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Chesney Henry Baker Jr. was born on December 23, 1929 in Yale, Oklahoma. Chet began making music as a child singing in his church choir. His father, a professional guitar player, introduced Chet to the trombone at a young age but Baker switched to trumpet because the trombone was too large for him. Baker studied a little music at Glendale Junior High School but left school at the age of sixteen and joined the army in 1946. Chet left the army in 1948 and studied theory and harmony at El Camino College in Los Angeles. After a few years of school Baker returned to the army but again got his discharge so he could pursue a career in music.
Baker’s first noteworthy gigs came with sax players Vido Musso and Stan Getz. In Chet’s own eyes he received his Jazz rite of passage in 1952 when he auditioned to play trumpet along side Charlie Parker for some gigs on the west coast and was chosen for the gigs. After playing with Bird, Baker joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and became much more well known and made beautiful music with Mulligan due to their ability to have an almost telepathic ability to interplay melodic lines with each other underneath the melody. In 1953 Baker made the album ‘Chet Baker Sings’ and this too helped a much wider audience discover Chet. Baker won the Downbeat magazine’s Jazz Poll, beating out some notable jazz musicians including Miles Davis. Baker made his acting debut in 1955 in the film Hell’s Horizon and was offered a contract by the movie studio but Baker preferred the life of a touring musician. Baker continued leading groups through the ‘50s becoming an icon for the sounds of West Coast jazz and cool jazz.
Chet has some health issues including problems with his teeth and as a result had to relearn how to play trumpet with dentures and switched to flugelhorn between ’66 and ’74 due to its wider mouth piece. Baker moved to New York City in the late 1960s and played and recorded with guitarist Jim hall. In the ‘70s Chet moved to Europe for good only returning to the U.S. about once a year to perform. In this last period of his life Chet made the majority of his recordings though many were only heard in Europe. Some of the musicians Baker played during this period include Stan Getz, Elvis Costello, Phil Markowitz, Philip Catherine and Jean-Louis Rassinfosse. One of Chet’s most notable performances happened in Tokyo in 1987 just a year before his passing, showing his depth and ability even with debilitating health to get to the root of what it truly means to be an artist and capture the essence of life in his music. Baker passed away in 1988 in Amsterdam and is buried in Inglewood, California.
In 1987 Baker was elected into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1989 Chet was elected into Downbeat magazine’s Jazz Hall of Fame and the state of Oklahoma made July 2, 2005 ‘Chet Baker Day’. Many more tributes have been made to Baker’s life and music in the form of books, documentaries, theater and of course musical by many other musicians. To this day Chet Baker’s music remains popular internationally.
“I feel that I have grown harmonically and lyrically. I’ve been playing now for thirty six years and if there ever comes to a time when I feel I’m not making any progress, I’ll stop because it just won’t be any fun anymore.”
“If it doesn’t have some lyrical meaning to it, then I’m not interested in it” – Chet Baker