Chet Baker

Born “Chesney Henry Baker Jr”, Chet Baker had seen all sides of life upon his second arrival in Europe. In the fifties, Baker was a key force behind the ‘cool jazz’ movement that originated on the West Coast of the U.S.A., which gained him huge popularity with audiences worldwide.

But this soon changed when his career and personal life were overshadowed by his heroin addiction. A life filled with arrests and scandals. Baker’s name was one of notoriousity. The late sixties found him forced into a period of inactivity. Problems had stacked up, his teeth he’d lost because of drug use and life didn’t look bright for the maverick jazz trumpeter whom Charlie Parker once told Miles [Davis] and Dizzy [Gillespie] to watch out for.

It was right after his period of inactivity that Dutch label Timeless Records got Chet Baker to return to Europe for a tour across the continent alongside Stan Getz. Baker had learnt to play with dentures but his past had left him stigmatised in the States. Timeless gave Baker musical shelter. Between 1983 and 1988 Baker did five studio sessions for the label and critics agree these include some of his finest moments in music.

A farmers boy known for his no-nonsense attitude, Baker seemed to breathe authority. In a calm but profound way, his aura was one of cool. “Chet could make silly mistakes. One time he had booked two drummers. And the two of them would get into an argument, with Chet standing next to them, watching the scene. Everybody knew it was his fault of course, but he didn’t feel responsible for it. Worse even, the drummers didn’t feel it had been his fault either. That’s the type of man Chet was. A man in whose presence you didn’t bother about futilities”, Ria Wigt (co-founder Timeless Records) remembers.

Drummer John Engels became a close friend of Chet over the years. Although they didn’t play a long list of gigs together, it was John on the drums during the legendary concerts Chet played in Japan. “He was incredibly swinging. An instrumentalist with an amazing timing. At one time, I had put him behind the drums and he started playing, flawlessly. Chet was music. We didn’t even talk that much. He was such a rare talent. Sent from another galaxy if you ask me, just like Charlie Parker, for instance. One of the biggest of all time, his music touches your soul, it makes you cry on the inside.”

On stage, Chet had huge confidence in his musicians. “He listened very carefully to what we did”, guitarist Philip Catherine remembers. “But he didn’t criticise a lot. Only when we would change the tempo, then he would quickly comment. Never did Chet say anything about the melodies we played. To me, playing with Chet was easy. It is easy to play with a strong musician, and Chet was that good. His timing was simply impeccable.”

Not a man of many words, Chet said to Catherine: “You have a sound, man.” The type of compliment the trumpeter wouldn’t give lightly. Their collaboration didn’t start out easily though. On the first day of recording the ‘Mr.B’ album, when the musicians went out to eat, Chet left the restaurant. “I had proposed to record a composition of mine: ‘Father X-Mas’. But Chet was a man with a huge knowledge of jazz standards. He could read notes perfectly, but he didn’t really like that. At the same time, I was a young musician, lacking the knowledge of standards that Chet had. Our working methods were very different, so the recording session didn’t go well and when we decided to go out for dinner, Chet left right after he had eaten. He never said anything, we never discussed it.  But I still think I probably shouldn’t have proposed to record a composition of mine. Chet wasn’t in the mood to learn a new theme on that moment.” Baker remained a big fan of Catherine though. During the year that followed the two shared stage over sixty times.

Meanwhile numerous bootleg recordings surfaced, mostly live recordings, often put out on the black market by shady business men who recorded Baker’s performances, only to call him up when times were financially rough on him, who didn’t mind signing a quick contract, not reading the small letters.

“In Italy, Chet had bought an old Alfa Romeo”, Ria Wigt reminisces. “With his wooden steering wheel he used to drive huge distances. From Rome to Scandinavia, without a problem. A skilful driver, he drove fast but very controlled. Then one day, Chet was in Liège, Belgium, and had to attend another gig in Venice. The plan was for him to take the plane but he insisted heavily on driving there. And with Chet there was often no point in arguing, so he hit the road. A couple of hours later I get a phone call. It’s Chet telling me he had forgotten his horn in Liège and how he had already made a U-turn to go pick it up. Now, of course our schedule became irrelevant. But Chet needed his horn, so he drove all the way back to Liège, picked up his horn and jumped on a private airplane we had arranged for him in the meantime. Upon his arrival in Venice, the gig had just been cancelled.”

During his years in Europe, Baker stayed mostly in hotel rooms or with friend musicians. The night of May 12th 1988 Chet Baker was tragically found dead on the sidewalk before the Prins Hendrik Hotel in Amsterdam. It is believed he fell out of the window of his hotel room.
Chet Baker -  “the maverick jazz trumpeter whom Charlie Parker once told Miles and Dizzy to watch out for.”

Alex Deforce, January 2009

Style: Jazz
Artist: Chet Baker


Chet Baker