Once again I remembered the flowers and chocolates and cards and wine and cheese, and even made the fire, but I nearly forgot to post this bittersweet song.
Born in 1929 and raised in Oklahoma, Chesney Henry “Chet” Baker, Jr. began his musical career as a child, singing in a church choir. Not long after, his father presented him with a trombone, which was soon replaced by a trumpet when the trombone proved too big and ungainly.
Posted in Berlin in 1946 with the 298th Army band after he’d left school at the age of 16, Baker was later a member of the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco. Discharged into the burgeoning Bay Area Jazz Club scene, it wasn’t hard for the talented musician with the chiseled features to find work and Hollywood soon came knocking.
But after a few forgettable films Baker missed the musician’s life and declined a studio contract offer. It was an excellent choice and by 1955 he had become an icon of the West Coast “Cool School” of Jazz. Unfortunately he had also become a heroin addict.
Barely in his 30s his world began to tumble and the Jazz icon became a pawnshop regular, pawning his instruments to maintain his habit. After making his way to Europe in the early 1960s, Baker was expelled from both West Germany and the UK for drug-related offenses and then ended up in an Italian prison for a year.
Things grew even more dire upon his return to San Francisco when he was savagely beaten after a 1966 gig, leaving him with a mouthful of broken teeth and, even worse for a trumpet player, gashes on his lips, all of which was so severe that his embouchure was ruined and he could no longer play his horn.
And yet hope remained for Chet Baker, who took whatever jobs he could find (including pumping gas) to save up enough money for a set of dentures. He then took up the flugelhorn and, after developing a new embouchure, moved east to New York where he and his new instrument were suddenly in demand. By the mid-70s Baker had returned to Europe and, with a new lease on life as a mature and prolific artist, had his most rewarding decade as a bill-topping recording artist. And then it was over.
At about 3 a.m. on a May morning in 1988 the woeful musician’s body was discovered on the street below his second-story room in Amsterdam. The autopsy revealed both heroin and cocaine in his system and death was ruled an accident.
Certainly one of Chet Baker’s most memorable numbers is this one, from the 1937 Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical “Babes in Arms.” A Jazz standard ever since, “My Funny Valentine” has been recorded by more than 600 artists and has appeared on over 1,300 albums. Baker himself performed it on numerous releases throughout his career, although this, his moodily romantic 1952 recording with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, endures.
My Funny Valentine
My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Yet you’re my favorite work of art
Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
Don’t change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is Valentine’s Day