February 6, 2020

Chet Baker in New York

Chet Baker, 1945. Photo by Bobby Willoughby

IN THE LATE 1950S, THERE were three major jazz record labels in New York. Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside all churned out records as fast as their musicians could rehearse and record new material.

With the market for jazz red hot, competition to sign new artists was also very intense. Labels were always cajoling artists to join their roster or jump ship from rival labels. Jazz artists too were always on the lookout for new opportunities or better contracts and would change allegiances almost before the ink could dry on their new deals.

Into this competitive market came trumpet legend Chet Baker — newly released from rehab in Lexington, Kentucky and looking to make some quick money. Riverside was relatively new at the time, having really only gotten itself onto the map with it’s signing of Thelonious Monk in 1955. With expansion in mind and Baker suddenly presenting himself, label founder Bill Grauer saw an opportunity for what he thought would be a major coup. Grauer’s partner, producer Orrin Keepnews, was not so sure.

Baker was actually still under contract to Richard Bock’s World Pacific Jazz label in Los Angeles and having had many problems with Baker’s erratic behavior and personal issues, Bock was more than happy to release the trumpeter to Riverside.

Chet Baker would be a Riverside artist from mid-1958 to mid-1959 and produce four LPs under his own leadership. These four records would not last long in the jazz marketplace of the late 1950s, but would grow in reputation as the albums that transformed Baker from a pretty-boy crooner of love songs to a real be-bop jazz musician.

Collected together for the first time on one deluxe vinyl set, Chet Baker – The Legendary Riverside Albums (Craft Recordings) presents these rare recordings along with an additional LP of out takes and alternates.

Chet Baker – The Legendary Riverside Albums  box set

Chet Baker – The Legendary Riverside Albums box set

For the first LP Chet Baker Sings – It Could Happen To You, Keepnews and Grauer tapped into Baker’s appeal as a heartthrob vocalist with a program of romantic standards including “Everything Happens to Me,” “My Heart Stood Still,” “How Long Has This Been Going On” and the title track. Backed by a trio led by hard bop pianist Kenny Drew, who also arranged the date, Baker’s vocals began to take on a more jazz inflected approach, going so far as to scat several bars during “Do It The Hard Way.”

Producer Keepnews was not satisfied with the first album, so for the follow up, he placed Baker with a stellar roster of New York modernists including tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, pianist Al Haig, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. From the relaxed rendition of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” to the scorching bop of “Hotel 49,” the resulting LP, Chet Baker In New York, was as much an ensemble piece as a star showcase, and was more in tune with the New York hard-bop albums being released at the time.

The next LP, simply titled Chet, once again placed Baker with the best players Riverside could get. Pianist Bill Evans, guitarist Kenny Burrell, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Connie Kay and flutist/arranger Herbie Mann all conspired to create what has been called Baker’s ultimate “make-out” album. Always at his best on slow romantic ballads, Baker is in his element here, especially on “It Never Entered My Mind,” which also features some excellent guitar work from Burrell.

By this point, Baker was becoming a problem for Keepnews and Grauer. Arrests on narcotics charges that had Grauer himself paying Baker’s bail were bad enough, but worse was yet to come. Ever in need of money to feed his drug habit, the trumpeter had taken to stealing from the company, including one occasion where Baker enlisted some friends to help him steal literally a truckload of LPs from the Riverside warehouse. Incredibly, the producers declined to prosecute. Their rationale was that Baker still owed them one more album on his contract!

That final LP was Chet Baker Plays The Best Of Lerner And Loewe — an LP comprised of show tunes from famous Broadway composers. Broadway tunes were very hot at the time and Baker, along with Zoot Sims on tenor, Pepper Adams on baritone, Bill Evans on piano, Earl May on bass and Clifford Jarvis on drums, play a program that draws heavily from My Fair Lady, while not neglecting Lerner & Loewe’s other hits shows Brigadoon and Gigi.

And with that, Baker was through with Riverside Records. It was likely a relief for Keepnews and Grauer as well when Baker moved his family to Europe the following month.

The year at Riverside would mark the last time that Baker would have a multi-record deal with any label. From that point on, the trumpeter would record a seemingly endless string of on-off sessions for most of the major and minor jazz labels. Though he died in 1988, previously unknown sessions are still being discovered to this day. Thankfully, the legendary Riverside albums are being re-discovered as well.

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


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