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Chet Baker
Chet Baker in 1983
Chet Baker in 1983
Background information
Birth nameChesney Henry Baker
Born(1929-12-23)December 23, 1929
Yale, Oklahoma, U.S.
DiedMay 13, 1988(1988-05-13) (aged 58)
Amsterdam, Netherlands
GenresCool jazz, bebop, West Coast jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, singer, composer
InstrumentsTrumpet, flugelhorn, vocals, piano[1]
Years active1949–1988[2]
LabelsPacific Jazz, RCA, Epic
Associated actsGerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Russ Freeman, Bud Shank

Chesney Henry "Chet" Baker Jr. (December 23, 1929 – May 13, 1988) was an American jazz trumpeter and vocalist. He is known for major innovations within the cool jazz subgenre leading him to be nicknamed the "prince of cool".[3]

Baker earned much attention and critical praise through the 1950s, particularly for albums featuring his vocals (Chet Baker Sings, It Could Happen to You). Jazz historian Dave Gelly described the promise of Baker's early career as "James Dean, Sinatra, and Bix, rolled into one".[4] His well-publicized drug habit also drove his notoriety and fame. Baker was in and out of jail frequently before enjoying a career resurgence in the late 1970s and 1980s.[5]


Early years

Baker was born and raised in a musical household in Yale, Oklahoma. His father, Chesney Baker Sr., was a professional guitarist, and his mother, Vera Moser, was a pianist who worked in a perfume factory. His maternal grandmother was Norwegian.[6] Baker said that due to the Great Depression, his father, though talented, had to quit as a musician and take a regular job. At age 10 in 1940, his family relocated to Glendale, California.[7]

Baker began his musical career singing in a church choir. His father gave him a trombone, which was replaced with a trumpet when the trombone proved too large. His mother said that he had begun to memorize tunes on the radio before he was given an instrument. After "falling in love" with the trumpet, he improved noticeably in two weeks. Peers called Baker a natural musician to whom playing came effortlessly.[8]

Baker received some musical education at Glendale High School, but he left school at the age of 16 in 1946 to join the United States Army. He was assigned to Berlin, Germany, where he joined the 298th Army Band. After leaving the Army in 1948, he studied music theory and harmony at El Camino College in Los Angeles.[9] He dropped out during his second year to re-enlist. He became a member of the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco,[9] spending time in clubs such as Bop City and the Black Hawk.[10] He was discharged from the Army in 1951 and proceeded to pursue a career in music.[11]


Baker in 1955
Baker in 1955

Baker performed with Vido Musso and Stan Getz before being chosen by Charlie Parker for a series of West Coast engagements.[12]

In 1952, Baker joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Rather than playing identical melody lines in unison like Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Baker and Mulligan complemented each other with counterpoint and anticipating what the other would play next. "My Funny Valentine", with a solo by Baker, became a hit, and was associated with Baker for the rest of his career.[13] With the quartet, Baker was a regular performer at Los Angeles jazz clubs such as The Haig and the Tiffany Club.[8]

Within a year, Mulligan was arrested and imprisoned on drug charges. Baker formed a quartet with a rotation that included pianist Russ Freeman, bassists Bob Whitlock, Carson Smith, Joe Mondragon, and Jimmy Bond, and drummers Larry Bunker, Bob Neel, and Shelly Manne. Baker's quartet released popular albums between 1953 and 1956. Baker won reader's polls at Metronome and Down Beat magazines, beating trumpeters Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. In 1954, readers named Baker the top jazz vocalist. In 1956, Pacific Jazz Records released Chet Baker Sings, an album that increased his visibility and drew criticism. Nevertheless, Baker sang throughout the rest of his career.

Hollywood studios saw an opportunity in Baker's chiseled features. He made his acting debut in the film Hell's Horizon, released in the fall of 1955. He declined a studio contract, preferring life on the road as a musician. Over the next few years, Baker led his own combos, including a 1955 quintet with Francy Boland, where Baker combined playing trumpet and singing. In 1956, he completed an eight-month tour of Europe, where he recorded Chet Baker in Europe.[14]

In late 1959, he returned to Europe, recording in Italy what became known as the Milano sessions, with arranger and conductor Ezio Leoni (Len Mercer) and his orchestra. Baker was arrested for drug possession and jailed in Lucca, forcing Leoni to communicate through the prison warden to coordinate arrangements with Baker as they prepared for recording.[15]

During most of the 1960s, Baker played flugelhorn, and recorded music that could be classified as West Coast jazz.[2]

In 1963, he appeared, as himself, in the British film, Stolen Hours.

Drug addiction and decline

Baker said he began using heroin in 1957.[16] Author Jeroen de Valk and pianist Russ Freeman say that Baker started heroin in the early 1950s. Freeman was Baker's musical director after Baker left the Mulligan quartet. Sometimes Baker pawned his instruments to buy drugs. During the 1960s, he was imprisoned in Italy on drug charges and was expelled from Germany and the UK on drug-related offences. He was deported to the U.S. from Germany for getting into trouble with the law a second time. He settled in Milpitas, California, performing in San Francisco and San Jose between jail terms for prescription fraud.[2]

In 1966, Baker was beaten, probably while attempting to buy drugs,[17] after performing at The Trident restaurant in Sausalito. In the film Let's Get Lost, Baker said an acquaintance attempted to rob him, but backed off, only to return the next night with a group of men who chased him. He entered a car and was surrounded. Instead of rescuing him, the people inside the car pushed him back out onto the street, where the chase continued. He received cuts and one of his teeth was cracked. This incident has been often misdated or otherwise exaggerated partly due to his own unreliable testimony on the matter.[2] The breaking of his tooth did, however, ruin his embouchure, leaving him unable to play trumpet. He worked at a gas station until concluding that he had to find a way back to music, and retrained his embouchure.[18]


Chet Baker (right) and Stan Getz, 1983
Chet Baker (right) and Stan Getz, 1983

After developing a new embouchure resulting from dentures, Baker returned to the straight-ahead jazz that began his career. He moved to New York City and began performing and recording again, including with guitarist Jim Hall. Later in the 1970s, Baker returned to Europe, where he was assisted by his friend Diane Vavra, who took care of his personal needs and helped him during his recording and performance dates.

From 1978 until his death in 1988, Baker lived and played almost exclusively in Europe, returning to the U.S. once a year for a few performances. This was Baker's most prolific era as a recording artist.

In 1983, British singer Elvis Costello, a longtime fan of Baker, hired the trumpeter to play a solo on his song "Shipbuilding" for the album Punch the Clock. The song exposed Baker's music to a new audience. Later, Baker often featured Costello's song "Almost Blue" (inspired by Baker's version of Ray Henderson's “The Thrill Is Gone", not to be confused with the Roy Hawkins song of the same name, made famous by B.B. King) in his concert sets, and recorded the song for Let's Get Lost.

In 1986, Chet Baker: Live at Ronnie Scott's London presented Baker in an intimate stage performance filmed with Elvis Costello and Van Morrison as he performed a set of standards and classics, including "Just Friends", "My Ideal", and "Shifting Down". Augmenting the music, Baker spoke one-on-one with friend and colleague Costello about his childhood, career, and struggle with drugs.

Baker recorded the live album Chet Baker in Tokyo with his quartet featuring pianist Harold Danko, bassist Hein Van de Geyn, and drummer John Engels less than a year before his death, and it was released posthumously. Silent Nights, a recording of Christmas music, was recorded in New Orleans, Louisiana with saxophonist Christopher Mason, pianist Michael Pellera, bass player James Singleton, and drummer Johnny Vidacovich in 1986 and released in 1987.

In 2006, "Jazz Icons: Chet Baker: Live in '64 & '79" was released, featuring two European concerts filmed 15 years apart. The 1964 performance took place in a Belgian TV studio, and the 1979 set was recorded in Norway. Other musicians featured are saxophonist Jacques Pelzer, French pianist René Urtreger, and vibraphonist Wolfgang Lackerschmid. Songs include the Miles Davis classic "So What", the jazz standard "Time After Time", "Blue Train", and many others.


Some of Baker's notable compositions include "Chetty's Lullaby", "Freeway", "Early Morning Mood", "Two a Day", "So che ti perderò" ("I Know I Will Lose You"), "Il mio domani" ("My Tomorrow"), "Motivo su raggio di luna" ("Contemplate on a Moonbeam"), "The Route", "Skidaddlin'", "New Morning Blues" (with Duke Jordan), "Blue Gilles", "Dessert", "Anticipated Blues", "Blues for a Reason",[19] "We Know It's Love", and "Looking Good Tonight".

Personal life

Baker was married three times, to Charlaine Baker, Halima Baker, and Carol Baker.[20][21] He had four children, Chesney III with Halima and Dean, Paul, and Melissa with Carol.[22] Baker was fluent in Italian.[23][24]


Plaque at the Hotel Prins Hendrik, in Amsterdam[25]
Plaque at the Hotel Prins Hendrik, in Amsterdam[25]

Early on May 13, 1988, Baker was found dead on the street below his room in Hotel Prins Hendrik, Amsterdam, with serious wounds to his head, apparently having fallen from the second-story window.[26] Heroin and cocaine were found in his room and in his body. No evidence of a struggle was found, and the death was ruled an accident.[27] According to another account, he inadvertently locked himself out of his room and fell while attempting to cross from the balcony of the vacant adjacent room to his own.[28] A plaque was placed outside the hotel in his memory.[29] Baker is buried at the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California, next to his father.


Baker was photographed by William Claxton for his book Young Chet: The Young Chet Baker. An Academy Award-nominated 1988 documentary about Baker, Let's Get Lost, portrays him as a cultural icon of the 1950s, but juxtaposes this with his later image as a drug addict. The film, directed by fashion photographer Bruce Weber, was shot in black-and-white, and includes a series of interviews with friends, family (including his three children by third wife Carol Baker), musical associates, and female friends, interspersed with footage from Baker's earlier life, and interviews with Baker in his last years. In Chet Baker, His Life and Music, author De Valk and others criticize the film for presenting Baker as a "washed-up" musician in his later years. The film was shot during the first half of 1987, prior to career highlights such as the Japanese concert, released on Chet Baker in Tokyo.

Time after Time: The Chet Baker Project, written by playwright James O'Reilly, toured Canada in 2001.[30]

Jeroen de Valk has written a biography of Baker; Chet Baker: His Life and Music is the English translation.[31] Other biographies of him include James Gavin's Deep in a Dream—The Long Night of Chet Baker, and Matthew Ruddick's Funny Valentine. Baker's "lost memoirs" are available in the book As Though I Had Wings, which includes an introduction by Carol Baker.[2]

He is portrayed by Ethan Hawke in the 2015 film Born to Be Blue. It is a reimagining of Baker's career in the late 1960s, when he is famous for both his music and his addiction, and he takes part in a movie about his life to boost his career.[32] Steve Wall plays Baker in the 2018 film My Foolish Heart.

Vocalist Luciana Souza recorded The Book of Chet in 2012 as a tribute. Brazilian jazz pianist Eliane Elias dedicated her 2013 album I Thought About You to Chet Baker.[33][34]

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Chet Baker among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.[35]

Australian musician Nick Murphy chose "Chet Faker" as his stage name as a tribute to Baker. Murphy said, "I listened to a lot of jazz and I was a big fan of ... the way he sang, when he moved into mainstream singing. He had this really fragile vocal style—this really, broken, close-up, and intimate style. The name is kind of just an ode to Chet Baker and the mood of music he used to play—something I would like to at least pay homage to in my own music."[36]

Awards and honors




  1. ^ "Chet Baker". Jazz Discography Project. Archived from the original on May 14, 2017. Retrieved December 18, 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e Ruhlmann, William. "Chet Baker". AllMusic. Retrieved November 13, 2015.
  3. ^ Carr, Roy (December 2, 2004). "A century of jazz". London : Hamlyn – via Internet Archive.
  4. ^ Gelly, Dave (2000). Icons of Jazz: A History in Photographs, 1900–2000 (North American ed.). San Diego, California: Thunder Bay Press. ISBN 1-57145-268-0.
  5. ^ Leland, John (October 5, 2004), Hip: The History, HarperCollins, pp. 265–, ISBN 978-0-06-052817-1, retrieved November 13, 2015
  6. ^ Gavin, James (2011). Deep In A Dream: The Long Night Of Chet Baker. Chicago Review Press. p. 10. ISBN 9781569767573.
  7. ^ "Chet Baker | Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved March 15, 2021.
  8. ^ a b Let's Get Lost (1988) documentary by Bruce Weber
  9. ^ a b "Chet Baker". AllMusic. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  10. ^ McKeever, Stuart A. (June 19, 2014). Becoming Joey Fizz. Author House. pp. 17–. ISBN 978-1-4969-1521-4. Retrieved April 25, 2018.
  11. ^ Cahill, Greg. "Chet Baker". North Bay Bohemian. Archived from the original on October 16, 2018. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  12. ^ Gordon, Robert (1986). Jazz West Coast : the Los Angeles jazz scene of the 1950s. Quartet Books. p. 72. ISBN 9780704326033.
  13. ^ Davis Inman. "Chet Baker, 'My Funny Valentine'". American Songwriter. Retrieved January 21, 2015.
  14. ^ "Review spotlight on... Jazz Albums". Billboard. November 10, 1956. p. 86. Retrieved November 13, 2015.
  15. ^ Chet Baker - 1959 Milano Sessions - Promo Sound, CD 4312 ADD
  16. ^ Ted Gioia (1998). West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960. University of California Press. pp. 191–. ISBN 978-0-520-21729-4.
  17. ^ Selvin, Joel (June 12, 2002). "'Cool' jazz's tortured king / Drugs, abuse marked trumpeter's career". San Francisco Chronicle.
  18. ^ "Chet Baker interview about drug and jazz1980" (in Italian). YouTube. Retrieved February 12, 2017.
  19. ^ "Chet Baker Quintet* Featuring Warne Marsh - Blues For A Reason". Discogs. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  20. ^ Murray, Ruby (January 1, 2012). "Chet Baker historical profile | Dumbo Feather Magazine". Dumbo Feather. Retrieved March 15, 2021.
  21. ^ Braysher, Sam (October 19, 2020). "Chet Baker | The Life & Music of a Jazz Icon". Jazzfuel. Retrieved March 15, 2021.
  22. ^ "Bruce Guthrie: Remembering Chet Baker article @ All About Jazz". All About Jazz. Retrieved March 15, 2021.
  23. ^ Chet Baker interview about drug and jazz1980, retrieved March 15, 2021
  24. ^ Chet in, retrieved March 15, 2021
  25. ^ Zhuk, Roman. "News - Chet Baker (memorial plaque)". Retrieved March 22, 2020.
  26. ^ Pareles, Jon (May 14, 1988). "Chet Baker, Jazz Trumpeter, Dies at 59 in a Fall". Retrieved March 25, 2016.
  27. ^ "Chet Baker: het roerige leven van een jazzlegende". USA365 (in Dutch). Retrieved June 10, 2020.
  28. ^ Tom Schnabel (January 17, 2012). "How Chet Baker Really Died". Retrieved August 3, 2019.
  29. ^ Europa (March 21, 2014). "O hotel em Amsterdã onde Chet Baker se hospedou". Janela ou Corredor? (in Portuguese). Retrieved March 10, 2015.
  30. ^ Crew, Robert (April 6, 2001). "Time After Time: The Chet Baker Project". Variety. Retrieved November 13, 2015.
  31. ^ "Jeroen de Valk: tekst & muziek". (in Dutch). Archived from the original on January 10, 2014. Retrieved December 18, 2013.
  32. ^ Barraclough, Leo (February 4, 2015). "Berlin: Ethan Hawke Brings Jazz Pic 'Born to Be Blue' to Fest". Variety. Retrieved November 13, 2015.
  33. ^ Collar, Matt. "Eliane Elias -- I Thought About You". Retrieved May 10, 2016.
  34. ^ Bailey, C. Michael (May 23, 2013). "Eliane Elias: I Thought About You: A Tribute to Chet Baker". All About Jazz. Retrieved May 10, 2016.
  35. ^ Rosen, Jody (June 25, 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
  36. ^ "Discovery: Chet Faker". Interview Magazine. March 16, 2012. Retrieved March 13, 2021.
  37. ^ "GRAMMY Hall Of Fame". October 18, 2010. Retrieved June 13, 2021.

Further reading

  • Baker, Chet; Carol Baker. As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoir. St Martins Press, 1997.
  • De Valk, Jeroen. Chet Baker: His Life and Music. Berkeley Hills Books, 2000. ISBN 18-931-6313-X. Updated and expanded edition: Chet Baker: His Life and Music. Uitgeverij Aspekt, 2017. ISBN 9789461539786.
  • Gavin, James. Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
  • Ruddick, Matthew. Funny Valentine: The Story of Chet Baker. Melrose Books, 2012.

External links

This page was last edited on 4 July 2021, at 06:48
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