The following is a guest post from Processing Technician Pam Murrell.
Heralded as the “most gifted trumpeter” by late saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, Chesney Henry Baker (1929-1988) was a melodic improviser with both his horn and his voice. The native Oklahoman’s big break came in 1952 after he won the highly coveted spot as Charlie Parker’s trumpeter after an audition. Soon thereafter, he met Mulligan and together, along with the other members of their quartet, they pioneered a style of music which critics called West Coast Jazz. The genre’s light rhythms contrasted the hard and heavy drives of its eastern counterpart, making it a musical innovation.
The period of 1953-1960 was the pinnacle of Baker’s popularity and a time which saw him performing throughout Europe and being invited to tour with jazz luminaries like Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan. It was also a period during which he was offered roles in both domestic and international films. Producers favored his model good looks and irrefutable magnetism which they believed translated well on the big screen. Consequently, Baker starred in two films (Hell’s Horizon, 1955 and Howlers of the Dock, 1960) and performed the music for a third (Fiasco in Milan, 1959).
The frenetic period of the sixties resulted in a conspicuous vocational lag in Baker’s momentum. National civil unrest manifested in every facet of life, including the realm of music which saw rock gradually push jazz from the mainstage. As the decade progressed into the next, the musical landscape continued to shift and become heavily saturated with British pop while simultaneously witnessing the emergence of a dance genre known as disco. Consequently, Baker’s professional inertia compelled him to uproot himself from American soil. He headed overseas where jazz was still in vogue and spent the majority of his final decade endlessly touring countries across Asia and the European Union. Within the Chet Baker Materials one can survey financial evidence of his travels within a royalty statement. The document chronicles his 1987 earnings over a six-month period in nine countries.
It was during this transitional stage in Baker’s career that he met Diane Vavra. While still looking for work in America, he joined Monday-night jam sessions at a California pizza parlor. On one such evening, he spotted Vavra at the drums, barefoot and totally absorbed in the music. Their attraction was instantaneously mutual. Baker’s love for Vavra endured until the end of his life and evidence of his affection can be seen within the Chet Baker Materials. Fourteen letters in the musician’s hand are infused with expressions of passion, requests for her presence, and numerous apologies. Unfortunately, their tumultuous relationship is also tied to the most macabre object in the collection: a suicidal message on yellow legal paper. In the undated note, the jazz artist confesses that he has attempted to kill himself and cites the rejection of his lover as the catalyst. Without her, he concluded, music was all he had left to “hang on to.” Mercifully, Baker relented from his baneful decision.
While abroad in 1979, Baker made eleven records and in the following year he recorded ten. Indeed, these were some of the most prolific years of Baker’s life since the fifties. When he did make the rare stateside appearance, it was usually to visit friends and relatives or to perform an irresistible gig, as he did in 1983 when Elvis Costello compensated him generously for a solo in his song “Shipbuilding.” Another enticing opportunity, of which he took advantage, was appearing in a documentary about his life. Let’s Get Lost was directed by renowned fashion photographer Bruce Weber and chronicled Baker’s life from his time as a fifties heartthrob to his nomadic eighties existence. Tragically, however, the film’s star died four months before its release in September 1988. A calendar brochure from the nonprofit theater Film Forum advertising Weber’s cinematic tribute to Baker as well as postcards featuring stills from the documentary can be found within the Library’s holdings.
The Chet Baker Materials from the Papers of Diane Vavra were acquired in 2015 by the Library of Congress. Of the 108 items which constitute the intimate cache, the majority are photographs featuring Baker. The remaining materials include manuscript correspondence, a contract from director-producer Bruce Weber, and a bilingual poster promoting an exhibit featuring images of the trumpeter at the famed Parisian nightclub New Morning. Additional resources pertaining to Chet Baker can be found within the Gerry Mulligan Collection.
I’m afraid that this summary whitewashes his true story. He left a wife and children behind when he moved to Europe and although he made good money after he moved he did not pay any child support. He was a confirmed heroin addict, and part of the reason for his move to Amsterdam was that they would let him be a junkie in peace. My comment does not contradict his musical talent or contributions but adds a dimension needed to understand the man.
Chet Baker was a complex character who must have suffered a lot due to his addiction. His musical talent was immense and the freedom that was afforded him in Europe allowed him to practice his art to the full. I heard him play at an almost empty Paris jazz club in the 1950s and he appeared a lonely forlorn figure but his music was exquisite
I continue to listen and enjoy Chets music almost daily, complex artist with even more complex people in his life. Those that hung on to Chet for whatever time they had with him continue to live through Chet in a dream it seems of times past to this day. My heart goes out to those still living in an illusion decades old now. Not a fan of his lifestyle, treatment of those around him, but simply of his music that was so effected by his personal demons from record to record. Many examples are stellar. Nobody played or sounded like Chet, nobody.