Jeroen de Valk, author of Chet Baker: His Life and Music

March 29th, 2001


Chet Baker was a star at 23 years old, winner of the Critics as well as Readers Poll in Down Beat. But much of his later life was shadowed by his drug use and problems with the law.

Chet Baker: His Life and Music gives a full account of the famous trumpeter – famous as much for his tragic life as his beautiful music. In our exclusive interview, conducted via e-mail, author Jeroen de Valk talks about Baker, the life he led, the people he touched, and the legacy he left.





JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

JDV  I admired Ben Webster, who was living in Amsterdam then, as I did. I wanted to play the saxophone as sensual as he did. My second book (just published in the USA by Berkeley Hills Books) is about Ben and contains interviews with dozens of people who knew him.

JJM What is your background?

JDV I am 43 now. I was raised in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where I studied English literature at the university and double bass (in The Hague) at the conservatory with John Clayton. I started writing in newspapers in 1979 and have been a full time journalist since 1985.

JJM How did you get introduced to jazz?

JDV  A friend introduced me to Dave Brubeck and Erroll Garner, and I went on from there. For a while, I tried to play Charlie Christian-type guitar. As a bass player, I was more successful. My bass hero was Ray Brown.

JJM  If you could choose an event to have witnessed in jazz history, what would it be?

JDV The Kansas City-jamsession in the thirties at which Lester Young and Ben Webster ‘cut’ Coleman Hawkins. I was born many years too late!

JJM  What got you interested in Chet Baker’s life?

JDV  I saw many concerts of him, which where sometimes the best I ever witnessed, and other times horrible and awful. This made me curious, of course.

JJM How did his Oklahoma roots shape his interest in jazz?

JDV These roots where not so important; more important were the jazz records he heard as a military musician in Berlin, and the sessions he attended in California, later.

JJM  What impact did his military experience have on his life?

JDV  He went in the army, I think, because he was not experienced a musician enough to make a living as a jazz player at that time. The experience was certainly not at traumatic as Lester Young’s.

JJM What was the genesis of Baker’s drug abuse?

JDV  His mother pampered him enormously and he never learned to be responsible in any way. He was always looking for kicks, and he wanted these to come easy and quickly. Later, he stated he started ‘using’ when he was in big professional and personal problems, which was untrue. He was already a junkie at the height of his fame.

JJM Did he feel the drugs enhanced his abilities as a musician?

JDV  He thought he could concentrate better while being stoned. In reality, he made his best recordings (in Tokyo, 1987) while he was on methadon, not on heroin.

JJM  What was his first big break as a musician?

JDV  He became famous in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, from 1952 on.

JJM  How did the pianoless quartet with Gerry Mulligan get started?

JDV  Many, many reasons. Mulligan wanted to secure a gig in The Haig (LA), where the other band at that time (Red Norvo’s) worked without a piano and where the band stand was tiny. So they decided to keep the piano somewhere else for the time being. Moreover, he liked to experiment playing with just bass and drums. And – famous anecdote – once their piano player Jimmy Rowles didn’t show up at a rehearsal.

JJM  What was his relationship with Mulligan like throughout his career?

JDV  Kind of strained. Mulligan was strict and professional and kicked his drug habit successfully, while Chet was not very reliable and almost constantly involved in drugs.



JJM  What was the relationship between Baker and Stan Getz like?

JDV  They both were egocentric personalities, with drug-related problems, which didn’t make them a good pair. Getz’ playing was more consistent in quality, but Chet could be kinder, more diplomatic when the situation required that. But listen to ‘Dear old Stockholm’ and ‘Line for Lyons’ at the Scandinavian concerts, in the early eighties – those were great recordings! Like Mulligan & Chet, they could make wonderful music, despite their problems.

JJM  How did Baker and Charlie Parker cross paths? What recordings exist of the two of them?

JDV  Another one of Chet’s favorite anecdotes: in 1952, Parker played in California and needed some local musicians. Baker came kind of late to the dark night club where the auditions took place, and every trumpet player in LA was present. He played two tunes, after which Parker stopped the rehearsal and said Chet was hired. Whatever happened; Chet (who was not a great bebop player back then) dìd play with Parker that year, and the two of them can be heard together at a jam session, issued on cd as – among other titles – ‘Inglewood Jam’.

JJM Who encouraged Baker to sing?

JDV  His mother, who took him to contests as a boy singer.  He liked to sing and eventually the record producers encouraged him because his singing was a big hit with his female fans. And, much later, he relied more on his singing when his lips got too tired to play the trumpet.

JJM  What influence did Baker have on west coast jazz?

JDV  He never was a big influence, but in the fifties some players liked his melodic approach and his pleasant sound.

JJM  You hear so much about Baker’s charm and his potential as a Hollywood star during the 1950’s. How close did he get to experiencing a film career, and what took place to kill this opportunity?

JDV  In the mid-fifties, he played some minor roles, and he resumed a little acting around 1960, in Europe. His constant involvement in drugs, though, hampered and eventually ended his small acting career. By the way – Robert Wagner played a sad young trumpet player in ‘All the Fine Young Cannibals’, a role that seemed to have been designed originally for Chet.

JJM  What was the major traumatic experience Baker faced as a musician?

JDV  During the sixties, it got harder and harder to make a living as a jazz musician because the public’s taste changed, and he was constantly having problems with his teeth.  He lost just one part of one tooth in a 1966 accident. And he went on recording and gigging after that, for a while. But eventually, he had to have his teeth pulled because they were in such bad shape. He then had to restore to pure technical exercises, which he hated. He was used to things that came easy to him.

JJM He spent much of his life going from one woman to the next. Why?

JDV  The only real, intimate friendship he ever enjoyed, was with drugs and music. Nothing else could tie him down. Nothing else really interested him, although he could behave kind and friendly, if he wanted to.

JJM  What sort of women appealed to him?

JDV  Different kinds; Ruth Young was intelligent and sharp and Diane Vavra was soft and gentle.

JJM  What sort of father was he, and what legacy did he leave for his children?

JDV  He was a careless father; during the last fifteen years of his life, he never sent any money home and he was spending most of his time with his girl friends. He didn’t leave them any money – he got paid just one sum for a record date and seemed to agree with that, although he always complained later about being ‘cheated’ by record labels. Fortunately, his wife and children recently earned money from a film company, for some autobiographical fragments his widow published.

JJM  Baker spent much of the latter part of his career in Europe. What were the circumstances that sent him there?

JDV  The European public was more patient – perhaps too patient – because they kept asking him back, even if he performed in bad shape, or didn’t show up at all. In the USA, he was considered ‘old hat’ and ‘washed up’. And the longer he stayed in Europe, the more US-critics simply assumed he wasn’t active anymore. Important too: obtaining drugs was relatively easy in Amsterdam.

JJM  In 1987, you conducted an interview with Baker, but only after several attempts…

JDV  Yes.  It took me a couple of weeks to trace him down – he wasn’t staying in the hotels his European manager hired for him, he just checked in somewhere – and it took me a couple of times before he showed up at an interview. One day, he simply slept for some 24 hours. He eventually talked to me, with help of a club owner who reportedly was lending him money.

JJM Tell us a little bit about that interview.

JDV Chet was friendly, behaved like a nice elderly man and took his time to answer each question. I was very nervous, because he was (and still is) my hero, and I didn’t knew how long he wanted to sit down with me and talk. I noticed he wasn’t aware of all the records that were issued of him, and had forgotten a lot of names of musicians he worked with.

JJM What has become of “Let’s Get Lost”, the documentary of Baker’s life by film maker Bruce Weber?

JDV  It became very, very famous and gave most of the world Weber’s idea of what Chet Baker was like after the fifties: a forgotten man, not able to play the trumpet anymore. A mumbling skeleton. This image will never change, I think, as the movie reached far, far more people than my book ever will. And other books to come as well, I’m afraid.

JJM  What sort of work was Baker doing just prior to his death?

JDV  According to most American sources at that time, he was forgotten and mostly out of work. In reality, he was working constantly and sometimes at a high level. Just two weeks before he died, he recorded successfully with a fifty-piece German orchestra.

JJM What was the true cause of his death?

JDV  He fell out of a hotel window after having taken heaps of drugs. This sounds anti-climatic for a jazz hero, but there is nothing I can do about it. In my book, his death is discussed at length in various chapters.

JJM  Ultimately, what is the legacy of Chet Baker?

JDV A lot of great records, a frustrated family, a still growing number of fans, and quite some confusion about his true status, after having been both overrated and underrated throughout his career.

JJM  What songs would you recommend a new listener to Baker check out?

JDV  Highly accessible and of a high quality are his early vocal recordings (which contain some classic trumpet solos as well) on Pacific Jazz,  recorded in the mid-fifties, and the Japanese concert (issued in the USA on double-cd by Evicence), at which he played a lengthy, amazing trumpet solo in his favorite ballad My Funny Valentine.

JJM Which European recording is his best?

JDV  You might try ‘Chet’s Choice’, issued by Criss Cross Records and available in the USA.






Chet Baker: His Life and Music


Jeroen de Valk

*All photographs appear in the book, Chet Baker: His Life and Music. They are published as part of this interview with the written permission of the publisher, Berkeley Hills Books.


If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with James Gavin biographer James Gavin.

Share this:

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In This Issue

The Modern Jazz Quintet by Everett Spruill
A Collection of Jazz Poetry — Summer, 2023 Edition

A wide range of topics are found in this collection. Tributes are paid to Tony Bennett and Ahmad Jamal and to the abstract worlds of musicians like Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders; the complex lives of Chet Baker and Nina Simone are considered; devotions to Ellington and Basie are revealed; and personal solace is found in the music of Tommy Flanagan and Quartet West. These are poems of peace, reflection, time, venue and humor – all with jazz at their core. (Featuring the art of Everett Spruill)

The Sunday Poem

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
“Erroll Garner at the Ace” by Kristofer Collins


photo courtesy of Henry Threadgill
Interview with Brent Hayes Edwards, co-author (with Henry Threadgill) of Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music...The author discusses his work co-written with Threadgill, the composer and multi-instrumentalist widely recognized as one of the most original and innovative voices in contemporary music, and the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

In Memoriam

Fotograaf Onbekend / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
A thought or two about Tony Bennett


"BG Boogie’s musical tour of indictment season"...The podcaster “BG Boogie” has weaponized the most recent drama facing The Former Guy, creating a 30 minute playlist “with all the latest up-to-date-est musical indictments of political ineptitude.”


Chick Webb/photographer unknown
Interview with Stephanie Stein Crease, author of Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and the Beat That Changed America...The author talks about her book and Chick Webb, once at the center of America’s popular music, and among the most influential musicians in jazz history.


FOTO:FORTEPAN / Kölcsey Ferenc Dunakeszi Városi Könyvtár / Petanovics fényképek, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
.“Community Bookshelf, #1"...a twice-yearly space where writers who have been published on Jerry Jazz Musician can share news about their recently authored books. This edition includes information about books published within the last six months or so…

Short Fiction

photo vi Wallpaper Flare
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #63 — “Company” by Anastasia Jill...Twenty-year-old Priscilla Habel lives with her wannabe flapper mother who remains stuck in the jazz age 40 years later. Life is monotonous and sad until Cil meets Willie Flasterstain, a beatnik lesbian who offers an escape from her mother's ever-imposing shadow.


Trading Fours, with Douglas Cole, No. 16: “Little Waltz” and “Summertime”...Trading Fours with Douglas Cole is an occasional series of the writer’s poetic interpretations of jazz recordings and film. In this edition, he connects the recordings of Jessica Williams' "Little Waltz" and Gene Harris' "Summertime."


photo by Bob Hecht
This 28-song Spotify playlist, curated by Jerry Jazz Musician contributing writer Bob Hecht, features great tunes performed by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Lester Young, Stan Getz, and…well, you get the idea.


photo of Wolfman Jack via Wikimedia Commons
“Wolfman and The Righteous Brothers” – a poem by John Briscoe

Jazz History Quiz #167

GuardianH, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Before becoming one of television’s biggest stars, he was a competent ragtime and jazz piano player greatly influenced by Scott Joplin (pictured), and employed a band of New Orleans musicians similar to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to play during his vaudeville revue. Who was he?

Short Fiction

Warner/Reprise, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“Not Just Another Damn Song on the Radio” – a short story by Craig Fishbane


"Horn" by Samuel Dixon
Jazz Haiku – a sampler

Short Fiction

back cover of Diana Krall's album "The Girl in the Other Room" [Verve]
“Improvised: A life in 7ths, 9ths and Suspended 4ths” – a short story by Vikki C.


photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Long regarded as jazz music’s most eminent baritone saxophonist, Gerry Mulligan was a central figure in “cool” jazz whose contributions to it also included his important work as a composer and arranger. Noted jazz scholar Alyn Shipton, author of The Gerry Mulligan 1950s Quartets, and Jerry Jazz Musician contributing writer Bob Hecht discuss Mulligan’s unique contributions to modern jazz.


photo by Giovanni Piesco
Giovanni Piesco’s photographs of Tristan Honsinger

A Letter From the Publisher

An appeal for contributions to support the ongoing publishing efforts of Jerry Jazz Musician


Maurice Mickle considers jazz venues, in two poems

In Memoriam

David Becker, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
“Tony Bennett, In Memoriam” – a poem by Erren Kelly


IISG, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Ella Fitzgerald, in poems by Claire Andreani and Michael L. Newell

Book Excerpt

“Chick” Webb was one of the first virtuoso drummers in jazz and an innovative bandleader dubbed the “Savoy King,” who reigned at Harlem’s world-famous Savoy Ballroom. Stephanie Stein Crease is the first to fully tell Webb’s story in her biography, Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and the Beat that Changed America…The book’s entire introduction is excerpted here.


Hans Christian Hagedorn, professor for German and Comparative Literature at the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Ciudad Real (Spain) reveals the remarkable presence of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote in the history of jazz.

Short Fiction

Dmitry Rozhkov, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
“A Skull on the Moscow Leningrad Sleeper” – a short story by Robert Kibble...A story revolving around a jazz record which means so much to a couple that they risk being discovered while attempting to escape the Soviet Union

Book Excerpt

Book excerpt from Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music, by Henry Threadgill and Brent Hayes Edwards

Short Fiction

photo via
“Streamline Moderne” – a short story by Amadea Tanner

Publisher’s Notes

“C’est Si Bon” – at trip's end, a D-Day experience, and an abundance of gratitude


photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
A Charlie Parker Poetry Collection...Nine poets, nine poems on the leading figure in the development of bebop…

Contributing Writers

Click the image to view the writers, poets and artists whose work has been published on Jerry Jazz Musician, and find links to their work


Photo of Stanley Crouch by Michael Jackson
Interview with Glenn Mott, editor of Victory is Assured: The Uncollected Writings of Stanley Crouch (photo of Stanley Crouch by Michael Jackson)


photo of Sonny Rollins by Brian McMillen
Interview with Aidan Levy, author of Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins...The author discusses his book about the iconic tenor saxophonist who is one of the greatest jazz improvisers of all time – a lasting link to the golden age of jazz


Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance: “Outtakes” — Vol. 2...In this edition, the authors Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder share examples of Cha Cha Cha record album covers that didn't make the final cut in their book

Pressed for All Time

“Pressed For All Time,” Vol. 17 — producer Joel Dorn on Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1967 album, The Inflated Tear


© Veryl Oakland
John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana are featured in this edition of photographs and stories from Veryl Oakland’s book, Jazz in Available Light

Coming Soon

An interview with Judith Tick, author of Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song; A new collection of jazz poetry; a new Jazz History Quiz; short fiction; poetry; photography; interviews; playlists; and lots more in the works...

Interview Archive

Eubie Blake
Click to view the complete 22 year archive of Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, including those recently published with Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom on Eubie Blake (pictured); Richard Brent Turner on jazz and Islam; Alyn Shipton on the art of jazz; Shawn Levy on the original queens of standup comedy; Travis Atria on the expatriate trumpeter Arthur Briggs; Kitt Shapiro on her life with her mother, Eartha Kitt; Will Friedwald on Nat King Cole; Wayne Enstice on the drummer Dottie Dodgion; the drummer Joe La Barbera on Bill Evans; Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck; Nicholas Buccola on James Baldwin and William F. Buckley; Ricky Riccardi on Louis Armstrong; Dan Morgenstern and Christian Sands on Erroll Garner; Maria Golia on Ornette Coleman.

Site Archive