December 6, 2017

Chet Baker in Germany, 1979

Chet Baker, 1983. Wikimedia Commons, Michiel Hendryckx

By Armand Lewis

There have been few lives as tortured, yet so prolific as Chet Baker’s. The lyrical trumpeter with the choirboy voice would record literally hundreds of albums while spending much of his life dealing with the horrors of addiction and other personal problems of his own making. Born in Oklahoma in 1929, this naturally intuitive musician would be (at various times) a teen idol, a jazz giant, an exiled criminal and, through it all, a total romantic.

For most of his life, he would be an enigma. Constantly in motion, due to both his personal troubles and plentiful employment opportunities, he would spend much of his adult life all over Europe, returning to America only when absolutely necessary.

Baker first came into prominence when baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan picked the trumpeter to accompany him in a quartet that revolutionized small group jazz. The group was one of the first units to omit the piano from its rhythm section. Along with the delicate interplay between Mulligan and Baker, this gave the music a lightness and gentle swing that was unheard of at the time. Baker’s soft trumpet style was even more amazing when one realizes that he was almost entirely self-taught. His natural talent was such that he rarely would even practice.

When the Mulligan group broke up in 1953, Baker started recording under his own name. His smooth trumpet style, his quiet, but emotional singing and movie star looks, made him the teen music idol before the arrival of Elvis a few years later.

But by this point, Baker was already running afoul of the law. In 1955, on an ill-fated tour of Europe, Baker had begun retreating from the pressures of stardom into the heroin addiction that would plague him for the rest of his life.

In subsequent years, Chet Baker would return to the U.S., get into legal trouble, retreat to Italy, get into trouble there, move on to Germany, Sweden, France, back to the U.S. and back again to Europe in an endless cycle of new beginnings and inevitable disappointments. Along the way, he would still record classic LP like Chet Baker and Crew (Pacific Jazz – 1956), Chet (Riverside – 1958), and a series of LPs for Prestige in 1967 which would prove he was not just a “pretty boy,” but the equal of any of the hardest swinging jazz players.

By the 1970s, Baker was almost permanently based in Europe, though he never “settled” anywhere. Recording opportunities were plentiful and he would record for basically anyone who would pay his fee up front. Often the results were sometimes rather weak or even unreleasable, but occasionally when everything was right, Baker could still lay down a magnificent recording.

On the night of April 2nd, 1979, everything was very right when Baker and his rhythm section, consisting of pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Jean Louis Rassinfosse and drummer Charlie Rice, were recorded in concert for NDR Hamburg radio.


As part of what looks to be an ongoing series of recordings from NDR’s archive, Chet Baker At Onkel Po’s Carnegie Hall Hamburg 1979 (Jazzline N-78038) presents literally 100 minutes of Baker playing at his best in the venerable club.

The album is made up of just five tunes — all from Baker’s standard repertoire of the period — each played in extended performances. “Love for Sale,” “You Can’t Go Home Again,” “Black Eyes” and “Broken Wing” all have superb instrumental renditions while, “There’s Never Be Another You” features a vocal chorus by Baker, who’s voice that evening is admittedly not as pure and sharp as his trumpet.

And Baker’s trumpet is very sharp. Combining his always strong melodic sense with bop phrasing, this album emerges as one of Baker’s strongest pure jazz albums to be released in a long time. That his rhythm section contributes masterful solos as well as an almost funky rhythmic backing makes this an album to return to again and again.

While there would be many other concerts and recordings between 1979 and Baker’s death just nine years later, this concert will likely stand as a high point. The inconsistency of Baker’s later career shows not only the problems he inflicted on himself  but also his determination to continue performing in the face of adversity. In spite of everything, he managed to continue playing with an innocence and delicacy that would be hard for anyone to keep up after 30 years of self-inflicted abuse.

Toward the end, Baker was sometimes not up to the task, but even then, there were still nights that he could produce pure magic. Chet Baker at Onkel PO’s Carnegie Hall Hamburg 1979 is one of the best examples of this later-year magic to surface since his passing.

Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at


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