Trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker was a shooting star who attained fame in his early 20’s but whose subsequent career was beset with drug related problems. “One could divide his career into two parts: the period before his comeback in 1974, and the years following,” says Dutch author Jeroen de Valk in his biography Chet Baker: His Life and Music. “For many jazz writers only the first period counts. European lovers of jazz look at it differently. From 1974 on Chet achieved an intensity unmatched by just about any other jazz musician.”
Born in Oklahoma on December 23, 1929, Baker moved with his family to southern California when he was ten and spent his formative musical years there, hitting the clubs nightly and eventually sitting in with people like Jimmy Rowles, Cal Tjader, and Dave Brubeck. In 1952 he was hired by Stan Getz, selected by Charlie Parker to play a series of dates, and ultimately joined Gerry Mulligan’s critically acclaimed pianoless quartet. When Mulligan was jailed in 1953 on a narcotics charge, Baker put together his own group and began winning accolades, placing first in both Down Beat’s critics and readers polls. According to de Valk, with pianist Russ Freeman in the quartet Baker recorded two of his best albums from the ‘50s: Chet Baker Sings (1954/56) and Quartet (1956).
For the next five years, Baker enjoyed great popularity, although sometime between 1954 and 1956 he became addicted to heroin. While his singing left some of the jazz cognoscenti unimpressed, his cool, androgynous style appealed to fans. He took his group to Europe on a four-month tour in September of ’55, and their popularity kept them there for an additional four months. On his return to the U.S. in April, 1956, he recorded a neo-bop album, Playboys, with Art Pepper, played on the soundtrack for The James Dean Story, and was arrested for the first time for possession of hard drugs and sent to Federal Hospital in Kentucky.
The next two years were spent touring Europe and playing in New York where he was arrested again in February, 1959, sentenced to jail and deprived of his cabaret card. Unable to play in New York, he left again for Europe where he still had a fan base, the pace of life was slower, and drugs more readily available. But after arrests in several countries, he was deported to the U.S. in 1964, settled in New York but soon left for Los Angeles and more trouble.
In 1966 he was beaten up by toughs in a drug related incident, and his deteriorating teeth were further damaged. Eventually all his teeth were pulled, but dentures made it impossible for him to play his trumpet. He was arrested again in 1969 and went on a methadone program for seven years. It is during this period, when he was relearning his horn, that he began his memoirs, As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoirs, published posthumously in 1997.
He staged an unsuccessful U.S. comeback in 1974, left his wife, and returned to Europe where he again began drug use. Despite periodic problems he was able to make a living recording and touring relentlessly. He was comfortable in Europe and spoke impeccable Italian.
In 1987 Baker filmed the documentary on him, Let’s Get Lost, in the U.S. and then completed a successful tour of Japan where he recorded two acclaimed albums. Less than a year later, on May 10, 1988, his body was found on the sidewalk outside an Amsterdam hotel. An investigation turned up evidence that he had been sitting on the window ledge after a drug fix and simply fell.