My initiation into Chet Baker was while babysitting for a high school teacher; he left an Italian movies soundtrack spinning on his record player when he left. Although that was the night I began to love Chet, I had heard of him before — a name written on a paper corner torn for me from a friend’s schedule (it was all he had at the moment). Besides Yo-Yo Ma’s rendering of the Bach Cello Suites, Chet Baker Sings has been my closest musical companion.
Break anything apart and you release its warmth. Jazz disassembles traditional harmonies, and Chet disassembles his heart. Chet Baker’s all around fragility is what’s most striking — heart exposed in understated trumpeting and mellow song. His fragility is not rehearsed either. Baker was in and out of jail in the 1960’s because of drug addiction (according to Encyclopedia Britannica). He was vulnerable not only to drugs but to loneliness as well, to extreme highs and acute lows. But emotional delicacy is a weakness as much as it is a strength, and Baker’s Achilles heel gives birth to a shocking intimacy in his music. This intimacy takes the warmth that can uniquely permeate jazz and tones — even shrinks — things down until the warmth is concentrated and heart-wrenching.