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Chet Baker: Italian Movies

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Italy was an ideal setting for Chet Baker's romantic trumpet in 1959. When he arrived in Europe that year and began touring, Italy's art and passion held a special charm and allure for him. He had been to Rome briefly in 1958, comfortably getting his hooks into fans for cash, meals and narcotics. A second, longer stay seemed like a good move. [Photo above of Chet Baker shortly after his release from prison in Lucca, Italy, in December 1961]

Baker's trumpet had never really sounded at home in New York, a city that was too schooled and edgy for him, or Los Angeles, which for all of its palm trees and laid-back mystique, was about workaholics and sight-reading. Italy, on the other hand, had a lushness and lazy beauty that understood the curves of his sound and the heavy heart of his playing.

Unfortunately, by the late 1950s, Baker was deeply addicted to heroin, which only made Italy more appealing, since he was admired for being a tragic, tortured figure. Many fans were only too happy to enable his flaws. As Italian pianist Amedeo Tommasi said in James Gavin's biography of Baker, Deep in a Dream, “[Audiences] didn't give a damn about jazz. The reason they were interested in Chet Baker is that he was handsome and a drug addict. Drugs were still a novelty. They were glamorous."

Baker's drug use only grew worse in Italy in 1959. When connections dried up, he visited doctors, complaining of headaches and leaving with charitable prescriptions. From May through July 1960, Baker filled 23 prescriptions for Palfium—a narcotic three times more powerful than morphine but shorter-lasting—from a single doctor in Lucca, to be dosed through a syringe. In the summer, Baker overdosed and was detained in Lucca along with the doctors who had been supplying his habit. In April 1961, Baker was convicted and sentenced to 16 months in prison but released in December. He remained in Italy until early 1964 before returning to the States.

During his time in Italy, Baker worked for the Italian cinema as a musician and actor. Much of his film work is captured on a three-CD set called Italian Movies, featuring music by the great Italian cinema composer Piero Umiliani. The music on this set include soundtracks for the films Big Deal on Madonna Street (recorded in June 1958); Fiasco in Milan (recorded in October 1959); Howlers in the Dock (recorded in 1960) and Smog (recorded in 1962), featuring vocals by Helen Merrill.

Baker's other four movie tracks recorded in Rome for Ennio Morricone in 1962 aren't part of this set. Those tracks, on which he sings and plays Chetty's Lullaby, So che ti Perdero, Motivo su Raggio di Luna and Il Mio Domani can be found on Chet's Back.

While Baker solos on many tracks on Italian Movies, a good portion of the set features the fabulous movie orchestrations of Umiliani. And given the recent unconscionable hikes in U.S. airfares despite low fuel prices, the CD set is much cheaper than flying there if you're eager for a romantic break.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Chet Baker: Italian Movies (Moochin' About) here. You'll find the Ennio Morricone tracks on Chet's Back (RCA) here.

JazzWax clips: Here's a selection of tracks from the box set...



And here's Baker singing and playing Arrivederci in the movie Urlatori alla Sbarra...



For more on Chet Baker in Italy, go here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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