Chet Baker’s (1929-1988) life is inextricably bound up with so many wild stories that you would almost forget to talk about his musical qualities. The American trumpet player had a special relationship with the Netherlands; he liked to stay here, Baker died in Amsterdam and his main biographer is the Dutch journalist Jeroen de Valk. The reason that Chet Baker regularly stayed in Europe was that he was appreciated here as a musician in a way that American audiences could not or did not want anymore.
Bakers musical career started like a dream. From the early 1950s, he was a member of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet that made cool jazz popular on the American west coast (cool jazz was the melodious counterpart of the New York bebop). When Chet Baker started his own band he discovered that apart from playing the trumpet he could sing as well. ‘I Fall In Love too Easily’ entered the charts and at the peak of his fame Baker recorded an album with romantic sounding strings.
In his biography Deep In A Dream (2002), the American journalist James Gavin describes Bakers downfall since the sixties: his substance-use increased and his musical level declined. This decline continued, in Gavins opinion, until 13 May 1988, the day when Baker fell from a window of the Prins Hendrik Hotel in Amsterdam. The American filmmaker Bruce Weber, who made the documentary Let’s Get Lost during the last years of Bakers’ life, has the same vision. The music in this documentary is far from perfect and Weber had an unhealthy preference for filming situations in which Baker had clearly lost control.
Jeroen de Valk doesn’t agree with this American bias. In his recently revised and translated biography Chet Baker, his life and music, he shows that the truth is far more complicated. Even after 1970 Chet Baker made – apart from a lot of rubbish – several excellent recordings. At the end of his book, De Valk classifies Bakers 261 albums from absolute masterpieces to rock bottom records. Chet Bakers album Live in Tokyo (1987, with pianist Harold Danko, bassist Hein Van Der Geyn and drummer John Engels) is even one of his best! De Valk also discusses some persistent myths round Baker, like the fact that in Italy his teeth would have been knocked out of his mouth (in reality it was only a part of one tooth) and that Baker would have been pushed out of his Amsterdam hotel window (the room was locked and all his belongings were still present).
Two recently released albums Live in London and At Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall prove De Valk’s point. Live in London appears for the first time. Bassist Jim Richardson recorded Bakers concerts in the London Canteen in 1983. With current technology it is possible to make the sound of these simple recordings acceptable. At Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall is a polished edition of a live recording in Hamburg from 1979. Baker and his fellow musicians convince on both albums with tight ensemble playing and lyrical solos. Baker produces his velvet, recognizable trumpet sound and his fragile, gender neutral voice. Baker didn’t practice a lot, but he immediately reached the heart of his listeners. His European listeners that is. He was not entertaining enough for American audiences.
Jeroen de Valk – Chet Baker, his life and music (Aspect Publishers, 2017) 314 pages.