American jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker became a star on the strength of such songs as “My Funny Valentine” before his career was derailed by drug use.
“People said I’d never make 35, then I’d never make 40, 45; now I’m almost 50, so I’m beginning to think maybe they might be wrong.”—Chet Baker
Jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker was born on December 23, 1929, in Yale, Oklahoma. He rose to stardom in the 1950s with Gerry Mulligan’s quartet and then as a bandleader, but encountered personal and professional difficulties after developing a heroin addiction. Baker was in the midst of a late-career resurgence when he fell from an Amsterdam hotel window to his death on May 13, 1988.
Chesney Henry “Chet” Baker Jr. was born on December 23, 1929, in Yale, Oklahoma, and moved to the Los Angeles area with his family at age 10. The son of musically inclined parents, he sang in church choirs and tried his hand at trombone before turning to trumpet at age 13.
Baker dropped out of school at 16 to join the Army, and played in bands during his two stints in the armed forces. In between, he was turned on to the music of Miles Davis and became involved in the Los Angeles jazz scene.
Jazz King to Junkie
Baker’s musical career took off after he earned the chance to play with jazz great Charlie Parker in 1952. That year he joined saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet, and the pairing of Baker’s subdued tone and gentle phrasing with Mulligan’s ear for harmonies proved a dynamic combination. The quartet reeled off such favorites as “Walkin’ Shoes,” “Bernie’s Tune” and “My Funny Valentine,” which became one of Baker’s signature songs.
Late Career Comeback
Baker gradually regained his skills, with Dizzy Gillespe helping to set him on the comeback trail by arranging a concert at New York City’s Half Note club in the early 1970s. He returned to Europe in 1975, where he regularly performed and recorded despite essentially living as a nomad. Although years of hard living had withered his youthful voice and looks, many considered his output from this period to be among the best of his career.
Just weeks after delivering a lauded performance with the NDR Big Band and Hannover Radio Orchestra, Chet Baker was found dead outside his Amsterdam hotel in the early hours of May 13, 1988. His second-floor room window was open and drugs were found in his system, although it was never known whether his death was accidental or not.
In subsequent years, the release of Baker’s unfinished memoirs, As Though I Had Wings (1997), and James Gavin’s Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker (2002), provided details of the jazz icon’s troubled but memorable life and career.