Chet Baker was one of the most extraordinary musicians to ever play Jazz.
He was afflicted by a self-destructive drug addiction and was physically handicapped with chronic bad teeth.
We can learn a lot from the example set by his addiction to heroin from a young age. Simply, leave it alone. No drug can ever replace the satisfaction and confidence you get from practicing and improving your artistic skill.
If Chet had been able to overcome his addiction he may have lived longer. He may have been able to take better care of himself, and never allowed his teeth to deteriorate by practicing better oral hygiene.
The story goes that in 1966 after a gig in San Francisco he was chased and attacked by a group of men led by another drug user like himself, possibly his dealer. His lips were mangled and his front teeth were knocked out in the brutal attack.
But, as can be seen in this video from 1959, he was already missing at least one of his front teeth.
So, what was it that allowed Baker to overcome these disabilities? What was it that gave him the ability to create such wonderful and memorable music? To nurture his personal style of Jazz improvisation that is yet to be duplicated?
The short answer is talent. But, it's not what you think.
His main talent was the determination to use his gifts in spite of his shortfalls.
Yes, his musical imagination was beyond compare. He had the ability to hear his own music inside his mind just as clearly as if it were being played on the radio. And, he could translate that from his imagination out through his trumpet and his voice.
Even though he studied music briefly in college he dropped out after only two years. He was a performer at heart, and wanted to spend his time playing for an audience. His incredible gift of hearing allowed him to make great strides on his instrument without necessarily devoting as many hours to practice.
Certainly he practiced ear training, and playing by ear more than he practiced instrumental technique. And, good for him! After all, the ultimate goal of playing a musical instrument is self expression.
Ideally, we'd like to strike a balance between practicing technique and practicing ear training. Unfortunately, a lot of times ear training gets lost among audition and performance preparations, jury requirements, memorizing marching band shows, and just about anything else that comes up. In fact, real ear training has almost been forgotten in schools and conservatories. That may have been why Baker dropped out.
Now, let's talk about that determination.
He barely had any chops for the trumpet, but man how he used the chops he had. Later in his life, his voice began to fade as well. None of that seemed to matter. Chet had music inside of him that needed to get out.
He could have wasted a lot of time comparing himself to other Jazz artists of his time. He could have thought that there were so many players out there doing Jazz that were better than him; he might have just given up.
But, he didn't. He enjoyed spending time with Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker. He played with some of the greatest names in Jazz, and those big stars looked for opportunities to play alongside him on the band stand. Many more wished they had the chance to spend just a few minutes with him.
He would have continued playing even if they hadn't. Because of his determination to make music. He wanted to play and sing to make other people happy, and nothing gave him more pleasure than that. That was his greatest talent.
His talent to carry on in spite of his self-inflicted disabilities, and personal injuries.
But, the lessons we can take away from Chet Baker's story are:
Finally, I'd like to say Happy Birthday to Chet Baker who was born Dec. 23, 1929.
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