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Chet Baker: Beautifully Tragic

Updated on January 23, 2009

Chesney Henry Baker, Jr.

Was born in Yale, Oklahoma on December 23, 1929. Chet's musical career began as a child, singing in amateur competitions and in a church choir. His first formal training in music occurred at Glendale Junior High School, but Baker would play mostly by ear for the rest of his life.

In 1946, at the age of 16, Chet dropped out of high school and enlisted in the army. He was sent to Berlin, Germany, where he played in the 298th Army Band. He was discharged in 1948. Baker then enrolled into a college in Los Angeles, California where he studied theory and harmony; while playing in jazz clubs Needless to say he quit college in the middle of his second year of studies. He re-enlisted in the army in 1950 and became a member of the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco. During this time Chet began sitting in at clubs like Bop City and the Blackhawk in the city, and soon received a second discharge. Chet decided to pursue his dream, as a career professional jazz musician.

Baker started out playing in Vido Musso's band, and shortly after he signed on to play with Stan Getz. His big break came quickly, when, in 1952, he was chosen at an audition to play a series of shows with Charlie "Bird" Parker. Chet made his debut with the famous saxophonist at the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles on May 1952. As the year progressed into summer, Baker began playing in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, a group that featured a baritone sax, trumpet, bass, and drums. The group attracted much attention during a gig at the Haig and from the recordings made by newly formed Pacific Jazz Records.

In less than year, The Gerry Mulligan Quartet was no more. The Quartet ended when its leader went to jail on a drug charge in June 1953. Chet soon put together his own quartet, which at first featured Russ Freeman on piano, Red Mitchell on bass, and Bobby White on drums. In 1954, the Pacific Jazz label released "Chet Baker Sings," an album that increased Baker's popularity but divided many traditional jazz fans. In 1955, Chet made his acting debut in the film "Hell's Horizon." He declined an offer of a studio contract; to stay with his true, and toured Europe. When he returned to the U.S., Chet formed a quintet, featuring saxophonist Phil Urso and pianist Bobby Timmons. Though he was well known for having a relaxed, laid-back playing style...Baker took to a more of a bop style with his quintet, in which they recorded the album "Chet Baker & Crew" for Pacific Jazz.

Baker toured America, in 1957 with the Birdland All Stars. Chet also toured Europe later that year. He later returned to Europe to stay in 1959, choosing to settle in Italy, where he acted in another film. In 1960, a fictionalized film biography about Chet's life was made. "All the Fine Young Cannibals," starring Robert Wagner as 'Chad Bixby.'

In the 1950s Baker had become addicted to heroin and was arrested, briefly on several occasions. His drug habit only began to interfere with his career significantly in the 1960s.In the summer of 1960 he was arrested in Italy and Chet spent almost a year and a half in jail. Soon after his release Chet recorded "Chet Is Back" (which has been reissued as "The Italian Sessions" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow") in 1962. Later that same year, Baker was arrested...This time in West Germany. Even further, Chet Baker had been abolished to Switzerland, and then France. Later Chet ended up moving to England in 1962. He appeared as himself in the film "The Stolen Hours." He was deported later from England to France because of a drug offense. He lived and performed in Paris and in Spain over the next year, but after being arrested again in West Germany... he was deported back to the U.S. He returned to America after only five years in Europe on March of 1964. He began playing primarily in New York and Los Angeles during the mid-'60s, having switched temporarily from trumpet to flügelhorn. During this period he recorded quite a few excellent recordings for the Prestige label.

In the summer of 1966, he suffered a severe beating in San Francisco that was largely related to his drug addiction. In the late 1960s Baker's teeth had rotted to the point where he was fitted with dentures mainly due to his drug use. By the early 1970s Chet had stopped playing altogether.

Even though Chet remained an addict, he began to control his herion addiction by taking methadone. He eventually started a comeback that was mainly created in a strong New York club engagement in November 1973 and a reunion concert with Gerry Mulligan at Carnegie Hall in November 1974. By the mid-'70s, triumphantly... Baker returned to Europe, where he spent the rest of his life performing; with the occasional trip to Japan and short periods back in the U.S., Oddly, he kept no permanent residence.

In 1987, Bruce Weber began work on a documentary film about Baker. Chet died in May of 1988, from a fall, from a hotel window in Amsterdam after taking heroin and cocaine. Weber's film about Chet Baker, "Let's Get Lost," premiered in September 1988 to high critical praise and even earned an Academy Award nomination. In 1997, Baker's unfinished autobiography was published under the title As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoir. The book was optioned by Miramax for a film adaptation.

Baker's constant need for cash, due to his drug addiction, led him to accept many recording deals that he should probably never have agreed to. Even though his unreliability kept record companies from signing him to a long-term contract. This resulted in an extensive discography that is unfortunately extremely uneven.

Few musicians have ever embodied the romantic, yet ultimately tragic jazz figure quite like Chesney "Chet" Baker. Chet was unschooled, yet very eloquent in his music. Chet liked to live fast, but somehow managed to survive for nearly six decades. The Baker mystique has only reinforced one of the most haunting trumpet styles and ingenuous approaches to jazz singing. The film Let's Get Lost, is a study of not only hero worship, but of self-destruction.

Chet Baker - "But Not For Me"

Chet Baker - "Let's Get Lost"

Discography: Chet Baker


  • Live at the Trade Winds (Fresh Sound, 1952)
  • West Coast Live (Blue Note, 1953)
  • Witch Doctor/And the Lighthouse All Stars (Cont, 1953)
  • Witch Doctor (Original Jazz, 1953)
  • Chet Baker Sings (Pacific, 1953)
  • Compositions and Arrangements by Jack... (Pacific Jazz, 1953)
  • Grey December (Pacific Jazz, 1953)
  • Chet Baker and Strings (Columbia, 1953)
  • Chet Baker with Strings (Columbia/Legac, 1953)
  • The Other Pianoless Quartet, Haig 1953 (Philology, 1953)
  • Young Chet (Blue Note, 1954)
  • Boston (Uptown, 1954)
  • Jazz at Ann Arbor (Pacific Jazz, 1954)
  • The Trumpet Artistry Of (Japanese, 1954)
  • Chet Baker Sextet (Pacific Jazz, 1954)
  • Chet Baker Big Band (Pacific Jazz, 1954)
  • My Funny Valentine (Blue Note, 1954)
  • Chet Baker Sings and Plays from the "Let's... (Jive/Novus, 1955)
  • Chet Baker Sings and Plays with Bud Shank,... (Pacific Jazz, 1955)
  • In Europe, 1955 (Philology, 1955)
  • Quartet: Russ Freeman/Chet Baker (Blue Note, 1956)
  • Chet Baker & Crew (Pacific Jazz, 1956)
  • The Route (Pacific Jazz, 1956)
  • At the Forum Theater (Fresh Sound, 1956)
  • Chet Baker Cools Out (Boblicity, 1956)
  • Playboys (Pacific Jazz, 1956)
  • Chet Baker in Europe (Pacific Jazz, 1956)
  • Live in Europe 1956 (Accord, 1956)
  • Chet Baker Sings (Pacific Jazz, 1956)
  • Pretty/Groovy (World Pacific, 1957)
  • Embraceable You (Pacific Jazz, 1957)
  • Chet Baker Sings It Could Happen to You (Riverside/OJC, 1958)
  • Chet Baker Introduces Johnny Pace (Original Jazz, 1958)
  • Chet Baker in New York (Riverside/OJC, 1958)
  • Chet (The Lyrical Trumpet of Chet Baker) (Original Jazz, 1958)
  • Theme Music from "The James Dean Story" (World Pacific, 1958)
  • Chet (Riverside, 1959)
  • New Blue Horns (Original Jazz, 1959)
  • Chet Baker Plays (Riverside, 1959)
  • Chet Baker with Fifty Italian Strings (Original Jazz, 1959)
  • Chet Baker in Milan (Jazzland/OJC, 1959)
  • Picture of Heath (Pacific Jazz, 1961)
  • Chet Is Back (Japanese, 1962)
  • Somewhere over the Rainbow (Bluebird, 1962)
  • Brussels 1964 (Landscape, 1964)
  • Chet Baker Sings and Plays (Colpix, 1964)
  • Baby Breeze (Limelight, 1965)
  • Love Walked In (Harmony, 1965)
  • Baker's Holiday: Plays & Sings Billie Holiday (EmArcy, 1965)
  • Boppin' with the Chet Baker Quintet (Prestige, 1965)
  • Comin' on with the Chet Baker Quintet (Prestige, 1965)
  • Cool Burnin' with the Chet Baker Quintet (Prestige, 1965)
  • Groovin' with the Chet Baker Quintet (Prestige, 1965)
  • Smokin' (Prestige, 1965)
  • Groovin' with the Chet Baker Quintet... (Import, 1965)
  • Boppin' with the Chet Baker Quintet (Import, 1965)
  • Lonely Star (Prestige, 1965)
  • Stairway to the Stars (Prestige, 1965)
  • On a Misty Night (Prestige, 1965)
  • Hats Off!!! (World Pacific, 1966)
  • Quietly, There (World Pacific, 1966)
  • A Taste of Tequila (World Pacific, 1966)
  • Into My Life (World Pacific, 1966)
  • Live at Pueblo, Colorado 1966 (Baker, 1966)
  • Polka Dots and Moonbeams (Jazzland, 1967)
  • Albert's House (Par, 1969)
  • Blood, Chet & Tears (Verve, 1970)
  • She Was Too Good to Me (Columbia, 1974)
  • The Best Thing for You (A&M, 1977)
  • You Can't Go Home Again (A&M, 1977)
  • Once upon a Summertime (Original Jazz, 1977)
  • Live at Nick's (Criss Cross, 1978)
  • Live in Cheteauvallon, 1978 (Esoldun, 1978)
  • Broken Wing (Japanese, 1978)
  • Ballads for Two (Sandra, 1979)
  • The Touch of Your Lips (Steeplechase, 1979)
  • All Blues (Arco, 1979)
  • No Problem (Steeple Chase, 1979)
  • Day Break (Steeple Chase, 1979)
  • Someday My Prince Will Come (Steeple Chase, 1979)
  • Live in Montmartre, Vol. 2 (Steeple Chase, 1979)
  • Chet Baker with Wolfgang Lackerschmid (Inakustik, 1979)
  • 79 (Celluloid, 1979)
  • Together (Enja, 197)
  • And the Boto Brasilian Quartet (Dreyfus, 1980)
  • My Funny Valentine (Philology, 1980)
  • Live at Fat Tuesday's (Fresh Sound, 1981)
  • 'Round Midnight (Circle, 1981)
  • Live at the Paris Festival (DIW, 1981)
  • Live in Paris (Norma, 1981)
  • Peace (Enja, 1982)
  • Studio Trieste (CTI, 1982)
  • Out of Nowhere (Milestone, 1982)
  • In Concert (India, 1982)
  • Mr. B (Timeless, 1983)
  • Unusual Chet: Naima, Vol. 2 (Phililogy, 1983)
  • The Improviser (Cadence, 1983)
  • Live in Sweden with Åke Johansson Trio (Dragon, 1983)
  • At Capolinea (Red, 1983)
  • Line for Lyons (Sonet, 1984)
  • Blues for a Reason (Criss Cross, 1984)
  • Time After Time (IRD, 1985)
  • Diane: Chet Baker and Paul Bley (Steeple Chase, 1985)
  • Chet's Choice (Criss Cross, 1985)
  • Candy (Gazell, 1985)
  • Strollin' (Enja, 1985)
  • Symphonically (Soul Note, 1985)
  • Hazy Hugs (Limetree, 1985)
  • Live from the Moonlight (Philology, 1985)
  • Silent Nights (GSR, 1986)
  • When Sunny Gets Blue (Steeple Chase, 1986)
  • Silent Nights: A Christmas Jazz Album (Varrick, 1986)
  • A Night at the Shalimar (Philology, 1987)
  • Chet Baker in Tokyo (Evidence, 1987)
  • Four: Live in Tokyo, Vol. 2 (Paddle Wheel, 1987)
  • In Memory Of (L&R Music, 1988)
  • Little Girl Blue (Philology, 1988)
  • The Heart of the Ballad (Phililogy, 1988)
  • My Favourite Songs, Vol. 2: Straight from... (Enja, 1988)
  • My Favourite Songs, Vols. 1-2: The Last... (Enja, 1988)
  • Straight from the Heart (Enja, 1988)
  • Silence (Soul Note, 1990)
  • Night Bird (WestWind, 1990)
  • Chet Baker in Bologna (Dreyfus, 1992)
  • Last Great Concert, Vols. 1-2 (Enja, 1994)
  • Stella by Starlight (Four Star, 1994)
  • The Incredible Chet Baker Plays and Sings (Ans, 1994)
  • Jazz in the Movies (Cam, 1995)
  • With Special Guests (Featuring Coryell,... (Inakustik, 1995)
  • Stella by Starlight (Jazz Hour, 1995)
  • Autumn in New York (Jazz Time, 1995)
  • Isn't It Romantic (Jazz Hour, 1995)
  • Tune Up (Westwind, 1995)
  • Welcome Back (Westwind, 1995)
  • Two a Day (Dreyfus, 1995)
  • Chet Baker Featuring Van Morrison Live at... (DRG, 1996)
  • Stella by Starlight (CMA, 1996)
  • Chet Baker Meets Stan Getz (Verve, 1996)
  • Love Walked In (Sony Legacy, 1996)
  • Nightbird (Retro Music, 1996)
  • Look for the Silver Lining (Jazzfest, 1997)
  • There'll Never Be Another You (Timeless, 1997)
  • Song Is You (Sound, 1999)
  • Milestone (King Jazz, 1999)
  • I Remember You (King Jazz, 1999)
  • Heartbreak (Import, 2000)
  • The James Dean Story (Blue Note, 2000)
  • Quartet Live, Vol. 1: This Time the Dream's... (Blue Note, 2000)
  • Quartet Live, Vol. 2: Out of Nowhere (Blue Note, 2001)
  • Quartet Live, Vol. 3: My Old Flame (Blue Note, 2001)
  • James Dean Story (EMI, 2001)
  • Chet Baker & Crew (EMI, 2001)
  • 'Round Midnight (Fruit Tree, 2001)
  • Around Midnight (King Jazz, 2001)
  • Star Eyes (Japanese, 2002)
  • September Song (Japanese, 2002)
  • Live At New Morning (Japanese, 2002)
  • Farewell (Japanese, 2002)
  • Chet Baker Sings (Japanese, 2002)
  • Jazz in the Movies (Import, 2002)
  • In New York (Import, 2002)
  • Live at Ronnie Scott's (Drg)
  • Sampler (Unreleased Tapes) (Enja)
  • As Time Goes By (Timeless)
  • My Funny Valentine (WestWind)
  • This Is Always (Steeple Chase)
  • My Foolish Heart (IRD)
  • Misty (IRD)
  • Memories: Chet Baker in Tokyo (Paddle Wheel)
  • Live at the Subway, Vol. 1 (Circle)
  • Live at the Subway, Vol. 2 (Circle)


  • The Pacific Jazz Years (Pacific Jazz, 1952)
  • Let's Get Lost (The Best of Chet Baker Sings) Pacific Jazz (1953)
  • The Complete Pacific Jazz Studio Recordings... (Mosaic, 1953)
  • Chet Baker Quartet Featuring Russ Freeman (Blue Note, 1953)
  • The Best of Chet Baker Plays Pacific Jazz (1953)
  • Jazz Origins: The Trumpet Artistry of Chet... Pausa (1953)
  • Jazz Profile Blue Note (1953)
  • The Best of Chet Baker Sings: Let's Get Lost Capitol/Pacifi (1953)
  • The Complete Pacific Jazz Live Recordings of... (Mosaic, 1954)
  • Chet in Paris, Vol. 1 EmArcy (1955)
  • Chet in Paris, Vol. 2: Everything Happens to... EmArcy (1955)
  • Jazz 'Round Midnight Verve (1955)
  • Chet in Paris, Vol. 4: Alternate Takes EmArcy (1955)
  • The Complete Barclay Recordings of Chet... EmArcy (1955)
  • Chet in Paris, Vol. 3: Cheryl EmArcy (1955)
  • Chet Baker Quintette Crown (1956)
  • The Art of the Ballad Prestige (1958)
  • Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Loewe Original Jazz (1959)
  • Live in Paris 1960-1963/Live In Nice 1975 Esoldun (1960)
  • The Italian Sessions Bluebird/RCA (1962)
  • Just Friends Circle (1980)
  • I'll Remember You Circle (1981)
  • Everything Happens to Me Timeless (1983)
  • Chet Baker Sings Again Timeless (1983)
  • The Legacy, Vol. 1 Enja (1987)
  • Compact Jazz: Chet Baker EmArcy (1992)
  • Unusual Chet: Naima, Vol. 1 Philology (1992)
  • The Newport Years, Vol. 1 Philology (1992)
  • Plays and Sings the Great Ballads CEMA (1992)
  • Chet Baker: The Pacific Jazz Years Pacific Jazz (1994)
  • But Not for Me: A Studio Discovery Stash (1994)
  • Nightbird (Prime Cuts, 1994)
  • Verve Jazz Masters 32 Polygram (1994)
  • Stella by Starlight (WestWind, 1994)
  • Stella by Starlight (Bandstand, 1994)
  • Stella by Starlight (Eclipse Music, 1996)
  • The Rising Sun Collection Just a Memory (1996)
  • This Is Jazz, Vol. 2 (Sony, 1996)
  • I Remember You: the Legacy, Vol. 2 (Enja, 1997)
  • In a Soulful Mood (Music Club, 1997)
  • Songs for Lovers (Capitol, 1997)
  • Jazz Masters (EMI Jazz, 1997)
  • White Blues (Camden, 1997)
  • 'Round Midnight (Challenge, 1998)
  • Chet Baker in Paris (1998)
  • Legacy, Vol. 3: Why Shouldn't You Cry (Enja, 1999)
  • Romance (Blue Note, 1999)
  • My Funny Valentine (Records, 1999)
  • 'Round Midnight (King Jazz,1999)
  • The Art of Chet Baker & Art Pepper (Giants of Jazz, 1999)
  • Les Incontournables (Wea, 2000)
  • Plays It Cool (Metro Music, 2000)
  • In Paris: Barclay Sessions 1955-1956 (Polygram, 2000)
  • The Best of Chet Baker (EMI-Capitol, 2001)
  • Cool Spring (King Jazz, 2001)
  • Jazz in the Movies (Vintage Music, 2001)
  • Chet Baker Plays and Sings the Great Ballads (Madacy, 2001)
  • My Funny Valentine (Prism, 2001)
  • Round Midnight (Fruit Tree, 2001)
  • Sentimental Walk in Paris (DRG, 2002)
  • Chet Baker Sings Again (Japanese, 2002)
  • Deep in a Dream: The Ultimate Chet Baker... (Blue Note, 2002)
  • Plays Standards (Sunnyside, 2002)
  • It Could Happen to You (Import, 2002)
  • Cool Cat (Timeless)
  • Back to Back: Paris, Vol. 1 and 2 (ITI)
  • First and Last Meeting (Bellaphon)
  • Heartbreak (Timeless)
  • Live in Rosenheime (Timeless)
  • Nightbird: Live at Ronnie Scott Castle
  • Last Great Concert, Vol. 1 (Enja)
  • Last Great Concert, Vol. 2 (Enja)
  • Deep in a Dream of You (Moon)

Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Rolf Ericson
Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Rolf Ericson


Submit a Comment
  • Lorne Hemmerling profile image

    Lorne Hemmerling 

    6 years ago from Oshawa

    Great hub! So many jazz geniuses have followed the same road. The documentary was dynamite, but sad. Awful to see someone with that much talent, rot away. Rest in peace, my friend.

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    Caught Chet Baker out on Cape Cod back in the 50's.Parker was also out there.Those were great shows,between Police raids.Brubeck was in Boston at Storyville recording.Still waiting for the return of the big bands.They will be back.The Broadway Capital in Detroit booked them all.Caught Al Hibbler there with Illinois Jaquett. Krupa was at Eastwood Gardens and later banned from Michigan on a drug charge. Detroit and Windsor was the place to be. Wide open.

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you for the great sharing of the memories of a talented man

  • nextstopjupiter profile image


    9 years ago from here, there and everywhere

    I met Chet about half a year before his tragic death, at a jazz festival in Hungary. It was a very sad concert, but let's listen to the better moments of his life!

  • GypsyZills profile image


    10 years ago

    Marvelous. I first heard of Chet Baker on a tour in Amsterdam. The tour guide had a backpack with speakers and he played Chet's music as he told us the story of his death on the spot where it happened. I was nearly moved to tears. Thanks for a great hub.

  • Dink96 profile image


    10 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

    I think Chet Baker and Art Pepper's pictures powerfully illustrate the ravages of heroin addiction. Two men with tremendous talent and movie star visages which, over time, are consumed by their addictions. This blog is well researched and constructed. I think my all-time favorite Chet Baker songs are "Let's Get Lost" and "My Funny Valentine."

  • G-Ma Johnson profile image

    Merle Ann Johnson 

    10 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

    Nice sounds...I really don't remember him myself...He sure went through a tough sad...Nicely done hub...thanks for introducing me...G-Ma :o) Hugs & Peace


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