People

Quiet resourcefulness

To survive in both the jazz and whisky world you have to rebuild yourself, time and again
By Hans Offringa
Chet Baker in action
Chet Baker in action
Trumpet player and jazz singer Chesney Henry Baker, Jr. was born in Yale, Oklahoma on 23 December 1929. Around the age of 10 he started to play the trombone, a gift from his father, a professional guitarist. Chet would exchange the trombone for a trumpet after a while, the former instrument being too large for him to handle. In later years he would also adopt the flugelhorn.

The local Glendale Junior High School provided him with a bit of a musical education, until he left to join the army in 1946, at the age of 16. Transported to then West Berlin shortly thereafter, he started playing in the band of the 298th Regiment. After two years he left and went to Los Angeles where he managed to study theory and harmony, but quit the El Camino College after a year to join the army again. It didn’t last long; the call to music was too great. He started to play in an army band in San Francisco and was soon spotted in various jazz clubs, where he teamed up with Stan Getz.

It was Charlie Parker who boosted Chet’s career as a trumpet player when he invited him to play in a series of concerts on the West Coast. Parker must have remembered him well, as some time later in New York he warned Miles Davis about “that little white cat on the West Coast.”

Chet later joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, where he might have picked up his heroin habit. Within a year, Mulligan was arrested for drugs possession and had to serve time. The Quartet had been a tremendous success from its start, and Baker continued to perform with his own groups for the years to come and would forever be considered a front man of the ‘cool jazz’ of the West Coast.

In the 1960s Chet Baker moved to Europe where he soon was convicted for drugs use and possession, which led to imprisonment in Italy and Germany. It was the start of a steep decline, and after several drug-related incidents, the trumpeter and singer was officially deported from Germany back to the USA. He returned to California and was convicted several times for petty crimes. The year 1966 marked the depth of his downfall when he was beaten up severely during a rip-deal. The remains of his teeth after years of heavy drug abuse were kicked out, and Chet lost his embouchure altogether. Slowly he learned to play with dentures, exchanging the trumpet for the flugelhorn most of the time, since it
was easier to play. His playing style drifted into an early form of smooth jazz, combined with singing. His inimitable voice can best be heard on My Funny Valentine.

After he regained his embouchure he returned to straight jazz and moved back to Europe in 1978 after a short stop in New York. The next decade he would only return to the USA for an occasional gig. In the early 1980s,
Chet started to play with jazz musicians such as guitarist Philip Catherine and pop star Elvis Costello, with whom
he scored a tiny hit in the UK and therefore was recognised by an entirely new audience.

Although his health suffered badly from his drug abuse and he was sometimes unreliable about showing up, Chet Baker grew as a trumpet player and singer. In hindsight his last years proved to be his most mature ones, musically speaking. In 1987 he performed in Tokyo. The concert was recorded live and then later released after his untimely death in 1988. It’s considered by many as one of his best recordings ever.

On 13 May 1988, Chet Baker died as result of falling from a hotel window, aka defenestration, in Amsterdam. There are several theories about his death, ranging from suicide to murder. No evidence was found for either cause. Autopsy results showed there were drugs in his body, and the police found an amount of cocaine and heroin in his hotel room. A plausible explanation is him losing his balance when looking out of the window, most likely under the influence. One of the most lyrical trumpet players and jazz singers had literally left the building. A bronze plaque in the wall of the Prins Hendrik Hotel in Amsterdam marks the end of his life.

Chet Baker is buried at the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.

The lightest of the Islay drams, with hardly a trace of the ubiquitous peat, is made at this distillery that once was surrounded by a whole village, even containing a school. Prior to its creation, the Mouth of the River, the English translation of the Gaelic Bunnahabhain, was a wild and uninhabited wasteland. The very building of the distillery brought about a lively little self-supporting community of distillery workers, their wives and children, hence the need for a school.

Although the warehouses look rather grim, Bunnahabhain is a lovely distillery where time stands still. The buildings are positioned in a beautiful location overlooking the Sound of Islay, that wild and windy sea street between Islay and the Isle of Jura, once used for bringing in supplies and taking away barrels of whisky. Nowadays that is done with tankers via the narrow and winding road that leads to Port Askaig.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the founders were already well connected in the whisky business. Robertson, from Robertson & Baxter, was a wine and liquor merchant, for a while even agent to Laphroaig on the southeast side of the island. The Greenlees brothers were two of the founding fathers of the Islay Distillers Company, which would merge with William Grant & Sons into Highland Distillers around 1887.

From 1930 till 1937 Bunnahabhain fell silent. After reopening, the two stills would arduously work in unison to make up for the lost years and were joined by a second pair in 1963. Approximately 20 years later Bunnahabhain was mothballed for the second time in its life, to be reopened in 1983-4 after two silent years. To celebrate the 100th anniversary, a 21-year-old was released, probably the first run from the four stills.

This doesn’t mean Highland Distillers could not count, but instead of taking the foundation year as Bunnahabhain’s first, they counted from the start of production, which was in 1883. Most distilleries tend to be a little vague about founding dates, which doesn’t make life easier for a whisky writer.

Throughout its life Bunnahabhain’s output went mostly to the blenders. Only a small percentage matures on-site and will end up either in one of the single malt expressions or in Black Bottle, which contains all Islay malts. Bunnahabhain’s 12 Years Old has been readily available over many years, supplemented by various limited editions and the much appreciated 18 and 25 Years Old versions that are part of the core range now. Bunnahabhain launched commemorative limited bottlings on various occasions, most notably a 33 Years Old Auld Acquaintance in 2002. Several independent bottlers, among whom, Signatory released Bunnahabhain at various ages. In 2010 a rare hand-numbered 30 Years Old was released
by the distillery.

The distinctive label on distillery bottlings features a sailor behind the captain’s wheel, with the caption Westering Home, after a famous
local song.


Recommended listening and dram

Let’s Get Lost with the Bunnahabhain 12 Years Old.

Tasting note

Golden. Remarkably fresh, sweet sea-air aroma. Gentle, clean with a nutty-malty sweetness. Refreshing.
The road leading down to Bunnahabhain
The road leading down to Bunnahabhain