Each week, we dig in the crates to tell you about a “lost” or classic album we think you should hear. This week’s covers Chet Baker's 1954 album Chet Baker Sings.
It’s no wonder that many of the world’s most expensive and collectible records come in the form of jazz and blues, stylings that were founded by poor and oppressed minorities who captured the most lasting pieces of history that recorded music has to offer. Regardless of their mainstream listenability, albums by such legends as Miles Davis or Big Bill Broonzy serve as more of an American memorandum to very specific moments in history, be it art, culture, or society as a whole.
Quick to the Los Angeles jazz scene of the mid-50’s came Chet Baker, whose looks were defined by a sharp chin and slick hair, coming off not as the identifiable heroin addict he would become, but more like a cross between the classy professionalism of Frank Sinatra, while communicating the same rebellious danger and machismo of James Dean. “Everybody has a story about Chet Baker,” said photographer William Claxton. When developing his shots from Baker’s very first recording session for Columbia Records, Claxton recalls: “I was making enlargements, and the images were coming through on the development tray. That was the first time I learned what photogenic meant, or what star quality meant, or charisma…” Baker used those good looks to his advantage, conning friends or friends-of-friends into giving him money to score drugs. He knew just the way to push people’s buttons, both men and women, until they gave in to his charm. Seemingly everyone who worked with him would describe how natural his abilities appeared to be, how seamlessly he could fit in onstage, how easily the music would come to him. To quote his later lover Ruth Young: “You really can’t rely on Chet. And if you know that, you can pull through.”
Chet Baker Sings, originally released in 1954, broke the standard mold of modern jazz as an improvisational show of instrumental prowess. A true master of playability, Baker set down his horn and led his band in one million-dollar love ballad after another. Despite losing the faith of some critics, that year saw him win two of the famed Down Beat Magazine ‘Reader’s Polls,’ beating Miles Davis as “best trumpeter” and Nat King Cole as “best vocalist.” This garnered him the nickname of the “great white trumpet” and “the great white hope” of jazz. On a return trip to New York City, Charlie Parker told Miles Davis & Dizzy Gillespie: “You better watch out...there’s a little white cat out in California that’s gonna eat you up.”
But Baker’s drug addiction eventually proved stronger than his love of music. He was known to pawn his instruments when in need of money for drugs. A score went bad in 1968 when several men attacked him in the hotel where he would meet his dealer every day. At one point in the exchange he leapt into a stranger’s car in hopes of escape, but the other passengers pushed him back out into the street for fear of becoming involved. “All they had to do was drive off,” he said. But because of the beating he took, only stubbles of teeth were left. He saw a doctor and one by one his teeth were pulled out, leaving him physically unable to play the trumpet. He took work as a gas station attendant, putting in brutal hours from 7AM to 11PM, six days a week. This monotonous way of life left him terribly depressed and desperate to find a way back to music. It took six months just to decide that he’d like to try playing again. From there, he had to relearn the strange new positioning of his lips and false teeth, a process that took three years of practice and exercise. It was Baker’s hero himself, Dizzy Gillespie, who made the call to land Baker a gig thereafter, his first return to New York City with the entire audience wondering if he could still play after his mysterious and much-talked-about absence.
Chet Baker Sings is truly a world apart from all else that was happening in jazz those days. There are the simple, heartbreaking lyrics and delivery of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is,’ as captured in this Italian performance in 1956 where Baker sings: “You don’t know what love is until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues, until you’ve loved the love you’ve had to lose. You don’t know what love is.” Or in ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes),’ with the words: “I get along without you very well, except sometimes when soft rains fall...Except to hear your name, or someone’s laugh that is the same.” All jazz musicians could play, of course, but Chet Baker could sing too. And how many jazzists truly had the whole package like he did? He could sing so softly, yet hold the notes out for so long it was as if he was still playing the horn, or as if he carried the horn inside himself.
In his last recorded interview, Baker described his worldly experience: “People in Amsterdam aren’t as uptight about petty things as they are in other countries…like the Swiss, or in Germany. France is pretty shaky. And Belgium is terrible too. Holland is another thing, like coming into a country where there’s a permanent 24-hour party going on all year.” He’d been working in the style of “cool jazz,” being more quiet and less aggressive than its counterpart, which he referred to as a more popular or “hotter” jazz. Eight years of performing without a drummer had earned him the title of “Prince of Cool.” Some said this West Coast style was less a matter of percussion, but more a byproduct of the sun, the beach, the environment in which its players were living.
As for Chet Baker Sings, the 1954 10” pressings and 1956 Pacific Jazz LP pressings start at $50 and end somewhere between $100-$200 if you can track one down. But critics claim his strongest period to be during his European exile in the '80s, performing at small jazz clubs all over the world but rarely returning home to the States.
At the age of 57 but looking well beyond his years, like an old man chained to the spirit of a young boy, it was as if his body could not make it through the day without heroin, cocaine, or methadone, a strong pain killer. When asked if he found life to be boring, his response was: “Under some circumstance, it can be very boring for a lot of people. Being hungry, being cold. [I experienced that] not too long ago, unfortunately.” But no doubt the best way to remember him would be by the untouchable clarity of his songwriting, his singing, his playing, his wild and sometimes aimless pursuit towards that divine light of cool, perfect, jazz. He said it best before his death: “The good way to go in this life is to find something you really enjoy doing, and do it better than anybody.”
Stream the album below:
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