Born to be Blue - Story

Chet Baker

Chesney "Chet" Baker

Chet Baker had a life filled with success, but it was also filled with tragedy. A jazz trumpeter and singer who rose to fame for his subdued musical style, melodic crooning and movie star good looks in the early 1950s, he enjoyed almost instantaneous success and a trademark as an innovator of '50s jazz. However, the musician's life and career were often sullied by troubles with the law, dysfunctional relationships with women and a tragically debilitating drug addiction.

Baker was born Chesney Henry Baker, Jr. in Yale, Oklahoma to a musical family. His father, Chesney Sr., was a professional guitar player, while his mother, Vera, was an accomplished pianist who also worked in a perfumery.

He and his parents moved to Glendale, California when Chesney, nicknamed "Chet," was 10 years old. The young boy began singing in amateur competitions and church choirs. His father soon introduced his son to brass instruments, specifically the trombone. But at 13, the young Baker turned his interest towards the trumpet when the larger instrument proved too much for him.

Chet received some early formal musical training in junior high, as well at Glendale High School. But in 1946, at just 16, he dropped out to join the U.S. Army. He was sent to Berlin, Germany, where he was a member of the 298th Army Band.

After two years in the army, Chet was discharged and returned to America to study theory and harmony at El Camino College in Los Angeles. While in school, he often played amateur gigs at various jazz clubs and in the process, got turned on to the music of Miles Davis.

Chet once again dropped out of school in his second year, and in 1950, re-enlisted in the army. He played for the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco, while also frequenting local clubs in the city. The intrinsic need to play his own, original music weighed heavily on Chet. He soon obtained a second discharge to finally follow his dream of becoming a full-time, professional jazz musician. In 1950 he also married his first wife, Charlaine Souder, although the marriage didn't last long.

Chet got his first professional gig with Italian saxophonist Vido Musso's band, as well as with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. But in the spring of 1952, the young trumpeter earned a major breakthrough when he was chosen to play a series of West Coast engagements with famed saxophonist Charlie Parker.

That summer, he joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, a subversive group that refrained from using a piano, unlike most jazz acts at the time. Mulligan's baritone sax and Baker's trumpet complemented each other perfectly, creating a unique and dynamic sound. The group quickly attracted national attention at a gig at the Haig nightclub in Hollywood and through its first LP, Gerry Mulligan Quartet, which featured one of Chet's most famous songs, "My Funny Valentine." The group disbanded after only a year, however, due to Mulligan's arrest and imprisonment for drug charges.

Chet formed his own quartet soon after, with the initial lineup including Russ Freeman on piano, Red Mitchell on bass and Bobby White on drums. The Chet Baker Quartet made their first recording for Pacific Jazz in July of 1953. Their relaxed sound was lauded and Chet was subsequently named Down Beat and Metronome magazines' top trumpeter, beating out two of the era's top trumpeters, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. He was also voted as the top jazz vocalist in 1954 by Down Beat.

That same year, Pacific Jazz released Chet Baker Sings, a record that increased Chet's public profile but turned off many jazz fans at the time, due to its non-traditional sound.

Because of Chet's undeniably chiseled looks, Hollywood studio heads soon approached him about appearing in movies. He made his feature film debut in the 1955 war film Hell's Horizon. This career turnaround wouldn't hold the musician's interest for long, and he declined when offered a studio contract. Instead, he toured Europe from the end of 1955 to mid-1956, when he recorded Chet Baker in Europe.

It was around this time that Chet began using heroin, an addiction that would follow him the rest of his life. He was briefly incarcerated several times and often pawned his instruments to feed his drug habit. However, it wasn't until the early 1960s that the addiction would begin to significantly, and adversely, affect his career.

When he returned to the U.S. from Europe in 1956, Chet formed a quintet with saxophonist Phil Urso and pianist Bobby Timmons. This time around, Chet's sound changed drastically — from relaxed and laid back to a faster tempo, more bebop style, possibly a reflection of his intense drug use. The group recorded the album Chet Baker & Crew, released in the summer of 1956 on the Pacific Jazz label. Also in 1956, Chet impregnated a young Pakistani woman named Halema Alli. They married and had a son, but again, the marriage didn't last long. By now, Chet's abuse of the women he dated and/or married was well-known, as was his philandering.

He then joined the group The Birdland All-Stars and toured America in February 1957, as well as around Europe later that year.

Chet returned to Europe in the late 1950s, where he settled in Italy and acted in the movie musical Urlatori Alla Sbarra, known in North America as Howlers of the Dock. While in Italy, he met a British woman named Carol, who would become his third wife.

Despite Chet's disinterest in becoming a Hollywood movie star, Hollywood was still fascinated with the handsome and elusive musician. In 1960, Metro Goldwyn Mayer released a fictionalized film, loosely based on Chet's life, titled All the Fine Young Cannibals, starring Robert Wagner.

Chet's constant substance abuse finally caught up with him while in Italy in the summer of 1960, when he was arrested on drug charges and spent almost a year and a half in jail. Upon his release, he recorded the album Chet Is Back! for RCA in February 1962. Later that year, he was again arrested in West Germany, expelled to Switzerland, then France, and finally settled in England for a period to shoot the 1963 film The Stolen Hours. However, this stay wouldn't last long and he was deported to France because of yet another drug offense in March of 1963.

He managed to live and perform in Paris, with occasional appearances in Spain for the next year, but after being arrested again in West Germany, in March 1964 Chet was deported back to the United States. Carol came with him and they were married in 1965.

The musician began playing gigs in both New York and Los Angeles, having switched from trumpet to flugelhorn. He then settled in northern California, where he often played in San Jose and San Francisco, serving short jail terms for prescription fraud in between.

That's when something tragic happened that would have a huge impact on Chet's career. In the summer of 1966 in San Francisco, he was brutally beaten at the hands of drug dealers. There are conflicting reports regarding the severity of his injuries during this incident. Some report that all of his teeth were knocked out, leading to his inability to play the trumpet. Others refute this, claiming he lost just one tooth and it was the general deterioration of his teeth due to long-term heroin use that impaired his playing.

Regardless, the ailing musician had to be fitted for dentures in the late 1960s, forcing him to retrain his facial muscles, or embouchure, a process that would take several years.

The latter years of the '60s and early 1970s had Chet playing flugelhorn at infrequent gigs around New York City and Los Angeles. He eventually settled in New York and began taking methadone to control his heroin addiction, but still remained an addict. After regaining some control over his chaotic life, and improving his embouchure, his friend and co-trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie arranged a comeback gig at New York's Half Note Club. Next, Chet held a reunion concert with Gerry Mulligan at Carnegie Hall in November 1974, which was recorded and released by Epic Records.

By 1975, he'd returned to Europe, having abandoned Carol and their three children — Dean, Paul and Melissa — years earlier in Oklahoma. That may have been a blessing for Carol, who, although she never divorced Chet, was often seen during their time together sporting black eyes — sometimes two at a time.

Back in Europe, Chet lived the life of a nomadic jazz performer, performing primarily in Europe for the rest of his life, with sporadic trips to Japan and back to America, all with no permanent residence.

The decades of hard living certainly took a toll on the aging trumpeter. However, many critics believe this latter part of his life was the most creatively successful of his career. And a few high-profile rock musicians took notice, with Elvis Costello inviting Baker to add trumpet to his anti-Falklands War song "Shipbuilding" in 1983, and featuring him in his song "Almost Blue" during his concert sets. This career resurgence led to a tour of Japan in 1987 and a live album titled Chet Baker in Tokyo, which was released posthumously.

But just weeks after delivering a sold-out performance with the NDR Big Band and Hannover Radio Orchestra in Germany, Chet Baker was found dead after a fall from the window of his Amsterdam hotel room in the early morning hours of May 13, 1988. He was 58 years old. An autopsy showed cocaine and heroin, which were found in his room, were also present in his body. There was no evidence of a struggle, and the death was ruled an accident.

A plaque outside the Hotel Prins Hendrik memorializes him, and the room he was staying in, No. 210, is aptly named "The Chet Baker Room."

Chet's legacy as one of the icons of the West Coast "cool school" of jazz is still remembered today, with countless film, television, musical and written tributes being paid to the late musician since his untimely death.

Before his death, Chet recorded Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue" for filmmaker Bruce Weber's film Let's Get Lost, a documentary feature about his life. The film was released a year after Chet's death, in 1988, and received widespread critical acclaim, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.

Many biographies have been written about the iconic figure, including 1989's Chet Baker: His Life and Music by Jeroen De Valk, James Gavin's 2002 biography Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, and Matthew Ruddick's Funny Valentine, published in 2012.

In 1997, Chet's unfinished autobiography was published under the title As Though I Had Wings: The Memoir.

The 2016 biopic Born to be Blue stars Ethan Hawke as Chet, Kevin Hanchard as Dizzy Gillespie and Kedar Brown as Miles Davis in a part-fiction, part-fact account of the late musician's illustrious, yet chaotic life.

~Shelby Morton

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