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Chet Baker and “My Funny Valentine”

Rodgers’ and Hart’s 1937 showtune, “My Funny Valentine,” has been recorded by over 600 artists, if we believe Wikipedia on this.  Those artists include Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, The Supremes, Nico, Jerry Garcia, Chaka Khan and many others.  One of these days, we will give it the full “Noise Variations” treatment, and that’s a Noise Narc Promise.

But for today you’re just going to hear two of my favorite renditions, one from the very beginning and the other from the very end of Chet Baker’s career.

Baker, one of the giants of west coast cool jazz, was also one of the first to have a hit with the song when he recorded it with Gerry Mulligan’s quartet in 1952.  I think Baker is playing a flugelhorn on this cut, as he often did, and the contrapuntal style of harmonizing with Mulligan on bari sax develops the thoughtful, measured tone of the track, transforming a jokey song about a lover’s endearing imperfections into one that embodies the complicated sense of melancholy that characterized much of Baker’s oeuvre.

Gerry Mulligan Quartet, “My Funny Valentine” [Buy Chet Baker: Career: 1952-1988]

Baker was only 23 years old on the above track; the 35 years he had left would not be kind.  Heroin addiction is hard on the body.  The 58 year old face you’ll see in the following video will look older than that.  Once, trying to score, he got jacked and beaten, so all of his teeth were pulled and he had to relearn how to play with dentures.

Addiction also leverages personal relationships into money for drugs.  He was a liar and a promise breaker.  People cared about him, and he used that against them.  The highly recommended 1988 documentary of his life, Let’s Get Lost, exposes this cruelty through the hurt and hopeless faces of his friends and loved ones.  He was just so good at manipulating emotions.  It was easy for him.

The following video, excerpted from a 1987 performance in Tokyo (sorry that the piano solo is cut short), treats us to Baker’s trumpet-playing as well as his singing.  He sang like he played, and his voice, shakier than once upon a time, nevertheless has the soft, sweet tone for which he was famous.  In spite of everything, his last recordings in the 80s were among the best of his career.

He fell from his second story hotel room in Amsterdam and died on May 13, 1988.

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