Sunday, May 13, 2018

This Day in Jazz History (Fallen Star Chet Baker Plunges to His Death)

May 13, 1988—Chet Baker, who became as famous for his simple, understated vocals as his piercing trumpet solos, ended his up-and-down career at age 58 when he was found fallen to his death from the second story of an Amsterdam hotel. Countless colleagues and fans were saddened—but few were surprised—when an autopsy found cocaine and heroin in his body.

In 1952, Baker joined the piano-less quartet formed by Gerry Mulligan. The band’s version of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” featuring Baker’s piercing trumpet solo, became so iconic that it was listed in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry for its  "cultural, artistic and/or historical significance to American society and the nation’s audio legacy."

By the next year, Baker had formed his own band, achieving enormous listener popularity, topping polls as both a top trumpeter and male vocalist on hit songs such as “Let’s Get Lost.” The impression made by his good looks did not go unnoticed, as described in jazz critic and historian Gary Giddins’ Visions of Jazz: The First Century:

“Baker, with his neatly boxed pompadour and baby-face handsomeness, was short, introverted, and intense; he was a natural, creative in any key, exceptional ears, liked to play with the mike against the bell of his trumpet, which he occasionally put aside to croon a song in a girlishly attenuated voice.”

Such early success, particularly at a point when African-Americans such as Miles Davis were not receiving comparable attention, annoyed the likes of Stanley Crouch, who noted that Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis “both did in Chet Baker when the dark blond supposed-wonder from the West Coast was brought to New York”:

“Baker got top billing at Birdland over Gillespie one week and over Davis the next. Musically speaking, the two put the white hope's head in a bag and turned the bag flat, red, and sticky. Davis was especially angry because he saw Baker, whom he had so heavily influenced, as no more than another example of how some white guy could bite a chunk out of the neck of a Negro's style and set up residence in the bank, the blood from the chunk of meat in his mouth dripping a puddle that turned to gold at his feet.”

It was harder to begrudge all the acclaim, though, once the steep price was paid. From the mid-Fifties to mid-Sixties, Baker developed an intense addiction to drugs that resulted not only in several drug arrests and stints behind bars, but also deportation by Britain, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. 

He reached the nadir of his career in 1966, when drug dealers knocked out his teeth, rendering him unable to play the trumpet for years. It took him a long time just to work again, and the large fees he could command often quickly disappeared because of his continuing craving for drugs.

Although he was been compared to James Dean, another young star who came to prominence in the early-to-mid-Fifties, Baker might be better likened to Montgomery Clift, who also survived a hideous incident brought on by his substance abuse in his late 30s, only to hang on grimly for a while with his once-golden looks gone. 

In his memoir Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Acts, Elvis Costello writes with honesty, humor, admiration and regret about his encounters with Baker, centered around the singer-songwriter’s attempt to get him to play on the song "Shipbuilding" in his 1983 CD Punch the Clock

As befitting a musician, most of the impressions in the account come through sounds—lines of dialogue tossed off by Baker as casually as his talent (on the prospect of playing Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” for a video: “I hate that f-----g song”), along with the tender notes he could still somehow summon from his trumpet (for Costello’s “Almost Blue,” according to the composer: “fragile, but also like glass”).

But the sole visual detail is telling and memorable: the trumpeter turned “the ruin of his once beautiful face to me, the very portrait of the song ‘Everything Happens to Me,’” writes Costello.

Early in his career, Baker had become a figure of celluloid, either appearing on the big screen himself (in the 1955 war movie Hell’s Horizon) or under thinly fictionalized guise (Robert Wagner’s character in All the Fine Young Cannibals). Then, in the late Eighties, Baker earned new attention, even after years of decline, with a documentary by Bruce Weber, Let’s Get Lost. Unfortunately, the film's release came after the musician's tragic death.

Despite the official verdict that Baker's fatal injury resulted from an accident, some questions lingered over the exact circumstances. After all, his skull was crushed, leading some to wonder whether an irate dealer, handling him with the same kind of violence that had gravely damaged him 20 years before, had now taken matters a step too far.

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