The leading man of the "cool jazz" movement, trumpeter Chet Baker's smoldering vocals and intimate playing style endeared him to jazz enthusiasts the world over. A fixture on the West Coast jazz scene during the 1950s and '60s, Baker also maintained a presence in Europe, where he was based after the mid-1970s and released several rare recordings. But behind the scenes of a successful - if, at times, sporadic - career was a lifelong drug addiction, revealing a musician who was as vulnerable as he was slick.
Calm before the storm
Born in Yale, Oklahoma, Chet Baker picked up the trombone after his father, a musician, gave it to him as a gift. But when the large instrument proved too hard for him to handle, it was replaced with a trumpet. As a child, Baker also sang in the church choir and at amateur competitions. After a two year stint in the 298th Army Band in Berlin, where he was stationed, he moved to Los Angeles in 1948 to study music at El Camino College.
While on the West Coast, he explored the emerging jazz scene in San Francisco, frequenting popular clubs such as Bop City and Black Hawk. The young trumpeter started to perform with saxophonist Stan Getz before being asked by Charlie Parker to appear in a series of shows in 1952. That same year, Baker joined the popular Gerry Mulligan Quartet. His memorable solo on the group's hit cover of My Funny Valentine remains one of the songs most strongly associated with the artist.
Following the quartet's disbandment in 1953, Baker recorded his first solo vocal album, Chet Baker Sings. At that point, jazz enthusiasts weren't the only fans of the emerging musician. His chiseled features and rakish charm garnered attention in Hollywood, and Baker was soon recruited to appear on film.
In 1955, he made his acting debut in Hell's Horizon, but turned down a studio contract, preferring the freedom of the open road. He toured Europe that summer and into the following year, at which time he released The Route with saxophonist Art Pepper, furthering the cool jazz sound.
Although he was using heroin in the 1950s, Baker's habit didn't significantly interfere with his career until the following decade. In 1960, he was arrested in Italy, where he stayed in jail for a year and a half. The album Chet Is Back! marked his release, but Baker was soon charged with a string of drug offences and deported from England to France, and then Germany to the United States, over the next three years. Upon returning home, the trumpeter started playing flügelhorn.
During a gig in San Francisco in, Baker suffered a severe beating and broke a tooth. By the late 1960s, his substance abuse had deteriorated most of his teeth, forcing him to wear dentures and relearn his embouchure. The musician performed sporadically until 1974, when he reunited with Gerry Mulligan in a high-profile concert at Carnegie Hall, which was released as a live album.
Baker permanently relocated to Europe soon after. In 1983, he was invited by Elvis Costello to play a solo on the song Shipbuilding, which became a Top 40 hit in the U.K. The artist returned to North America in 1986 for a visit to the Festival, where he joined pianist Paul Bley for the first time since 1955. However, the reunion was short-lived. Bley gently escorted Baker off stage when it was clear the trumpeter was unfit (and unwilling) to play.
Nevertheless, he continued to play. While touring Japan in 1987, the jazz man recorded the live album Chet Baker in Tokyo, which is considered by some critics to be among his best work. The following year, Baker fell to his death from a hotel window in Amsterdam after taking heroin and cocaine. Sadly, the last decade of his life was marked by a newfound maturity and creative development.
Even after his death, the troubled artist with movie star good looks and a mysterious aura continues to captivate audiences. He was the subject of the 1988 documentary Let's Get Lost and his unfinished autobiography, As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoir, was optioned for film adaptation after being published posthumously in 1997.