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Baker, Chet

The Grove Dictionary of American Music
Jeroen de ValkJeroen de Valk

Baker, Chet [Chesney Henry] (b Yale, OK, 23 Dec 1929; d Amsterdam, Netherlands, 13 May 1988). Jazz trumpeter, flugelhorn player, and singer. 

He was almost entirely self-taught; he never obtained more than a rudimentry knowledge of music theory and thus had to improvise by ear. Baker played in army bands sporadically from 1946 to 1951. While stationed in Berlin in 1946, he started listening to modern jazz and thereafter blossomed as a jazz player. In 1952 he was hired by Charlie Parker, and later that year joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Mulligan's pianoless group had a relaxed, pleasant sound that appealed to a broad audience, and it was in this context that Baker achieved national fame. In 1953 Baker began leading his own groups and in the mid-1950s made a series of recordings as a singer that showcased the distinctive, intimate quality of his voice.

Baker led an erratic lifestyle due to drug addiction, and in 1956 he served a prison sentence for possession of drugs. He subsequently spent 16 months in an Italian prison, also for drug-related offenses, during a five-year period in Europe (1959–64). When he returned to the United States, jazz was becoming less fashionable, so he recorded a series of commercial albums with Herb Alpert–like brass groups and popular songs with strings. Baker's career was interrupted when his upper teeth were replaced by dentures in 1968; one of the causes being an attack in 1966, after which his teeth deteriorated. He made a comeback in New York in 1973. From the 1970s, on, he spent increasing amounts of time in Europe, where he regained his confidence and found a new audience, which adored his lyrical approach, adventurous improvisations, and tender sound. He also performed skillfully as a scat singer. This later period has often been ignored in the jazz literature as a result of Baker's limited visibility in the United States.

Baker died from a fall or jump from his room on the third floor of a hotel in Amsterdam. The police ruled out murder, as the trumpeter had locked his hotel door from the inside and there were no traces of a struggle or any involvement of a second person. Baker's life as a drug addict is documented in Bruce Weber's film Let's Get Lost (1988) and James Gavin's biography Deep in a Dream (New York, 2002).

Selected recordings

As leader: The Best of Chet Baker Sings (1953–6, PJ); Chet is Back (1962, Bb); Baby Breeze (1964, Verve); She was too good to me (1974, CTI/Epic); The Sesjun Radio Shows (1976–85, T2 Entertainment); You can’t go home again (1977, A & M/Verve); Chet's Choice (1985, Criss Cross); Live from the Moonlight (1985, Philology); Chet Baker in Tokyo (1987, Evidence); The Last Great Concert (1988, Enja)

As sideman with G. Mulligan: The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker (1952–7, PJ)


J. de Valk: Chet Baker: Herinneringen aan een Lyrisch Trompettist (Amsterdam, 1989; enlarged 2/2007)Find this resource:

S. Sjogren: Chet: a Discography by Thorbjorn Sjogren (Copenhagen, 1993)Find this resource:

I. Wulff, ed.: Chet Baker in Europe (Kiel, Germany, 1993)Find this resource:

C. Baker: As though I had Wings (New York, 1997)Find this resource:

J. de Valk: Chet Baker: his Life and Music (Berkeley, CA, 2000)Find this resource:

Jeroen de Valk