Chet Baker was born Chesney Henry Baker Jr. on December 23, 1929 in Yale, Oklahoma. His father, Chesney Sr. was a guitarist who played in local country and western bands. When Chet was 10, the family moved to Southern California. Chesney Sr., encouraging his son to pursue music, bought Chet a trombone. The 12 year old found it difficult to handle, so he eventually switched to trumpet. He played trumpet through junior high school, and on through college.
In 1946 he was drafted into the Army, and played in the Army band in Berlin. After returning home, Baker continued his music education at El Camino College. In 1952 he won an audition with Charlie Parker, then went on to join Gerry Mulligan's pianoless quartet. The group performed regularly at The Haig in Hollywood. In 1953, Baker formed his own band featuring Russ Freeman on piano. The Chet Baker Quartet toured and recorded with great success. As the decade came to a close, Chet was addicted to heroin and his life was filled with arrests and scandals.
Chet Baker spent most of the sixties in Europe, recording infrequently and getting in to trouble frequently. He made some very notable recordings in the early part of the decade (such as the Prestige recordings from 1965), sometimes switching to flugelhorn. But the late sixties found him recording some dreadful music, and eventually he had given up playing after losing most of his upper teeth. Years of drug use had taken their toll on Chet's teeth, and in July of 1966 he was attacked, and his teeth were damaged further.
In the early 1970's, Chet Baker began to learn how to play with dentures. Beginning in 1974, Chet recorded and toured regularly, mostly in Europe. Despite the effects of age, drugs and false teeth, he actually improved in those later years. Chet's performances in the eighties were unpredictable. Sometimes he would show up and perform the best gig of his career. Sometimes he would show up and perform poorly. Sometimes he wouldn't even show up.
Chet Baker's turbulent life came to a bizarre and tragic end on May 13, 1988 in Amsterdam. Chet fell from the open window of his hotel room, hitting the concrete two stories below.
It can be argued that Chet was at his musical peak when he died in 1988. Indeed some of his best recordings came from 1986 and 1987.