Trumpeter, singer, and jazz innovator Chesney “Chet” Baker Jr. was born on this day in 1929. A prolific recording and performing artist, Baker was known for his emotive playing and singing, as well as his well-documented personal troubles.
Born in Oklahoma to musical parents, Chet Baker displayed a natural musical aptitude from a young age. He first received a trombone from his father, which was soon replaced with a trumpet, as the slide instrument proved too unwieldy for the boy to brandish. Taking to the instrument almost instantly, he developed substantial competence in just a matter of weeks, and was deemed a natural by those for whom he played.
Despite his advanced musicianship, Baker’s formal music education was limited. He studied basic concepts during high school, but did not earn his diploma, opting instead to leave school at 16 and enlist in the US Army. He gained some of his first experience playing with an ensemble during his time as a member of the 298th Army Band. Following his initial stint in the military, Baker completed a year of study at Los Angeles’ El Camino College before dropping out to re-enlist.
Following his 1951 discharge, Baker emerged on the West Coast jazz scene, where he gained recognition for his performances with saxophonist Stan Getz. He was personally selected by Charlie Parker as a sideman for a number of performance dates, which increased his profile. Baker then became a member of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, where he and Mulligan developed a unique chemistry together, particularly through their execution of contrapuntal techniques in creating colorful melodic movement while playing simultaneously.
Upon Mulligan’s drug-related arrest and subsequent incarceration, Baker formed his own quartet with which he would record and release a string of successful LPs in the mid-50s. Baker rapidly gained popularity among young listeners for his good looks, cool-jazz style trumpet playing, and tender vocals, the latter of which was first displayed on his 1954 release, Chet Baker Sings. This national attention landed the trumpeter an acting role in the 1955 film, Hell’s Horizon, which in turn sparked studio interest in signing Baker to an acting contract. This offer was turned down, however, and Baker chose to focus on his career as a touring and recording musician.
As Baker’s professional fortunes began to multiply, so too did his personal misfortunes. He began using heroin in the 1950s, developing a dependence on the drug that would plague him for the rest of his life. Baker was in and out of jail for most of the 1960s, and his musical output began to dwindle.
Baker mounted a comeback of sorts in the 1970s, despite his persisting substance abuse issues. He engaged in several successful collaborations over the years with musicians such as Jim Hall, Elvis Costello, and Van Morrison, among others. He continued to release music, producing a wealth of material throughout the 70s and 80s.
The final decades of Baker’s life would be spent primarily in Europe, though he would continue to travel extensively for tours. The singer passed away at 58 years old under mysterious circumstances outside an Amsterdam hotel where he had been staying.
Apparently having fallen from the second-story where his room was located, he suffered substantial injuries to the head. Though both cocaine and heroin were found in Baker’s system, as well as in his hotel room, the fall itself was concluded to be the cause of death, and his demise was officially ruled an accident.
Baker’s legend has only grown following his passing, with several theories surrounding his death being postulated over the decades. While the trumpeter drew criticism during his career for his considerable popularity as a white musician in a predominately black genre, as well as his drug-related issues, his legacy has undergone moderate reevaluation over time, and his contributions to various jazz forms have been substantiated.
The day of what would have been the singer, composer, and trumpeter’s 92nd birthday presents as a fitting opportunity as any to engage with the West Coast jazz legend’s impressive body of work. Those feeling romantic might dive into some of Baker’s expressive vocal work on albums like Chet Baker Sings, while those looking for more tempo can tap their feet to Chet Baker & Crew. But those curious about the poetic soul of the man himself should be implored to dive into late-50s releases such as Chet and Embraceable You, which feel much like instrumental documentation of the man’s steady personal decline and internal struggles. These projects are only the tip of the iceberg, however, and those truly interested in experiencing Baker’s artistry are encouraged to explore the decades of material left behind by the jazz innovator.