Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Chet Baker

Chet Baker was a trumpet player who reached his peak in the 1950s while in his mid-20s. He's mostly known for playing west coast "cool jazz." He was born in 1929 and died in 1988 at the age of 58.

I never listened to his music when I was younger, but learned of him in a roundabout way. I'd learned to play the trumpet in the early 1960s and played all the John Phillip Sousa marches and the songs from musicals like Oklahoma and Music Man. Screeching out those tunes on a trumpet didn't feel and sound as "cool" as I wanted. That, and I wanted to know something more about jazz. (We grew up with all types of music in our home, including records of trumpet players Shorty Rogers and Jonah Jones).

So, I bought an edition of Down Beat Magazine and, from an ad in the back, purchased a short fake book containing some simple jazz licks I could play on the horn for a couple of seconds. There was also an article about Chet Baker in that edition of Down Beat. I don't recall the date of the magazine, but it surely was in the early 1960s, a little past Chet Baker's prime.

Chet Baker had some talent. Readers of Down Beat voted each year in the "Readers' Poll" for the best musicisian on each instrument. The results for trumpet player in each of the following years were-- Maynard Ferguson (1952), Chet Baker (1953), Chet Baker (1954), Miles Davis (1955) and Dizzy Gilliespie (1956). (Miles Davis won a lot of later polls). So, you can see Chet had some chops. After his death in 1988, Chet Baker was admitted to the Down Beat Magazine "Hall of Fame" (1989).

In 1946, at age 16, Chet left high school and enlisted and joined the US Army Band in Germany. He was out in two years to study music, but then re-enlisted in 1950. He discharged again to pursue music. In California in 1951, he played with tenor sax player Stan Getz and alto sax player Charlie Parker. In 1952, Baker joined with baritone sax player Gerry Mulligan, but that didn't last too long because Mullligan was arrested on drug charges.

As with a lot of great jazz musicians, drugs took control of Chet Baker's life and music. He started using heroin in the 1950s. He pawned his instruments for drug money. He served prison time in Italy, and was expelled from some European countires due to drug offenses. After returning to California, Chet did some jail time for prescription forgeries. He lost his teeth (whether because he was severely beaten while trying to buy drugs after a gig in San Francisco, or whether because his teeth had just rotted due to heavy drug use) and had to learn to play with dentures. He made a come back of sorts in the 1980s. In 1988, his body was found on the street below his second-story room in Amsterdam. There were drugs in his system and in the room.

As always, it's hard to understand why a guy with so much talent will throw it all away for drugs. I know some musicians and artists argue that they are most creative while high, but I doubt that it's true in the long run. And, some say that great musicians and artists need drugs to cope with their own genius. Maybe, but I don't want to believe that, either.

The bulk of this information comes from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chet_Baker

Anyway, that's the story of one trumpet player.


  1. Born to be blue is a good rendition or bakers life. It took serious bravery to play trumpet during that time and even today. Keep reaching for the triple high c.

  2. Shuffle in my shoes,to travel through my blues.Ya don't know till ya'v been.Sg09/11/2017