“Let’s Get Lost” is not only a song that Chet Baker performed on but also the title of a 1988 documentary of the same name. Baker died that year. Let’s Get Lost was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1989.
Chet Baker was born in Oklahoma in December of 1929. Lucky fella that he always was, this was just a few months after the stock market crashed. His father was a professional guitarist and his mother was a pianist. Due to the Great Depression, his father had to quit playing music and take a “regular job.”
Chet used to sing in the church choir and in fact, even sang on a fair amount on his albums. His father gave him a trombone because – according to Chet – Jack Teagarden was his old man’s favorite musician. But that was replaced with a trumpet when Chet found the trombone too big, too awkward. After “falling in love” with the trumpet, he improved noticeably in two weeks, starting to pick up on songs like Harry James’s “Two O’Clock Jump.”
Chet joined the Army and – since the war was over – never saw combat, only playing in the Army Band. He was discharged from the Army in 1951 and – at the age of 22 – decided to go into music. He became a member of the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco.
A natural talent, He soon fell in with Charlie Parker who was in the throes of addiction in California at that time. He then sat in with Gerry Mulligan and became part of his quartet for a few years. He recorded a couple of albums with Mulligan and was a rising star not only for his playing but for his leading man looks. Women went nuts for him and he was “friendly” with not a few Hollywood starlets.
Chet’s take on the standard “My Funny Valentine” is so notable it was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry for the song’s “cultural, artistic and/or historical significance to American society and the nation’s audio legacy.”
You can find it today on the 1953 album Gerry Mulligan Quartet Volume 2.
Chet also played with Stan Getz although rumor has it they weren’t the best of friends, just fellow junkies. These guys helped develop a style called “West Coast Jazz” that was supposedly notably cooler and more laid-back than East Coast. But I don’t know, their take on “Yardbird Suite” sounds pretty hot to me. (The album West Coast Live was recorded in 1953 but wasn’t released until 1997.)
Chet had those sharp good looks that the camera (and women) loved. He made his way to Hollywood and made a few films, none of them ever on Roger Ebert’s must-see list. His film debut was in the “classic” 1955 war film Hell’s Horizon which starred Hugh Beaumont who went on to play Ward Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver. Hollywood later made a movie called All the Fine Young Cannibals with Robert Wagner and spouse Natalie Wood. This movie was “loosely based” on Baker’s life.
I mentioned earlier that Chet used to sing on his albums. He was no Sinatra but he had a nice enough voice and his singing informed his “lyrical” playing. This song “But Not For Me” is from, well, Chet Baker Sings released in 1954.
If you know Chet Baker’s name at all it’s as likely you know it for his junk habit as anything else. Sometimes he’d pawn his instruments to buy drugs and he had all sorts of problems in Europe. He was actually deported from Germany at one point. In the late 60s, he was beaten by a gang while trying to buy drugs.
Legend has it that his teeth were knocked but at the very least his face was fucked up and he suffered a broken tooth or two. That ruined his embouchure which is “the use of the lips, facial muscles, tongue, and teeth in playing a wind instrument.” He later had to relearn to play while wearing dentures. In the meantime, he had to pump gas “7 am to 11 pm” just to make ends meet.
Eventually, someone remembered him and he got himself a gig at the now-defunct Half Note Club in New York City. This led him back to Europe and from the 70s to the 80s he embarked on his most prolific – if hardly noticed – era. His leading man looks were ravaged by drugs -which he never gave up – but he managed to eke out some sort of living. (I should mention here that Chet also managed to marry three times and produce four good-looking kids, some of whom show up in the documentary.)
One of Chet’s best albums, in fact, was recorded and released in 1974. The LP was called She Was Too Good To Me and features Hubert Laws, Bob James, Ron Carter, Steve Gadd, Jack de Johnette, and Paul Desmond. “Autumn Leaves” is a great version of the standard featuring Gadd on drums and Desmond (“Take Five”) on sax:
Getting out of that jazz space for a little bit, Elvis Costello – who has a wide range of musical tastes – loved Baker’s playing and invited him to play on his 1983 song “Shipbuilding.” Nice song (one of my wife’s favorites) and nice work here by Baker who adds poignancy to anything he plays:
Wikipedia: “Early on May 13, 1988, Baker was found dead on the street below his room in Hotel Prins Hendrik, Amsterdam, with serious wounds to his head, apparently having fallen from the second-story window. Heroin and cocaine were found in his room and in his body. There was no evidence of a struggle, and the death was ruled an accident.
According to another account, he inadvertently locked himself out of his room and fell while attempting to cross from the balcony of the vacant adjacent room to his own. There is a plaque outside the hotel in his memory.”
If you look hard enough, you might find a video called Chet Baker: Live at Ronnie’s Scott’s London. This features Baker with a band and with Van Morrison sitting in on vocals and Elvis Costello interviewing him.
I’ll leave you here with Chet singing Elvis’ “Almost Blue” from Let’s Get Lost. I couldn’t find it on Spotify so I hope you can hear this. I probably haven’t done near enough justice to Chet’s significant output so I’m adding in a Spotify playlist. (Which includes “Let’s Get Lost.”)