Chet Baker - trumpet, vocals; Bob Mover - alto sax; Warren Chiasson - vibes; Harold Danko - piano; Dave Shapiro - bass; Jimmy Madison - drums
Back in the day, it was common for comedians to open for jazz groups in the clubs. Richard Pryor opened each night of a month-long stint that John Handy had in 1967 at the Village Gate. Redd Foxx routinely opened for the likes of Barry Harris, Kenny Burrell and Sonny Stitt at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. Even Jay Leno has stories of being on the road, doing standup early on in his career as an opening act for Miles Davis. George Wein decided to recreate some of that old school nightclub atmosphere by having comedian Phyllis Diller do a bit a standup before introducing trumpeter Chet Baker who came out to do his set at Carnegie Hall. Following her barrage of one-liners, Diller introduces Baker and his sidemen - Canadian vibraphonist Warren Chiasson, pianist Harold Danko, alto saxophonist Bob Mover, bassist Dave Shapiro and veteran drummer Jimmy Madison.
Baker and his crew kick it off their all-Rodgers & Hart set (as part of program entitled "Salute to Jazz and the American Song") with a spirited, swinging version of "With a Song in my Heart" featuring Baker on vocals. Mover contributes some pungent and fluid alto work here and Baker adds some potent trumpet work. But it must be said that the leader searches in vain for the proper intonation through this opening number. Next up is the melancholy ballad "She Was Too Good To Me," title track of his 1974 CTI comeback album featuring altoist Paul Desmond. Baker wrings every drop out emotion out of this tune with his fragile vocals while Mover and Chiasson add meaningful solos. Baker's trumpet solo here is pained and poignant. They close out their brief set on a vibrantly swinging note with a rousing rendition of "Have You Met Miss Jones?" With Madison playing brushes and Shapiro walking steady eighth notes, Chiasson, Mover, Danko and Baker shine in their respective solo turns.
One of the most visible exponents of the West Coast cool school of jazz, trumpeter Chet Baker played in an intimate style that was far more restrained and mellow than incendiary boppers like Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro or aggressively blowing hard boppers like Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard. Born in Yale, Oklahoma, Baker grew up in California, where he studied trumpet in junior high school. Dropping out of high school at age 16 to join the Army, he was stationed in Berlin and played trumpet in the 298th Army Band. Following his discharge from the Army, Baker began spending time in San Francisco jazz clubs like Bop City and the Blackhawk. After a brief apprenticeship with Stan Getz, Baker was chosen by bebop icon Charlie Parker for a series of West Coast gigs, which instantly elevated his profile. In 1952, he joined Gerry Mulligan's piano-less quartet, which was considered a revolutionary idea in jazz at the time. The Quartet's version of the melancholy ballad "My Funny Valentine," featuring a particularly expressive Baker solo, was a major hit, and became a song that was forever associated with the trumpeter.
After the baritone saxophonist and bandleader went to jail in June 1953 on a drug charge, Baker formed his own quartet with pianist Russ Freeman, bassist Carson Smith and drummer Bob Neal and launched a solo career at age 25 with the 1954 Pacific Jazz album Chet Baker Sings. Shortly after its release, Baker was named Best New Trumpet Talent in the Down Beat Critics Poll. His popularity during the '50s was enhanced by his matinee idol good looks, which also made him a natural for magazine covers during his heyday. Baker recorded prolifically through the 1950s and 1960s but his addiction to heroin would rob him of both his chops and his photogenic appeal later in his career.
Shortly after this appearance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, Baker made his motion pictures debut in the Hell's Horizon, which was released in the Fall of 1955. Following that brief fling with Hollywood, he returned to the jazz scene with a vengeance and formed a more hard boppish quartet in 1956 with pianist Bobby Timmons. In 1957, he toured the U.S. with the Birdland All-Stars and later took a group to Europe. Baker settled in Italy in 1959 and acted in another film there. By this time, Baker's heroin habit began interfering with his career. He was arrested in Italy during the summer of 1960. Ironically that same year, Hollywood released a fictionalized account of his life, All the Fine Young Cannibals, starring Robert Wagner as Chad Bixby. Through the '60s, Baker endured frequent arrests and jail time for drug offenses while living alternately in England, France, Spain and Germany. He tried mounting various comebacks but his condition had deteriorated so much by the end of the '60s that he rarely performed anymore and only recorded infrequently. By the early '70s, he stopped playing altogether. A triumphant reunion concert with his old colleague Gerry Mulligan at Carnegie Hall in November 1974 (documented by Epic Records) gave Baker's career a much-needed boost.
In 1978, Baker moved to Europe and began mounting a comeback, performing and recording frequently into the mid 1980s. His tragic demise came on May 13, 1988, when he fell out of a second-story hotel window in Amsterdam. Heroin and cocaine were found in his hotel room, and an autopsy also found these drugs in his body. There was no evidence of a struggle and the death was ruled an accident. But 13 years earlier, at Carnegie Hall, Baker was feeling no pain and grooving hard with his compatriots on the bandstand. (Bill Milkowski)
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