Lost boy - a tribute to Chet Baker
This article is from 2009.
Just over 20 years after his accidental, drug-fuelled death in Amsterdam, Chet Baker is honoured by the Festival. Paul Dale speaks to those paying tribute to the 1950s pin-up
On 16 June 1952, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Chet Baker played together in a small restaurant club in Inglewood, California. Baker was fresh out of the army and played trumpet to both Parker and Sonny Criss’ mercurial, blues-drenched alto sax. Within three years, ‘Bird’ was dead. Within 26 years, Baker’s drug-saturated body would be lowered into the warm earth just yards from the venue. A baton had been passed.
Pretty-boy, flugelhorn-playing, functioning-addict Baker got an easier ride in the world of showbiz than Parker. The colour of his skin saw to that. Still, his rise was swift and he became a genuine jazz pin-up of the 50s. Yet Baker as an iconographic and musical force still haunts us. This year, the Jazz Festival puts Baker back in the frame, in jail and on a pedestal. Former rock star Mike Maran’s feted play, A Funny Valentine, is one of the great big stories. ‘It is basically Faust in a prison, a pact made with the devil in which you lose your soul in return for some earthly reward,’ explains Maran. ‘The greatest telling of the Faust story is Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus which was written about a musician called Adrian Leverkühn but it could have been written about Chet. The joy of Mann’s story is that there is no supernatural element: in Leverkühn’s case it is syphilis in early 20th century Vienna; in Chet’s case it’s heroin in mid 20th century America. In both cases, the musicians were geniuses.’
On the recital side, the Festival is also showcasing the talents of Italian jazz pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, who worked on and off with Baker in the last decade of his life and will be performing some of the standards they reworked together for their remarkable 1979 studio LP Soft Journey. The attendance of both Maran and Pieranunzi in Edinburgh speaks volumes about the sustained legacy of Baker’s prolific output 20 years on from his death at a sadly raddled 58 years of age.
Born and raised in a musical household in Yale, Oklahoma, Baker was too small to play the trombone and too talented to linger in the amateur bands in which he honed his craft. Periods of touching base with Stan Getz and Charlie Parker cemented Baker’s desire to move away from bebop’s identical melody lines into something more rhythmic, baroque and harmonically interdependent. He got his chance with the great Gerry Mulligan’s Quartet, the leader’s baritone sax finally being subsumed by Baker’s trumpet in tune after tune. The quartet got the hit they craved with ‘My Funny Valentine’ in 1952 but Mulligan was arrested shortly afterwards for possession and Baker became designated group leader. The 1956 Pacific Jazz release Chet Baker Sings was a huge mainstream success and his celebrity was secured. Cameos in films followed and ace photographers William Claxton and Bruce Weber became obsessed with chronicling his every move.
Pieranunzi believes that Chet Baker’s lasting appeal and legacy ‘is in looking for a real feeling, in trying to blend musicality with a deeper human reality, in expressing by sounds what words cannot express. In putting his music at the service of communication and not just as a means of showing off of technique.’ Maran is less prosaic. ‘Chet’s legacy is a series of performances and recordings which bring out the bruised tenderness in the American songbook with all the hurt that these songs imply and with an engagement that other musicians wouldn’t even aspire to. Chet never found beauty in life, only ever in music.’
My Funny Valentine, Bosco, George Square Gardens, 0131 473 2000, 31 Jul, 7pm; 1&2 Aug, 8pm, £10; Scotsman Talks: Chet Baker, Filmhouse, Lothian Road, 0131 228 2688, 2 Aug, 4pm, £6 (£5.50); Let’s Get Lost, Filmhouse, Lothian Road, 0131 228 2688, 2 Aug, 5.45pm, £6.50 (£4.90).