Chet Baker Sings (1956)

by Nate McCarthy

The music we grow up listening to, from a very young age, has a strange, almost indescribable way of staying with us, and holding a special importance into adulthood and on. You only get to hear Bob Dylan or Miles Davis for the first time once. As someone who enjoys, but rarely listens to jazz music, I find myself repeatedly returning to a few jazz records that my parents played often when I was a child. One of these records is Chet Baker Sings.

Released in 1956, Chet Baker Sings is the first album by the jazz trumpeter that features him singing as well as playing trumpet. Baker is considered part of the cool jazz, or west coast jazz movement, which is distinguished by moderate, relaxed tempos and is less improvisational, (often composition-based, drawing from elements of classical music) than other popular styles of jazz at the time like bebop.

Chet Baker’s singing has a sort of effortless, calm, conversational quality to it. The songs on this album feel dreary, filled with a longing for lost love. They share the same nostalgia of post WWII-era ballads like “I’ll Be Seeing You,” a homage to those lovers who went off to war and never returned. Similar to “I’ll Be Seeing You” in “Look for the Silver Lining” Baker sings about seeing and being reminded of love, or the absence of a lover, in the mundane, everyday realities of everyday life, like the simple act of washing dishes.

While the music is thematically bittersweet, what makes listening to Baker’s music so bittersweet is the immense talent and self-destructiveness that characterized his life. Plagued by drug addiction, the promise of his early career (he was compared in his youth to Frank Sinatra) was never fully realized. Baker’s body was found in the street outside his hotel room in Amsterdam in 1988; it was unclear whether he was pushed or whether he fell, but high doses of heroin and cocaine were found in his body. Arguably, Baker’s best work was released during the 1950s, and it is difficult to deny that his career would have been more prolific had he broken the constraints of substance abuse.

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