Written by Samuel Phineas Upham
Chet Baker was born in Oklahoma, but his family relocated him to Los Angeles prior to his teenage years. His parents were musically inclined, and young Chet sang in his local choir frequently. He dropped out of high school to pursue a career in the military. He did two stints in the armed forces, playing in the Army band both times.
He became influenced by the music of Miles Davis, and sank heavily into the jazz culture of Los Angeles. He earned the chance to perform with Charlie Parker in 1952, and then joined the Gerry Mulligan quartet the same year. He brought a subdued vocal tone to his music, which fit perfectly with his signature song “My Funny Valentine.”
Baker had everything: the movie-star good looks, the voice of an angel, and the talent to back it all up. Which is why his addiction and gradual decline into heroine makes his story so sad.
While in Europe, Baker was arrested over his drug use and experienced serious legal troubles. When he returned to the US, he recorded several new records, but his new work was panned by his critics. Then, Chet suffered a brutal beating in 1966 over a drug dispute. Dealers knocked out his teeth, and crippled him so badly he was unable to properly play trumpet for four years.
But Baker did bounce back. Dizzie Gillespie helped him arrange a comeback tour, which gave him the money to return to Europe. He lived as a nomad until he threw himself from a window in Amsterdam in 1988. Though authorities found drugs in his system, it’s still unclear whether his death was suicide or an accident.