Born: December 23, 1929 | Died: May 13, 1988 Primary Instrument: Trumpet
Chesney Henry Chet Baker Jr. was raised in a musical household in Oklahoma (his father was a guitar player), and coming of age in Southern California during the bebop era of jazz, Baker found success as a trumpet player in 1951 when he was chosen by Charlie Parker to play with him for a series of West Coast engagements.
In 1952, Baker joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, which was an instant phenomenon. Baker became famous on the strength of his solo on their recording of My Funny Valentine a piece he was later said to own. The Quartet, however, lasted less than a year because of Mulligan's arrest on drug charges.
In 1954, Baker won the Downbeat Jazz Poll, beating Miles Davis among others. Over the next few years, Baker fronted his own combo, playing trumpet and singing. He became an icon of the west coast cool school of jazz, helped by his good looks and singing talent. By the early 1960s, Baker had begun playing the fluegelhorn, as well.
Then, drug addiction caught up with Baker, and his promising musical career declined as a result. Heroin addiction created a myriad of legal problems for him as well; he served more than a year in prison in Italy, and was later expelled from both West Germany and England for drug-related offenses. Baker was eventually deported from West Germany to the United States after running afoul of the law there a second time. He settled in Milpitas in northern California where he was active in San Jose and San Francisco between short jail terms served for writing his own prescriptions.
In 1966, Baker allegedly was severely beaten while attempting to buy drugs after a gig in San Francisco, sustaining severe cuts on the lips and broken front teeth, thus ruining his embouchure. Accounts of the incident vary, largely because of his lack of reliable testimony on the matter. From that time he had to learn to play with dentures, a difficult process for a brass player.
Between 1966 and 1974, Baker mostly played flugelhorn, with its wider mouthpiece, and recorded what must be considered slick mood music. He eventually moved to New York City and began recording again in earnest with other well known jazz musicians such as Jim Hall. Later in the seventies, Baker returned to Europe where he was assisted by his friend Diane Vavra who took care of his personal needs and otherwise helped him during his recording and performance dates.
Baker recorded extensively throughout his career. As a result, his discography is considered widely uneven. However, some of Baker's European recordings, made near the end of his career, reveal a more mature and, at times, brilliant talent with simplicity and depth beyond his previous work.
Near the end of Baker's life, he resided and played almost exclusively in Europe, returning to the USA about once a year for a few performance dates.
On May 13, 1988, he fell (or was pushed) from his second story hotel window in Amsterdam and died. There was speculation that he was under the influence of drugs at the time, however his autopsy revealed that he was sober. There were also rumors that a suicide note was found but is held in private hands. A plaquette outside the Prins Hendrik Hotel memorializes him. Baker's body was brought home for interment in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
Jeroen de Valk wrote a biography of Chet Baker, Chet Baker: His Life and Music.
The iconic side of Chet Baker was captured by the photographer William Claxton in his book Young Chet: The Young Chet Baker. A documentary film about his career, Let's Get Lost, also portrayed Chet as a cultural icon of the 1950s, but juxtaposed this with his later image as a drug abuser. The film, released in 1988 and directed by fashion photographer Bruce Weber, was shot in black-and-white, and includes a series of interviews with friends, family, associates and lovers, interspersed with film from Baker's earlier life, and with interviews with Baker from his last years.
In 2005 Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry and the Oklahoma House of Representatives proclaimed July 2, 2005 as Chet Baker Day.
Chet Baker discography project by the Jazz Discography Project.
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