Chet Baker: Rolling Stones #116 of The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time

Chet Baker
Born: December 23, 1929
Yale, Oklahoma, U.S.
Died: May 13, 1988
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Genres: Cool jazz, bebop, West Coast jazz
Occupations: Musician, singer, composer
Instruments: Trumpet, flugelhorn, vocals, piano

Chet Baker, nicknamed the "Prince of Cool," is known for his jazz innovations. He earned critical praise in the 1950s for the albums Chet Baker Sings, and It Could Happen to You. Jazz historian Dave Gelly described Chet's early career as "James Dean, Sinatra, and Bix rolled into one." In 2023, Rolling Stone ranked Baker at number 116 on its list of the 200 Greatest Singers of All Time.

Chet Baker Plays

Born Chesney Henry Baker, Jr. in Yale, Oklahoma, the Baker family relocated to Glendale, California, when Chet was 10. His musical career began with him singing in a church choir. His father gave him a trumpet at the age of 13. He enlisted into the United States Army at 16 and joined the 298th Army Band in Berlin.   While stationed in Germany, he listened to the V-Discs of Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton

Chet Baker in the 298th

After leaving the Army in 1948, he studied music theory and harmony at El Camino College in Los Angeles while playing in local jazz clubs. He dropped out of school during his second year to re-enlist and joined the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco. He was discharged from the Army in 1951 and pursued a music career.

Gerry Mulligan

In 1952, Baker joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Rather than playing identical melody lines in unison, Baker and Mulligan complemented each other with counterpoint, 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. 

Chet Baker Sings

Baker signed to Pacific Jazz, and in 1954, he released the album Chet Baker Sings, which featured his definitive vocal take of "My Funny Valentine." From then on, it was his signature song. By the end of the decade, he topped both the Downbeat and Metronome Magazine readers' polls, beating out two of the era's most renowned trumpeters, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. He was also named DownBeat top jazz vocalist in 1954. 

Prince of Cool

Baker was photographed by William Claxton for his book Young Chet: The Young Chet Baker. It chronicles Chet Baker's glorious early years, from 1952 to 1957, when he was sting called the "James Dean of Jazz." Baker's unique combination of musical talent, striking looks, and rebellious charm contributed to his widespread popularity and cemented his status as a teen idol.

Chet Baker playing piano, Hollywood, 1954

Chet Baker Acts

Hollywood came calling, and he made his acting debut in the film Hell's Horizon in 1955. However, he declined an offer of a studio contract and toured Europe from September 1955 to April 1956. Fashion photographer Bruce Weber directed an Academy Award-nominated 1988 documentary about Baker, Let's Get Lost.

Baker had become addicted to heroin in the 1950s and struggled with the issue throughout his life. His substance abuse led to numerous legal issues, disrupted performances, and strained relationships. Despite multiple attempts at rehabilitation, his struggles with substance abuse contributed to his premature death at the age of 58. 

My Funny Valentine

In the 1999 film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Matt Damon plays a master of mimicry who imitates Baker's recording of "My Funny Valentine" from Chet Baker Sings. In 2015, Chet Baker's version of "My Funny Valentine" with the Gerry Mulligan quartet was inducted into the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry.  


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