Chet Baker was born in Oklahoma in 1929 on 23 December. So he and I share a birthday. I wish I also shared his musical talent and movie-idol looks, but oh well.
Baker was raised in a musical family. His father, Chesney Sr, had been a professional guitarist, but was forced by the Depression to take a regular job. His mother was a pianist who worked in a perfume factory. Their son gravitated to the trumpet. Not initially planning a life as a working musician, Baker left school at sixteen and joined the army. After two years in Germany between 1946 and 1948, Baker returned to the US, planning to study music theory, but he soon dropped out of school and re-enlisted, and was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco as a member of the Sixth Army Band.
During this time, he began playing at San Francisco jazz clubs, which led to dates with Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie, and eventually a recording contract for his own quartet. In 1954, Baker released Chet Baker Sings, his first record featuring his vocals as well as his trumpet. Many jazz critics, while admiring his playing, gave him short shrift as a singer. They viewed his vocal recordings as a cynical move by his label to mould a gifted musician but marginal singer into a teen idol off the back of his James Dean-like image.
It’s true that Baker’s voice was unlike many heard within jazz up to that point in the music’s history. His voice was very small and intimate, with only the tiniest hint of vibrato. More troublingly for purists, he didn’t sing with a jazz sensibility. Knowing and working within his limitations as a vocalist, he played no games with the melody or phrasing of a tune, singing each song as one might sing a lullaby to a baby, or to a lover in the middle of the night. His own lack of experience as a singer is foregrounded: when he reaches the big note (“stay, funny Valentine, stay“), Baker hits it, but seems somewhat surprised, and lets it trail off where a confident singer would have held it and added vibrato as a flourish.
My Funny Valentine has been recorded by basically every singer who has ever worked in jazz or vocal music. There are classic versions by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, underappreciated recordings by Matt Monro and Johnny Mathis (anticipating no one so much as Jeff Buckley) and head-scratchers by Seal and Nico. Baker’s may still be the definitive version, though. Its vulnerability, partly born from Baker’s lack of experience as a singer, partly just a function of who he was, makes it utterly unlike the assured versions by Frank and Ella, but all the better for it.
Baker’s story, unfortunately, is not a particularly happy one. He began taking heroin in the early 1950s, which led him into some unfortunate places. In 1966, a drug deal he was trying to make went wrong and he received a severe beating from the dealer. Several of his teeth were knocked out, ruining his embouchure and leaving him needing dentures and forcing him to learn a new technique – more or less from a beginner’s level – in order to play at all. Nevertheless, by the late 1970s, Baker was again a working jazz musician, but now working and living almost exclusively in Europe.