Whilst many of the most famous musicians in jazz are known for their compositional offerings to the world, Chet Baker was a little different. As one of the most impressive song interpreters of all time, the trumpeter and vocalist carved out a career recording definitive versions of many standards, providing us with a list of Chet Baker songs which were all, in fact, written by others!
Good looks, charm and a beautiful singing voice, it appeared that Baker had it all!
But, born on 23rd December 1929 into a musical family, the trumpeter and vocalist is another jazz artist whose fame see-sawed between admiration for his incredible musicianship and notoriety for his lifelong personal struggles.
Whilst he was initially given instruction on trombone, he switched to trumpet at the age of thirteen and quickly showed a flair as a natural musician.
After two stints in the US Army, he was discharged in 1951 and by the following year, aged 22, was firmly established as a professional jazz musician.
Despite a career that was full of ups and downs – including a long period of inactivity thanks to spells in prison and injured – the songs we’ve highlighted here helped establish Chet Baker as one of the most famous jazz musicians of his generation, and an influential for singers and jazz trumpeters of future generations.
My Funny Valentine
(from the album Gerry Mulligan Quartet Vol.2 – Rec: 1953 / The Best of Chet Baker Sings – Rec: 1954)
Chet Baker’s treatment of the jazz song My Funny Valentine made him a household name… twice!
1952 saw Chet Baker him join Gerry Mulligan’s now-legendary pianoless quartet, which gives us this marvellous instrumental version of My Funny Valentine from 1953.
The interweaving countermelodies between baritone saxophone and trumpet, with the light and airy sound, were unheard of before, and an immediate success.
Hot on the heels of that, Baker also scored a big hit with the song when he recorded it as a vocalist for his Chet Baker Sings album.
His soft velvety tone was perfect this poignant ballad, and this 1954 recording must be regarded as the definitive version of the song, as well as a go-to song for many non-jazz fans of the 14th February each year…
Time After Time
(from the album The Best of Chet Baker Sings – Rec: 1954)
Not to be confused with the Cyndi Lauper song of the same name, this version of Time After Time was written by lyricist Sammy Cahn with music by Jule Styne in 1946.
Chet Baker’s vocal is relaxed and laid back as he gently sings the lyrics. With one of his ever-melodic bite-sized trumpet solos between verses, it’s one of the classic Chet Baker songs.
Let’s Get Lost
(from the album The Best of Chet Baker Sings – Rec: 1955)
Chet Baker takes a lightly swinging approach to this rather cheerful tune written by Jimmy McHugh andFrank Loesser.
His opening trumpet chorus is bright and clear, and his vocal is full of charm. It’s another example of his knack for picking the right material at the right tempo and would become a song that he would perform countless times.
If you’re looking to discover more about the life of Chet Baker, it also serves as the title for this fascinating 1988 documentary by Bruce Weber.
Stella by Starlight
(from the album Chet Baker Plays – Rec: 1955)
It’s perhaps testament to his skills as an interpreter that Stella By Starlight is known by many as a Chet Baker song, despite being recorded by hundreds of artists and written by Victor Young.
No vocals here; just another swinging tune that become a Baker staple.
Focusing on his trumpet playing, Chet gives a wonderful performance showcasing his natural ‘cool school ‘style, more reminiscent of Bix Beiderbecke and Miles Davis, than Dizzy Gillespie and bebop.
(from the album Chet In Paris – Rec: 1955/56)
Many famous jazz musicians have shared an affinity for Paris, and Chet Baker was no different.
Recording live in the city for Pacific Jazz, Baker switches pianists from Russ Freeman to Dick Twardzik.
A very different player, Twardzik’s harmonic awareness was unique and his fondness for dissonance could have been at odds with the trumpeter. However, Baker solos confidently over the pianist’s accompaniment and the two generate some genuine sparks of invention.
Autumn In New York/Embraceable You/What’s New
(from the album Stan Meets Chet – Rec:1958)
On paper, a match made in heaven: the delicate introverted sound of Baker’s trumpet and smooth velvety sound of Stan Getz’s tenor.
What was there not to like?
Well, the answer appears to have been ‘each other’ as Getz and Chet seemed to take an instant dislike to one another. At times this tension would bristle within the music they produced (they collaborated on three separate occasions) but on this outing the music wins.
(from the album Chet – Rec: 1958/59)
Chet Baker and Bill Evans? Now this was a match made in heaven!
The rapport between pianist and trumpeter is evident from the outset, with Evans’s delicate and atmospheric introduction and Baker’s trumpet entrance a rare moment that makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.
Chet’s solo on this jazz standard is a model of elegance only matched by the pianist’s subtle shading and accompaniment.
Deep in a Dream
(from the album With Fifty Italian Strings – Rec: 1959)
From quartets and small groups to a fifty-piece string orchestra, Baker seemed at home in any setting.
It could so easily have been an album of excesses, but so sympathetically and skilfully arranged are the charts by Len Mercer that Chet only needs to show up and do his thing.
The song, which Baker has acknowledged as one of his favourites, is lushly arranged and the vocalist is bathed in the strings which serve to highlight his tender delivery.
His trumpet solo played over the orchestra is again a miniature model of lyricism and economy.
I Talk to the Tree
(from the album Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner & Loewe – Rec: 1959)
1959 saw a repeat encounter for Chat Baker and pianist Bill Evans, this time on a well-conceived concept album.
The song I Talk To The Tree has a beautiful melody, yet is one of the less familiar titles on the album.
Once again, the tempo is perfect, and Evans’s comping is just right. The trumpeter’s statement of the opening melody is majestic as is his solo that follows (and dare I say trumps the excellent tenor playing of Zoot Sims).
Chet Baker’s tone is pure and rings out clearly and his ideas are pristine.
(from the album Diane with Paul Bley – Rec: 1985)
The 1960s and 1970s were a largely disappointing period in terms of Chet Baker’s recording output.
A series of uninspiring albums which he described as “simply a job to pay the rent” and spells in prison were followed by a beating in 1965 which damaged his teeth and led to a deterioration in his ability to play trumpet.
Despite his personal struggles, Chet Baker made a comeback in the mid 1970s and was still recording and touring well into his 50s, unlike many others we could think of.
Mainly based in Europe towards the end of his career, his version of the song Diane is a late masterpiece from the trumpeter, recorded as a duo with pianist Paul Bley.
Written in 1927 for the silent movie 7th Heaven, it has also appeared under the title ‘Diane (I’m in Heaven When I See You Smile)’ and proves to be a timeless piece of music in the hands of Baker and Bley.
The ideal musical partner at this point in the trumpeter’s career Bley, like Bill Evans, has the uncanny knack of getting right to the heart of things. It’s perhaps most evident on this delightful composition by Lew Pollack and Ernö Rapée.
Quite how Chet Baker functioned with such an unsettling way of life remains a mystery, as does his death three years after this recording; on May 13th 1988 he was found dead after having, it is assumed, fallen out of his hotel window.
Despite so many periods of uncertainty, Chet Baker will be remembered for the extensive collection of songs that he not only made his own, but brought to an audience that transcends the jazz world.
More Chet Baker Songs
In a career blighted by addiction and enforced spells away from music, Chet Baker nonetheless brings us some of the most delicate and heartfelt vocal performances in jazz.
His legacy lives on in the wonderful recordings he made in the 1950s, as well as several classic live albums after his comeback in the early 1970s.
As always, the Chet Baker songs we selected only scratch the surface; hopefully they will provide you with some inspiration to dive deeper into the discography and history of the legendary jazz musician.