’s new edition.

The Chet Baker Foundation’s web site contains a touching remembrance of Baker by his former drummer and loyal friend Artt Frank, who is at work on his own book about Baker. Its background music is a wonderfully intimate version of Chet playing “My Funny Valentine.”

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  1. says

    Concerning Chet’s death: a possible ‘murderer’ would have left the room by the window, as the door was locked from the inside. The ‘murderer’ would have done this using mountaineering gear, without leaving any trace in the room and without attracting any attention at this location, just opposite Amsterdam’s central railway station.
    (Mr. de Valk is Chet Baker’s biographer — DR)

  2. Lucille Dolab says

    Thank you so much for your heartfelt tribute to a cherished legend! It is so comforting to see the truth about Chet so clearly stated in your wonderful homage to this great artist! Looking forward to Artt Frank’s book, which will reveal more about the real Chet!
    “Truth is generally the best vindication against slander.” — Abraham Lincoln
    “We know the truth, not only by the reason, but by the heart.”– Blaise Pascal

  3. Charlton Price says

    Anent great stuff from Chet Baker’s last years:
    IMHO, the greatest small group recording of the generation just past (since 1975) is the magisterial “Concierto,” organized by Jim Hall with Desmond, Sir Roland Hanna, Ron Carter, Steve Gadd, and Chet. For me, the supremely elegant track is “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” with contrapuntal musings between Desmond and Baker, then Chet breaking loose with a perfectly crafted chorus “full of power and beauty” (that’s a fragment of a line from my favorite movie, “All About Eve” — but I digress).
    The longest track, a jazz treatment of the second movement of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” is also magnificent Chet. He and everyone else on the date are at the height of their powers.They are all listening to and conversing musically with each other throughout, to a greater degree than I can remember hearing on any other recording by anyone.
    (Concierto is available at this web address, among others: — DR)

  4. David P says

    The de Valk book is indeed very good. I also recall seeing a book consisting solely (I think) of direct quotes from Baker himself, though I can’t recall the name of the book now.
    I’m a fan of his trio work in the period from the late 70s through the mid-80s. “Chet’s Choice” has some great stuff on it — some of it even funky, like “Love for Sale,” if you can believe it. I also enjoy the intimate and compelling “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “The Touch of Your Lips” albums, both from about 1979. Worth seeking out.

  5. Ramsey C. says

    I was the one who uploaded that clip of Chet Baker playing Nardis, the Chet Baker Foundation took it down today, as well as permanently disabling my account. Too bad…