Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – The Music Column with William Price King #Jazz Musicians #Trumpet – Chet Baker

Welcome to the next in the series on Jazz musicians and this week, William Price King shares the best of Chet Baker…I will hand you over to William to share some of the background and music of this legend.

This week I am featuring Chet Baker because he was one of the best trumpet players of all time and such a great musician. He sang, as well, but he’s in a league all by himself because of the extraordinary way he played and the interaction between his trumpet and his voice.

Chesney Henry “Chet” Baker Jr. (December 23, 1929 – May 13, 1988) was an American jazz trumpeter and vocalist. Baker earned much attention and critical praise through the 1950s, particularly for albums featuring his vocals (Chet Baker Sings, It Could Happen to You). Jazz historian Dave Gelly described the promise of Baker’s early career as “James Dean, Sinatra, and Bix, rolled into one.” His well-publicized drug habit also drove his notoriety and fame. Baker was in and out of jail frequently before enjoying a career resurgence in the late 1970s and ’80s

Chet was born into a musical family in Oklahoma with his father Chesney working as a professional guitars and his mother Vera Moser was a pianist. Unfortunately in the depression, his father had to abandon his musical career to find a more regular job to support the family.

Like many of the musical artists of his generation. Chet began his musical career singing in the church choir.. His father first encouraged him to play the trombone, but it was a bit on the big side and so it was replaced with the trumpet. He played by ear, using the radio to pick up tunes and after being given a trumpet his musicality improved rapidly.

He received some musical theory at his junior high school, but he left at 16 in 1946 to join the United States Army. Having been posted to Berlin he joined the 298th Army Ban for the next two years. In 1948 he left the army and studied music theory and harmony at El Camino College in Los Angeles but dropped out to re-inlist in the Army. He was a member of the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco which gave him access to jazz clubs in the City. In 1952, Baker joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet.

My Funny Valentine”, written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for the 1937 musical “Babes in Arms” and introduced by former child star Mitzi Green has been recorded on more than 1300 albums and performed by more than 600 artists. In 2015 the Gerry Mulligan Quartet featuring Chet Baker’s version of this piece (which became a jazz standard) was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry for the song’s “ cultural, artistic and/or historical significance to American society and the nation’s audio legacy.” This song became Baker’s calling card and his version is considered by many as being the definitive one. The melancholia he brings to the piece gives a hint of the anguish that pervaded his life and artistry, much like that of Nina Simone, who, like Baker, was a musician first and foremost.

Within a year of joining the Quartet, Mulligan was arrested and imprisoned on drug charges. Baker formed a quartet with a rotation that included pianist Russ Freeman, bassists Bob Whitlock, Carson Smith, Joe Mondragon, and Jimmy Bond, and drummers Larry Bunker, Bob Neel, and Shelly Manne. Baker’s quartet released popular albums between 1953 and 1956. Baker won reader’s polls at Metronome and Down Beat magazine, beating trumpeters Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. In 1954, readers named Baker the top jazz vocalist.

“But Not For Me”, written by George and Ira Gershwin for the Broadway musical “Girl Crazy” (1930), was taken from Chet Baker’s debut vocal album “Chet Baker Sings” (1954) which received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2001. Clearly, this cool swing version is played with pizzazz and highlights Baker’s signature jazzy phrasing as well as the relationship between his vocals and his horn. This performance shows how his voice and his trumpet reacted to and played off each other.

Hollywood studios saw an opportunity in Baker’s chiseled features. He made his acting debut in the film Hell’s Horizon, released in the fall of 1955. He declined a studio contract, preferring life on the road as a musician. Over the next few years, Baker led his own combos, including a 1955 quintet with Francy Boland, where Baker combined playing trumpet and singing. In 1956 he completed an eight-month tour of Europe, where he recorded Chet Baker in Europe.

It was following this tour in 1957 that Baker confessed to taking heroin although fellow musicians have stated it was earlier in the 1950s. In late 1959 he returned to Europe, recording in Italy what would become known as the Milano Sessions with arranger and conductor Ezio Leoni (aka Len Mercer) and his orchestra. Baker was arrested for drug possession and jailed in Pisa, forcing Leoni to communicate through the prison warden to coordinate arrangements with Baker as they prepared for recording.

“Chetty’s Lullaby”, composed by Chet Baker while he was in prison in Italy, was recorded in Italian and released as a single in 1962 by RCA Records. This song is considered as one of his best compositions. Baker re-emerges in this piece as more heartfelt and refined, with a newfound confidence and ease in the sound of his horn. His voice is warmer and his detached monotone becomes a rich croon.


“So What” was composed by Miles Davis and is one of the most famous compositions in jazz, instantly recognizable from its introductory bass line which comes across beautifully in Baker’s version of this piece with Luigi Trussardi playing bass. This piece is also one of the best known examples of modal jazz*. Baker performs this piece with Jacques Pelzer on sax, Rene Urtreger on piano, Franco Manzecchi on drums and, of course, Luigi Trussardi on double bass and was recorded in Belgium in 1964.

*modal jazz is jazz that uses musical modes rather than chord progressions as a harmonic framework.

Chet Baker continued to play the clubs in California but in 1966, whilst allegedly buying drugs, he was badly beaten and as a result had several broken knocked out. This destroyed his ability to use his lips, facial muscles, tongue and teeth used to play a wind instrument (embouchure. In the film of his life Let’s Get Lost, Baker claimed that the fight was an attempted robbery by an acquaintance and a group, but whatever the truth, he was unable to play and worked as a gas station attendant until he mastered playing the trumpet again with dentures.

This marked a resurgence in his jazz career and he moved to New York City and began performing and recording again. Following this he moved to Europe where he remained for the rest of his life, performing and recording.  He also toured with saxophonist Stan Getz.

“Almost Blue,” from “Let’s Get Lost” (a 1988 Oscar nominated film about the turbulent life and career of Chet Baker), was written by Elvis Costello who got his inspiration for this piece from the 1931 jazz standard “The Thrill Is Gone.” This poignant interpretation is bluesy, moody, and thematically apt with regards to Baker’s unstable life. It was recorded live in Tokyo a year before his death and sets a mood that takes hold from the horn passages right on through to Baker’s outstanding vocal.

Buy music by Chet Baker:

©William Price King 2018

Other sources:

About William Price King

William Price King is an American jazz singer, crooner, and composer.

His interest in music began at an early age when he studied piano and clarinet in high school. At Morehouse College in Atlanta where he grew up, he sang in the Glee Club and studied classical music. After graduation he went off to the Yale School of Music where he earned a Masters degree. From there he journeyed to New York where he created a jazz trio ‘Au Naturel’ which performed in some of the hottest venues in Manhattan including gigs on Broadway and the famous ‘Rainbow Room.’ These gigs opened doors for performances in Montreal and a European tour.

While touring Europe he met a lovely French lady, Jeanne Maïstre, who, a year later became his wife. King left the group ‘Au Naturel’ and settled in the south of France where he started a new life on the French Riviera, opening his own music school – the “Price King Ecole Internationale de Chant.” He has had the pleasure over the years of seeing many of his students excel as singers on a professional level, and some going on to become national celebrities. He continues to coach young singers today, in his spare time.

His debut jazz album was entitled “Home,” and was a collection of contemporary compositions he composed, with lyrics written by his wife Jeanne King. His second album was a Duo (Voice and Guitar) with Eric Sempé on the guitar. This album included original songs as well as well known standards from contemporary jazz and pop artists. The “King-Sempé” duo toured France and thrilled audiences for more than three years before going their separate ways. King has formed a new duo with French/Greek guitarist Manolis, and is now exploring new ideas, in a smooth jazz/soul/folk direction.

In addition to singing and composing, King has been collaborating with author Sally Cronin over the past few years on her blog “Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life,” with the series “A Man And His Music – Jazz, Contemporary, Classical, and Legends” and now, the “William Price King Music Column.” Working with author Sally Cronin has been an exhilarating experience in many ways and has brought a new dimension to King’s creative life. King has also created a micro blog, “Improvisation,” which features and introduces mostly jazz artists from across the jazz spectrum who have made considerable contributions in the world of jazz; and also artwork from painters who have made their mark in the world of art. This micro blog can be found on Tumblr.

His vocal mentors are two of the greatest giants in jazz, Nat King Cole and Mel Tormé. King has a distinctive wide-ranging voice which displays a remarkable technical facility and emotional depth.

William Price King on Tumblr – IMPROVISATION

Connect with William

Regular Venue 

You can find all of the Music Column series in this directory:

Thank you for dropping in and hope you will tune in again in two weeks for another post in the series Jazz instrumentalists.