Baker, who never learned to read music, got his training in army bands, where he developed a spare and introverted voice on the horn. He toured briefly with Charlie Parker and came to national attention while working with Gerry Mulligan's quartet, establishing an instant personality through the absence of a piano and the intriguing counterpoint between trumpet and baritone sax. An early recording of "My Funny Valentine" by the Mulligan quartet caused a national sensation and made the fragile sound of Baker's horn emblematic of an entire "cool" attitude.
In 1949, when he heard the Miles Davis 78s that would later be collected as “The Birth of the Cool,” Baker “connected with that style so passionately that he felt he had found the light.” That same year he was present at all-night sessions in L.A. to hear Charlie “Bird” Parker, and was shot up with heroin for the first time.
In 1953, Baker began a recording and performing relationship with pianist Russ Freeman that solidified his status as a major jazz star. He soon formed his own group, and for the middle to late 1950s made a series of successful discs that boosted his path to stardom. One key to this success was his singing, which sustained the wistful vulnerability of his trumpet work. His good looks and growing reputation for high living also fed his notoriety, although a growing frequency of drug incidents soon began to overshadow his playing.
His world collapsed in 1960 when he was sentenced to a prison term while on tour in Italy. He returned to the U.S. in 1964, where he made several fine albums with George Coleman and Kirk Lightsey. Then his career seemed permanently ended in 1968, when Baker lost his teeth in an altercation with other junkies in San Francisco. He stopped playing for two years, resurfacing again in New York in 1973, where he renewed his recording career. Although he never became free of the shadow of drugs, he resumed his place among the world's leading jazz trumpeters. Just before he died on May 13, 1988, in Amsterdam, under mysterious circumstances, falling out of a second story window, Baker played himself in a revealing documentary by Bruce Weber, Let's Get Lost. The beginning of an autobiography, As Though I Had Wings, appeared posthumously in 1997.
Photos: Chet Baker and wife Halema Alli by William Claxton, Redondo Beach 1955 - Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Rolf Ericson - Chet Baker