The Heartbreaking Beauty of Chet Baker
It’s autumn in New York, and as I always do at this time of year, I pull Chet Baker from the shelf. His “Autumn in New York” – ironically recorded during one of his lengthy European soujourns (Jazz In Paris: Chet Baker Quartet Plays Standards; or the eponymous Autumn In New York, two versions separated only by a shift in modulation) – is imbued with the sound of one leaf falling, its solitary journey begun the moment a stem snaps and detaches, leaving the melody of the wind rustling through branches. Baker’s fragile tone and hollowed features reflect the earth on its way to winter, when all is frozen into silence, the memory of life breathing its last through the bell of a trumpet.
Chet Baker’s name in jazz and popular lore is usually accompanied by the word “tragic,” the sordid circumstances and personal unraveling of his relationships shadowing his career much as a brush-stroke rhythm section would keep time behind his interpretation of song. Yet the voluminous body of work and the reverence which accompanies his artistic output shows that doomed romanticism has its continual appeal; and to Baker’s credit, his music reveals unsparing pain and shattered beauty like no other. At odds with himself, each note seems chosen with a care that he could not lavish on his own being, or those around him: his family, his fellow musicians, his audience.
In some ways it came too easy. With his good looks, his ability to hear music even as he could not read it, and his embodiment of the hip, laid-back sheen of ’50s West Coast cool jazz after the frantic be-bop explosion of the late ’40s, he knew how to hold his instrument – which was himself. Later in the decade would come James Dean and Elvis, each broodingly sculptured, each bearing their hallmarks of the ’50s slow boil. Chet seemed star-crossed from the beginning, chosen by Charlie Parker to accompany him on a California visit documented on the 1952 Bird and Chet at the Tradewinds. After this virtual benediction, Chet embarked on a partnership with Gerry Mulligan, and their earliest recordings (The Complete Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker – The Original Sessions 1952-1953) moved away from heated soloing to an emphasis on melody and studied nonchalance. At one of their first recording dates, for Fantasy Records in September of 1952, they cut a version of the “Carioca,” two Mulligan originals shrewdly dedicated to local disc jockeys (“Line for Lyons” and “Bark For Barksdale”), and a standard, “My Funny Valentine,” which centered around Baker’s quiescent delivery. They had not played the Rodgers-Hart composition before, and Chet’s instinct was to stick close to the tune as written, which proved prescient.
His and Mulligan’s personalities were soon at war, neither willing to be a sideman to the other. Still, Chet had found his calling card, and after he established his own Quartet with Russ Freeman on piano for Don Bock’s Pacific Jazz label, he took a chance to record with orchestral accompaniment. The success of Chet Baker with Strings led him even further from jazz’s penchant for deconstruction; in February of 1954, he began to sing. The resulting and deservedly classic 10-inch record was simply titled Chet Baker Sings, and his smoldering way with a ballad, especially “My Funny Valentine,” made him a heartthrob, the jazz equivalent of a teen idol. Helped along by William Claxton’s photographs of a moody Baker in an undershirt clutching his trumpet, the record far outsold its Downbeat demographic. Baker was an anointed star, white and ready for prime-time success. But though suffused in chiaroscuro light by Claxton’s lens and the whispered intimacy of a Neumann microphone, the inner Chet was a roiling mass of contradiction, enhanced by the drug addiction that was considered de rigueur as part of the mid-century jazz lifestyle.
It began falling apart for him almost immediately. Touring incessantly, recording albums of varying qualities, he seemed uncertain whether to devote himself to advancing his jazz credentials or catering to his new audience of adoring femmes. When he met Dick Twardzik in Boston, it seemed as if Chet might be able to have both. The young pianist was a challenging and harmonically complex musician, and Baker took to him instantly, adding him to the quartet he would take to Europe in the fall of 1955. But Twardzik hardly lasted a month on that tour before succumbing to a drug overdose. A few days later, Baker would record the songs that make up Chet Baker in Paris, and set forth on his own horrific descent into a whirlpool of drugs, jail, missed opportunities and wasted lives. Let’s Get Lost, as Bruce Weber’s worshipful film titles it, captures Chet’s junky conniving even as he makes his mournful trumpet bemoan his fates and complicity in his own downfall.
There were still more than 30 years yet to come in Baker’s life and discography, and often it’s hard to tell when he was able to rise above his personal travails to connect with his inner muse. There were many collaborations with his peers – outstanding are The Route with Art Pepper, another who wore his track marks on his sleeve; the 1956 Chet Baker and Crew which attempted to inject a bit of East Coast edge with tracks like “Chippyin’;” Chet Baker In New York, surrounding him with New York boppers; and Baby Breeze, a 1965 effort that moved him away from behind-the-beat tempos and gave him a strong instrumental foundation, especially provocative in the vocals. “You’re Mine, You” set him alongside Kenny Burrell’s chordal guitar magic, and he negotiated the emotions with aplomb.
But as decades passed, Chet’s unreliability and sense of scam increased exponentially. He retreated within himself. In the mid ’70s, I went to a small cellar jazz club on West 86th Street called Stryker’s to see him. There, with a bare minimum of notes, hardly breathing through his horn, he made every inflection count, drawing from his tortured soul the mea culpa of his many transgressions.
He lived until 1988, and on My Favourite Songs: The Last Great Concert attests, recorded only two weeks before his death falling from an Amsterdam hotel room, he once again proved his paradox. The concert had been arranged by a North German Broadcasting producer, Kurt Giese, with a hope of celebrating Chet Baker with Strings. Baker hardly showed for rehearsal, and when he did, his erratic performance was met with trepidation. But on the night of April 29, in the city of Hannover, he seemed inspired, in control of his trumpet and his well-worn voice. The version of “My Funny Valentine” is especially poignant, given its place in Baker’s legend, and Chet pours all of his inner contradictions into its unfolding. “Stay, little Valentine, stay…” And though he couldn’t, the bittersweet legacy that he left us remains still – a heart pierced by an arrow, evoking the pain and transcendence of love.