Chet Baker, James Dean of jazz

Almost blue, flirting with this disaster became me, it named me as the fool who only aimed to be…



Open window in Čekaluša Čikma, a dead end street which led right to the apartment I lived in. In the front yard there is a tree. Seasons pick out its suits. And when it’s warm enough for the window to remain open everything is transformed into a world where the wind playfully rules the curtains. Time stops and the only thing that keeps on going is jazz. This always starts with Stella by Starlight. Sometimes it’s performed by Bill Evans, sometimes by Chet Baker, other times they do it together. It’s not long before Miles, Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan and Dizzy join them. They have the curtains dancing…

At the end of the beginning, it all comes back to Chet and the magic of his trumpet. Melancholy is packed into what James Dean used to do on the silver screen. I am not even going to try revealing that secret. Something similar happened when, much later, I heard Esbjörn Svensson Trio. Love at the very record spin. Some things simply fall into place, it happened like that with Chet. There is no time for Chet or Esbjörna, they exist in a magic realm.



James Dean is often described as a rock’n’roll type before there even was rock’n’roll. He died in 1955, birth year of rock’n’roll, driving his legendary Porsche Spyder to a race in Salinas. At impact, his mechanic was thrown from the car, while Dean died on the spot having broken his neck. He met his end living by his motto, he lived fast and died young.

At this time, Chet Baker was already crowned James Dean of Jazz, partly because of similar physical appearance, as well as a bad guy reputation, and mostly because of his influence on jazz. He had the same impact on jazz as Dean did on the cinema of that time.

It was clear that after a Rebel Without a Cause and a Prince of Cool nothing will ever be the same.

The James Dean Story is a documentary filmed right after Dean’s death. It was directed by Robert Altman and George W. George. Chet Baker and Bud Shank recorded its soundtrack in 1956.



There is a legend which speaks of the golden age of Levi Strauss & Co. jeans and how some of its executives have seen some Baker photos which right away made them think of James Dean, whose spirit they were trying to capture and revive in their advertising campaigns. They were especially impressed by a particular photo of Baker: his trumpet and Baker himself are in the foreground, sitting at the edge of a bed, behind them, a beautiful woman stretched out.

By the time they have noticed it the photograph was already thirty years old, and it was already too late. Chet had lost all his teeth and the youth they needed.

His drug habit led him astray and he was in trouble with the law in several European countries, where otherwise his music was popular. He was expelled from Germany and UK. In early sixties he served more than a year in prison in Italy.

His prison sentence prevented him from starring in the film All the Fine Young Cannibals, which was to be his life story in which he played himself. Later, the screenplay was adjusted and the main role of the trumpeter Chad Bixby went to Robert Wargner. The film is remembered as the first in which Wargner got to star in with his wife Natalie Wood.



There are several versions of the story of how Chet Baker lost his teeth. One of his accounts is that there was an attempt to mug him at the back door of a restaurant he played in. The attempt was unsuccessful because he pretended to have a gun and scared off the attackers. Next day, his robbers showed up armed and ready. Another one is that he stepped on some toes he shouldn’t have stepped on and as a result they sent, in Chet’s words – five black cats, to rob him of his most precious – the ability to play his horn.

Regardless of which version of the story is true, the outcome is the same, he was beaten until his lips were split and his front teeth knocked out, he was beaten to the extent of not being able to use the muscles of the mouth.

It was a difficult period of his life, he could no longer draw the trumpet close to his lips, he worked odd jobs, and by his own admission the hardest one was the gas station attendant, where he filled up tanks from 7AM to 11PM. Within 6 months he managed to start practice playing again.

Three years later, on the recommendation of Dizzy Gillespie, Chet got a gig in New York. That was a beginning of a return.


Elvis Costello is a big fan of Baker. And when Chet was abandoned and forgotten, mostly due to the manipulative nature of relationships with others because of his drug habit, Costello offered him a chance. He played his solo in the song Shipbuilding, this exposed his art to some new and varied audience.

Costello wrote Almost Blue inspired by Baker’s version of The Thrill is Gone. Baker drives it home by preforming Almost Blue in the final moments of a documentary ‘Let’s Get Lost.’ It is a film made by Bruce Webber, and made in what will be the last year of Baker’s life.

Chet Baker was found dead on the street underneath the window of his Amsterdam hotel room, just before the film was released. According to the official report, he fell out of the window. Cocaine and heroin were both found in his room and body. Room 210 of the hotel Prince Hendrik now bears the name ‘Chet Baker Room’.



We all have our favorite places. Some of them we’ve only seen, some visited, others we have lived.

I am not a man who gets attached to places, but sometimes they catch up to me. Everything falls into place then. Just like the dead end street leading to my apartment and Chet Baker whom I felt the most there. In the sun, wind, rain and snow, that street was never long enough to get lost in. Chet Baker in my head and cars from the Leonard Cohen’s poem, parked on both sides, some facing north, some facing south, and nothing left to draw conclusions.

Street ascending toward skies, bringing me to the yard with the tree and tranquility I only sometimes manage to snag, transforming into the melody of one particular trumpet.




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Mesa Begic

Meša Begić breaths at the crossroads of poetry and music. Lists of influences are way too long. Books titles are deliberately forgotten. Records are broken. But when the night comes on, it all comes down to jazz - Chet Baker's trumpet is only salvation. While Nina Simone whispers: ...and wild is the wind...


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