Sometimes known as the Prince of Cool and the James Dean of jazz, Chet Baker was one of the most popular and controversial jazz musicians. He was the primary exponent of West Coast school of cool jazz (that was in early and mid-1950s). As a trumpeter, he had an intimate and romantic style of playing music, and attracted a lot of attention beyond jazz, mainly because of his movie star looks.
Chet Baker was born in Yale, Oklahoma, on December 23, 1929. At the age of 11, he moved to California along with his family (in the year 1940). As a son of music-loving parents, Chet started singing in the local church choir and tried playing trombone before he later started playing trumpet at the age of 13 years. Chet dropped out of high school at the age of 16 and joined the Army. He played in bands while in the armed forces, and also in San Francisco clubs when he was stationed there.
In 1950, he started filling in at the San Francisco bebop jam sessions, as a Presidio Army Band member. In the year 1952, Baker moved to LA, where he started working with Charlie Parker. He then joined Gerry Mulligan (a baritone saxophonist), in what later became Mr. Mulligans celebrated piano-less quartet. He rose to stardom with Mr. Mulligan’s quartet. The quartet released many fan favorites including “My Funny Valentine,” “Walkin’ Shoes,” and “Bernie’s Tune”. In the year 1953. Chet went solo and formed his very own quartet. The quartet initially consisted of Red Mitchell on the bass, Bobby White on the drums, and Russ Freeman on the piano. He made his 1st recording as the bandleader for the Pacific Jazz, on July 24 of the year 1953.
With a large fan base drawn by his movie star looks, and his Miles Davis style of music, Baker won many jazz polls in Down Beat where he ranked #4 male vocalist and was named Metronome top trumpeter in the year 1953. In 1954, Baker released an album titled Baker Sings and Plays, with hit songs such as "Let’s Get Lost." Being very photogenic, Baker made his movie debut in the year 1955 in a war film called Hell’s Horizon. In the same year, he made a 8-month European tour.
In the late '50s, heroin addiction started taking its toll on Baker’s music career. Baker was arrested several times between the '50s and '60s on drug-related charges. In the early '60s, he was put behind bars for 16 months in Italy, and got deported by Britain, Germany, and Switzerland. Through most of the 1960s, most of his recordings were considered weak as his drug addiction continued.
In 1959, Baker moved to Europe and settled in Italy. However, his continued addiction to drugs repeatedly got him into legal trouble, which finally resulted in deportation to the U.S. in 1964. After his return, he made five records over a three day period. In July of the year 1966, Baker endured a savage beating from drug dealers who knocked out his teeth, and he was unable to play trumpet for years.
Baker gradually recovered and started performing again in 1970s with the help of Dizzy Gillespie, who helped him arrange concerts in New York. In 1973, he had a reunion show with Gerry Mulligan. Critics greatly praised his aggressive, intense solos and firmer tone, and many considered his recording between this period to be among the best in his music career. He toured through the 1970s to 1980s.
From 1978 until his death, Baker lived and played mainly in Europe, only returning to the U.S. once a year for a couple of performances. In 1983, Elvis Costello played with Baker on his song “Shipbuilding,” from the Punch the Clock album. Baker continued to feature in Elvis Costello’s songs. He later recorded a song for Let’s Get Lost, a documentary about his life.
Baker was found dead at about 3:10 AM, on May 13th, 1988. He was found outside his Hotel Prins Hendrik, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. He had severe head wounds which were apparently sustained from having fallen from the 2nd floor window. Cocaine and heroin were found in his room, and later on, an autopsy revealed the drugs were present in his body. The death was ruled as an accident. There is a plaque outside Hotel Prins Hendrik, which memorializes him. Baker is buried in California, at Inglewood Park Cemetery.