Chet Baker was a jazz musician and singer who is most famous for his romantic ballads and singing style. Born in 1930, he spent much of his career playing with saxophonist Charlie Parker before going solo in 1957. His romantic trumpet playing was a hallmark of the 1950s jazz scene and he influenced many other musicians including Miles Davis. Baker died tragically at age 58 after being stabbed by a stranger following an argument. He never recovered from this event, even though he had been addicted to heroin at the time of the attack, and passed away on May 13th 1988.
Baker was born and raised in a musical family. His mother (Elva) was an amateur singer and his father (George) worked as a mechanic and played several instruments including the bugle, trombone, piano and guitar. Baker learned to play trumpet at school where he excelled at music performance. He joined the high school band and participated in music competitions.
Baker’s first step into the professional world of jazz was when he joined Stan Kenton’s orchestra. He stayed with the band for a year and after leaving, he played and recorded with Charlie Parker on several occasions. After playing together for a number of years Baker went solo, releasing his first album as a leader in 1957.
He is most famous for his album ‘The Best of Chet Baker Sings’ (1957) which saw him ditch the pure style of jazz he had been playing before and introduced a softer, more romantic sound. The public loved it and this new sound became popular with other musicians too; his romantic trumpet playing was a hallmark of the 1950’s jazz scene. Baker continued to play with Parker for a number of years, but by the end of the decade he was performing his own songs. He released several more albums throughout his career including ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ (1959) and ‘Chet Baker Sings’ (1961).
Baker’s romantic style of jazz became increasingly popular with audiences. There was also an increased interest in his personal life, which is when the media began speculating about his sexuality. Baker never publicly spoke about his sexual orientation but he was arrested numerous times for ‘sexual misconduct’.
He made headlines again in 1960 after being beaten up by cops in Los Angeles; he was reportedly committing misdemeanors at the time.
Baker had a successful solo career but it wasn’t until he released ‘Chet Baker’s Cookbook’ (1963) that his music saw some commercial success. The album, which included songs like ‘My Funny Valentine’, sold well and became one of his most celebrated recordings.
During the 1960s Baker continued to perform and release albums, but he was still struggling with his heroin addiction. He had tried to break away from it in the past but relapsed on several occasions; this became increasingly problematic for him as time went on.
By 1965 Baker’s drug habit began affecting his performances; his addiction made him unreliable and unpredictable. He was arrested in Italy while trying to smuggle narcotics into the country. The Italian government made an example of him, sentencing him to four years imprisonment. After serving just over a year he was pardoned by the then President Giuseppe Saragat and released from jail.
His career never fully recovered after his time in prison. He briefly formed a new band, called the ‘Chet Baker Quintet’, but this eventually dissolved after arguments between him and his band members. After several attempts to rebuild his career he became increasingly desperate; in 1972 he hired two men at gunpoint to kill another man for $2,000. The intended victim escaped which left Baker dejected and defeated. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and had his parole revoked; he ended up serving 10 ultimately returning to the streets, homeless and alone. When he returned to society it was as a shadow of his former self; overweight with grey hair and wrinkles under his eyes.
Baker’s health continued to decline after his release from prison. He was admitted to hospital in 1988 after suffering a massive stroke; it left him permanently disabled and bedridden for the rest of his life.
Baker died at his home in Amsterdam, Netherlands on 12th May 1988, aged just 58. He had been living abroad with his long term girlfriend when he realized he needed urgent medical attention; he was rushed to hospital after suffering a heart attack. He died that day as a result of complications from the stroke he had suffered five years previously.
Baker’s music and style has endured and is still listened and loved by many people today; his romantic trumpet playing continues to be influential to jazz musicians and fans alike.
His life story is one of tragedy and struggle, but his music is remembered as some of the finest jazz ever to be created.
Baker’s life was marred with controversy; even today people are still divided over his controversial lifestyle.
Some modern interpretations suggest that Baker was gay, although he never publicly spoke about it. He had several arrests throughout his career for ‘indecent behaviour’, and rumours suggest that he contracted HIV from using dirty needles.
One of the most famous jazz musicians in history, Baker’s life was full of romance and tragedy. He lived a fast lifestyle that caught up with him later in life; before dying at just 58 years old in 1988.
Chet Baker’s life was full of romance and tragedy. His romantic trumpet playing continues to be influential for jazz musicians and fans alike, but his fast lifestyle caught up with him later in life when he died at just 58 years old in 1988 after a stroke left him permanently disabled and bedridden for the rest of his life.