The Chet Baker of Yale, Oklahoma

by Joe OShansky


I’ve been listening to Chet Baker’s music as I write. He doesn’t sing on these tracks—though he’s a great crooner—instead playing trumpet or perhaps some flugelhorn. I’m a novice in jazz, and have been essentially ignorant of Baker’s work until now, despite enjoying his peers, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

When I listen to Baker’s music I don’t hear Oklahoma. His enigmatic trumpet meanders between beautifully Spartan arrangements, evoking a smoky, big city, tenement apartment. Metal venetian blinds cutting the moonlight. The ever-present drone of sirens in the distance. Writing in the dark at 3:00 a.m. on a cool night with cheap alcohol at hand; savoring every sound. Then a fire engine thunders down 15th Street. I look out of the window, as the red lights strobe and fade past Piehole Pizzeria. It’s like a game. As if by watching the news on WGN, I can almost trick my mind into believing I am in Chicago. However, the din of the fire engine breaks the spell. I am back in Tulsa.

“When it evokes that kind of imagery in your head, you know that it’s doing its job. That’s timeless,” says Bruce Guthrie. Bruce is a jazz singer himself and co-founder of the Tulsa-based Chet Baker Foundation. Born of enthusiasts, The Chet Baker Foundation has its missions. Raising awareness of Chet Baker, and jazz music in general, is one aspect. Juxtaposing that lifelong love with a supported outlet for music education in Tulsa schools is another. Ultimately, those missions encapsulate the more solemn goal of reminding Oklahomans that Chet was one of their own; a forgotten thread in a shared heritage.

Born on December 23rd 1929, Chesney “Chet” Henry Baker Jr. spent the first decade of his life in Oklahoma. His mother said Chet would listen to the radio, learning songs by ear, inadvertently becoming adept at improvisation by aural osmosis. Following in the footsteps of many during the waning years of the Dust Bowl, he moved with his family to Glendale, California.

Chet’s father, Chesney Sr., was a country guitarist who encouraged Chet to pick up a horn. After a brief stab at the trombone, which he found unwieldy, Chet switched to the trumpet. The history of American jazz, and its impact on the world, changed with that decision.

In 1946, Chet left high school to join the Army—the first of two stints that he ended in order to further his musical career. In the early fifties, he picked up gigs playing with Stan Getz and Charlie Parker, and eventually found his first major success with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, with the hit song “My Funny Valentine.” Then in 1953, he formed The Chet Baker Quartet, helping to pioneer the genre of West Coast cool jazz.

Baker’s chiseled, James Dean-esque, visage earned him film offers in Hollywood—and he did appear in a couple of bit parts—but he ultimately lost interest when he found the filmmaking process tedious. Music always called him back.

Sometime in the mid-fifties, with his prestige growing, Baker began a relationship with heroin that would last the rest of his life, and cloud the significance of his career. Despite his musical prowess, he began to get a rep for his issues with drugs, which stemmed from arrests in Europe. A 1966 altercation left Baker severely beaten, his front teeth knocked out. Chet’s career ebbed.

Embouchure lost, pumping gas as a job in Los Angeles, Baker had to re-learn to play horns with dentures. Chet’s arduous road back to musical proficiency took almost three years, during which time he would sneak in and out of small coffee house gigs, sitting in with unknowns, until his friend Artt Frank booked him at The Melody Room—in what is now L.A.’s Viper Room. Hollywood’s elite turned out to see him perform, and the appearance—after a period of rebuilding his reputation with the help of Frank’s advocacy—marked a new chapter in Baker’s career that continued, even through unabated drug use, to the end of his life. His fame, particularly in Europe and Japan, flourished.

Musically, his last years proved to be his most fruitful, if not financially, than at least creatively. Leaving behind the purely instrumental compositions of his early career, critics lauded his performances on Chet Baker in Tokyo, as well as a plethora of recordings for various European labels throughout the 1980’s. Even those who deemed him a second-rate Miles Davis could not deny Chet’s top-tier talents as a singer. The seeds of his influence sprouted among contemporary musicians of the time, most notably in collaborations with Elvis Costello that included the UK Top 40 hit, “Shipbuilding”. If you’re a fan of Chris Issak’s lilting vocals, than you’ve heard the ghost of Chet Baker.

Over the years, Baker would return to Oklahoma to visit family and sit in on club sessions in Tulsa during the seventies, playing Boston Avenue haunts like The Nine of Cups. Later years found him living in Europe, where he met his mysterious end.

On May 13th, 1988 Chet Baker fell to his death from the second story window of an Amsterdam hotel. Authorities ruled it an accident, though his family believes otherwise. Conspiracy theorists still pick the grisly details apart—to which his dealings with drug culture only added fuel—but Chet’s roots seem to have been eclipsed by his tragic end.

“Most people in Oklahoma have no idea who he is,” says Guthrie. “You go out to the coasts or Europe, and everybody knows.”

Guthrie told me that the Chet Baker Foundation recently received a grant through Tulsa Public Schools to raise awareness of Baker’s work and bolster funding for music programs. It’s no small irony that Oklahoma’s children will soon become acquainted with Baker’s sound.

“He always recalled his childhood in Oklahoma,” says Guthrie. “I think he had a special sort of connection because everywhere he went in the world, he would sign hotel registries ‘Chet Baker, Yale, Oklahoma’.”

Pictured: Bruce Guthrie of the Chet Baker Foundation, photo by Michael Cooper