Chet Baker - trumpet, vocals; Russ Freeman - piano;; Bob Carter - bass;; Peter Littman - drums;; Special guests:; Gerry Mulligan - baritone sax
One of the most visible exponents of the West Coast cool school of jazz, trumpeter Chet Baker played in an intimate style that was far more restrained and mellow than incendiary boppers like Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro or aggressively blowing hard boppers like Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard.
After a brief apprenticeship with Stan Getz, Baker began attracting attention with Gerry Mulligan's piano-less quartet, which was considered a revolutionary idea in jazz during the early 1950s. After Mulligan went to jail in June 1953 on a drug charge, the trumpeter formed his own quartet and launched a solo career with the 1954 Pacific Jazz release, Chet Baker Sings. His popularity during the '50s was enhanced by his matinee idol good looks, which also made him a natural for magazine covers during his heyday. Sadly, a tragic addiction to heroin would rob him of both his chops and his photogenic appeal later in his career. But in 1955, Baker was at the peak of his powers and he turned in an exhilarating set that summer at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Baker is accompanied here by a strictly West Coast lineup of pianist Russ Freeman, bassist Bob Carter and drummer Peter Littman. They open their set with a cool rendition of "Walkin'," a modern 12-bar blues introduced a year earlier by Miles Davis on a Prestige recording of the same name with his All-Stars (pianist Horace Silver, bassist Percy Heath, drummer Kenny Clarke, trombonist J.J. Johnson, tenor sax great Lucky Thompson and the under-recognized alto saxophonist Dave Schildkraut). Baker's trumpet playing is bright and rhythmically assured while Freeman offers some soulful piano work on his solo. Carter adds a laid back bass solo before Baker returns with a bold attack in his spirited eight-bar exchanges with drummer Littman.
The melancholy torch song "You Don't Know What Love Is" is a fitting showcase for Baker's tender, emotionally-charged vocals, which increased his popularity among the masses but alienated hardcore jazz fans. Inveterate jammer and former partner Mulligan joins the quartet on a rousing rendition of the baritone saxophonist's boppish romp "Five Brothers," which Mulligan had recorded in 1949 with Stan Getz and again in 1952 with Baker. Sparks fly toward the end of this energized number as the two principal soloists exchange eights with drummer Littman and intertwine their horn lines simultaneously before returning to the jaunty head.
Shortly after this appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, Baker made his motion picture debut in Hell's Horizon, which was released in the Fall of 1955. Following that brief fling with Hollywood, Baker returned to the jazz scene with a vengeance and formed a more hard boppish quartet in 1956 with pianist Bobby Timmons. In 1957, he toured the U.S. with the Birdland All-Stars and later took a group to Europe. Baker settled in Italy in 1959 and acted in another film there. By this time, Baker's heroin habit began interfering with his career. He was arrested in Italy during the summer of 1960. Ironically, in that same year Hollywood released a fictionalized account of his life, All the Fine Young Cannibals, starring Robert Wagner as Chad Bixby. Through the '60s, Baker endured frequent arrests and jail time for drug offenses while living alternately in England, France, Spain and Germany. He tried mounting various comebacks but his condition had deteriorated so much by the end of the '60s that he rarely performed anymore and only recorded infrequently. By the early '70s, he stopped playing altogether.
A triumphant reunion concert with his longtime colleague Gerry Mulligan at Carnegie Hall in November 1974 (documented by Epic Records) gave Baker's career a much-needed boost and by the mid '70s he was back touring Europe, Japan and the United States. But Baker remained a junkie and his health continued to decline. Filmmaker Bruce Weber documented Baker's tragic slide in his 1987 film Let's Get Lost. The following year, Baker died under suspicious circumstances in a fall from a hotel window in Amsterdam.
Back in 1955, on this particular Saturday evening in Freebody Park in Newport, Rhode Island, a 25-year-old Chet Baker had every reason to be optimistic about his future. And we can hear that youthful enthusiasm pouring off the bandstand. (Milkowski)