Chet Baker beguiled millions of fans with his unique and vulnerable vocal quality. However, although he produced such tender music, he was also an unpredictable rake. Plagued by addiction and horrifying life choices, Chet was the most reckless bad boy in the business. Let’s unlock the door and explore these cagey facts about jazz music’s not-so-funny valentine.
1. He Had Musical Genes
Yale, Oklahoma in 1929 was the setting of Chet Baker’s birth. His father and mother were both musicians—guitar and piano respectively. Life was sweet for young Chet until the depression blindsided his family in the worst way possible. The dire financial situation left the family broke, and it forced his father to do something desperate.
2. His Life Changed Forever
Baker’s father ditched his guitar, picked up the family, and moved west in search of a “real” job. The family settled in Glendale, California, hoping for a better life. It was here that Chet’s life changed forever. His father gave him a very special gift: a trombone from a pawn shop. But the second he held the instrument for the first time, he made a disheartening discovery.
3. He Met His Match
The trombone was not Chet’s instrument; it didn’t fit right in his hand and seemed too big for his scrawny body. He convinced his father to exchange his trombone for something more manageable: a trumpet. Chet soon fell head over heels in love with his new instrument. Moreover, his effortless playing shocked his friends. He and his trumpet were a match made in heaven; it was like they were made for each other.
Life should’ve progressed just as effortlessly, except a little skirmish called WWII got in the way.
4. He Was A Fighter
Chet volunteered to serve his country—not once, but twice. His first posting was in Berlin followed by one in San Francisco. Surprisingly, it was the latter post that had the more profound effect. You see, a major jazz movement was happening in San Francisco, and Baker was able to hang out in jazz clubs like Bop City and Black Hawk.
This early life brush with the jazz world steered Chet Baker in a career-defining direction.
5. He Got Chosen
In 1951, Chet left the army and, instead, fought for a career in music. In reality, it wasn’t much of a fight. Chet was soon performing with jazz legend Stan Getz. Later, he hit the absolute mother lode when another legend flew in and handpicked him. This was Charlie Parker—also known as Bird—and the offer was a high-profile set of gigs on the west coast.
Playing alongside the legends of jazz meant Chet’s future couldn’t have been brighter. Unfortunately, there were some very dark clouds forming.
6. He Had A Dark Side
Chet eventually hooked up with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and the two started playing together. Besides the music, Baker and Mulligan had another, more nefarious, interest—excessive drug use. In 1953, Chet and Mulligan had to stop playing together for a terrible reason: Mulligan was sent to prison for substance use. He spent six months behind bars, leaving Chet without a partner. So what did Chet do?
Well, he cleaned up his act—but not in the way you might expect.
7. He Got A Makeover
During his good friend’s incarceration, Chet worked on himself. But he didn’t choose to get clean. Instead, he worked on his music. He changed his trumpet style and worked on his voice as well. Chet also became more aware of his good looks and planned to use them to the benefit of his career. Over the next six months, he transformed himself into a jazz superstar. But that wasn’t all.
When Mulligan got out of prison, Chet dealt him a brutal betrayal.
8. He Betrayed His Friend
Fresh out of the slammer, Mulligan sought out Chet so that they could start performing again. But when Mulligan finally caught up with the snazzy trumpet player, he did not get the response he wanted or expected. Chet gave Mulligan a hard pass on picking up where they left off. Chet was now an independent musician, and he wanted it to stay that way.
9. He Hit The Top
Chet Baker spent the next few years doing what he loved: playing music and releasing records. He also formed his own quartet without Mulligan. This jazz star was on fire. In 1953, readers’ polls from Metronome and Downbeat magazines proclaimed Chet Baker the number one jazz vocalist, which put him ahead of Miles Davis. Chet was quickly becoming stiff competition—and as he catapulted to stardom, his popularity began to rub other musicians the wrong way.
10. He Was Irresistible
In 1954, legendary jazz club Birdland, booked Chet Baker to open for Miles Davis. By this time, news of the trumpet player’s good looks had spread to people outside the jazz world. This could explain why young women, not usually interested in jazz music, flooded Birdland just to get a glimpse of Chet’s chiseled features. Because of the screaming fans, club promoters moved him up to headliner, and Davis…well, Davis became the opening number.
Chet was clearly a hit with the ladies, and he was just getting started.
11. He Had A Pretend Wife
In the spring of 1954, Chet Baker started an affair with Liliane Cukier—a beautiful French actress. As a joke, Chet loved to introduce Cukier as his wife. There was just one glaring problem: Baker was already married. A few years previous to this, Baker had married Charlaine Souder. In fact, on one memorable occasion, Souder happened to run into Chet and his mistress while they were playing tonsil hockey in a New York Club.
When Souder caught her cheating husband red-handed, she did something legendary.
12. She Wanted Revenge
When Chet Baker’s wife caught him with Cukier—she saw red. Her anger only intensified as she made her way back to the hotel room she shared with her husband. With vengeance in her heart, Souder grabbed Chet’s pistol and made her way back to the club. When she returned, Chet wasn’t with Cukier, he was on stage. But that didn’t stop Souder.
13. He Was The Target
While Chet crooned away for the crowd, his unhinged wife was busy waving around a deadly firearm like a maniac. First, she pointed it at the other woman—Cukier—but then reconsidered. Who she really wanted in the crosshairs was the cheating Chet Baker himself—and so, she did the unthinkable…Souder rushed the stage. She took aim at Baker and hoped for sweet revenge.
14. His Wife Almost Ended Him
Before Souder could open fire, documentary filmmaker Aram Avakian—who happened to be standing by—stepped between her and Chet. Miraculously, this averted a real disaster. It was clear that Baker had to get away from his lethally jealous wife, so he headed to the west coast for safety. Like a true scoundrel, he took Cukier with him. But, as we’ll soon see, getting lost was Chet’s solution to everything.
15. He Got Lost
One of Chet Baker’s standard vocal tunes was “Let’s Get Lost.” The song’s lyrics referred to someone getting lost in a new romantic relationship. When Chet—with his close association with drug use—started singing it, “getting lost” took on a new meaning. His scandalous reputation was becoming solidified. Chet was a bad boy and didn’t care what the public thought.
So what happens when good-looking bad boys become popular? Well, no one loves a bad boy more than Hollywood.
16. He Hit The Big Screen
As Baker’s popularity soared, Hollywood took notice. It wasn’t just his talent as a musician, it was something else: his brooding good looks and bad boy attitude. Baker’s first film was 1955’s Hell’s Horizon, which sadly, didn’t make much of an impression. While the movie quietly shriveled away, Hollywood didn’t. Before long, Chet was staring down the barrel of a studio contract. However, his reaction to the offer was a bit of a shocker.
17. He Preferred The Road
Chet Baker took one look at the Hollywood contract and imagined his life as a movie star. It was something countless young hopefuls dreamed of getting, but few received. He then thought about his life on the road as a musician: lousy hotel rooms and dark smokey bars. It seemed like a no-brainer, but Baker made a surprising decision. He said no to Hollywood and yes to life on the road as a jazz musician.
Chet jetted away from California. His next stop was Europe, and, of course, there was more trouble waiting for him there.
18. He Took His Bad Habits With Him
After throwing the contract back in Hollywood’s face, Chet headed to Europe where he continued to wow audiences. Sadly, he did something else that he excelled at too—using narcotics. During the European tour, most members of the band were heavily using and yet somehow they were still managing to get to their gigs and perform. Until one night, one of them didn’t show up.
19. He Lost A Key Player
When Dick Twardzik—the band’s pianist—didn’t show up for a recording session, the only sober member of the band called the hotel to check on him. Receiving no answer, he asked the hotel manager to check on the usually reliable pianist. When the manager went into the hotel room, he came upon a gruesome scene. The 24-year-old musician had passed—a needle still in his arm.
Shaken-up by the tragedy and still grieving, Chet Baker was suddenly desperate to get back to the US and turn his life around. However, fate had a cruel twist in store for him.
20. He Refused To Change
Chet wanted to return to the States, but his idea of turning his life around fell completely flat. In no time at all, he began using again, and worse yet, got caught doing it. But as Chet’s addictions began to spiral, he also stumbled across a brand new distraction. He met an intriguing woman named Halema Alli, who his friends described as young and naive.
When it came to Chet Baker, poor Halema had no idea what she was getting herself into.
21. He Blamed Her
Chet and Halema had a son shortly after getting married. Reportedly, Chet was not thrilled about the new baby. Not only was he uninterested in being a father, but he also seemed to think that his son wasn’t quite right in the head. Chet didn’t hold back, brutally blaming his wife’s genes for the son he wasn’t happy with. His marriage was off to a rough start—but it was only going to get worse.
22. She Left Him
Chet Baker’s drug use increased and his ability to play jazz went the other way. Halema took one long look at the life she was leading and said goodbye to Chet, taking her son with her. In the midst of his familial strife, Chet continued to get into trouble with the law. Authorities took him in not once, but twice, within a couple of days.
Faced with time behind bars, the troubled star made a drastic decision.
23. He Had An Eye-Opening Experience
Another stint behind bars was something Chet just couldn’t face, so he did something surprising: He checked himself into rehab. He headed straight for the US Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington Kentucky, and once he got there, Chet Baker experienced the shock of a lifetime: The clinic teemed with jazz musicians in the same dreadful situation as he was.
It was an eye-opening moment—but it wasn’t enough to turn Chet’s life around.
24. Straight Wasn’t An Option
Chet Baker’s post-rehab life was, sadly, neither straight nor narrow. Within days of his release, he began using again. To pay for his addiction he moved in with a sex worker named Pixie and her boyfriend. Chet was officially at his lowest—and sadly, he used the couple for their money as long as he could. That’s when a miracle happened: Someone actually wanted to pay him to make music.
25. They Took A Chance On Him
Somehow, Chet Baker got Riverside Records to sign him for a five record deal. Maybe they hadn’t heard about his complete chemical dependency, or maybe they just didn’t care. Chet often showed up for the recording sessions stoned and barely able to play. If that wasn’t bad enough, Baker went one step further.
26. He Broke In
Riverside Records was doing Baker a big favor by signing him on, and what did Baker do in return? Not only did he play badly, but he also broke into the studio at night for a horrifying reason: He robbed the studio to pay for his habit. Chet took equipment and even checks that he tried to cash with a forged signature. This new behavior just gave authorities another reason to bring him down to the station.
27. He Faced A Terrifying Punishment
Authorities were making a sport out of taking Chet into custody. When he hit the magic number of 10 arrests, however, the game got real. A judge decided to teach him a lesson and sent him to a very dangerous place: the notorious Rikers Island Prison. Chet faced six months in the infamous prison, and, worst still, he was going to have to do the time stone-cold sober.
28. He Didn’t Learn
After a brutal six months at Rikers Island, Chet took his first steps of freedom. He’d survived his time and was ready for…well, let’s be honest, he went right back to his old self. Basically, the guy just wanted to carry on playing music and getting high. Unfortunately, due to his bad behavior, Baker had a permanent ban: He couldn’t play in any New York nightclubs.
Baker gathered up his family and headed back to somewhere that still appreciated his bad-boy persona—Europe.
29. His Addictions Spiraled
Chet ended up in Italy, where he continued to behave in a troubling way. But despite his many relapses, he decided to try a different kind of solution—Palfium 875. This was a drug used for treating opiate addicts and, sadly, was equally as addictive. When Baker had used all his prescribed doses of Palfium he did something awful: He sent his wife to Germany to get more.
Poor Halema had no idea she was smuggling a banned substance over an international border.
30. He Went Into A Coma
By 1960, Chet realized he couldn’t continue down such a dark and dangerous path. After trying rehab and medication, he was ready to try a new avenue—and he was willing to take a huge risk. Apparently, there was a doctor in Milan who would put you in a coma so deep that you could go cold turkey without experiencing any side effects. The scary part? The coma had to last a week.
31. He Wasn’t Cured
Chet survived the coma, but the result of the experiment wasn’t at all what the doctor ordered. Chet immediately started using again and, for a little extra fun, decided he was no longer a husband or father. To his wife’s dismay, he hooked up with someone new. His new love was showgirl Carol Jackson, who Chet fancied for a rather shallow reason: She looked like Elizabeth Taylor.
It’s surprising that the musician had time for romance, because he was also busy doing something else: locating 200 doses of Palfium every single day.
32. They Broke Down The Door
While in Italy, Chet had an infamous public washroom scandal. Newspapers reported that Baker had gone into a public washroom at an Italian gas station and refused to come out. The paper said that after 35 minutes, officers had to break into the washroom—and, once inside, they made a disturbing discovery. There was the infamous Chet Baker—unconscious and covered in blood.
However, Chet strongly disagreed with how the papers reported the incident. He had a very different story to tell…
33. One Story, Two Versions
According to Chet, on the day of the washroom scandal, he was in treatment for his addiction and a doctor had given him medication that he had to inject himself with. He stopped at the gas station on the way to a recording session because it was time to take his medicine. Chet explained that he’d struggled with giving himself an injection and was bleeding—but only slightly.
Publicity like this—true or false—was about to catch up with him in the worst way possible.
34. They Called Them Vipers
The law eventually caught up with Chet, but this time, it was even worse: They put his wife behind bars as well. Halema and Chet both spent months behind bars as prosecutors built their case against them. The media had a field day and eventually gave the trial a nickname: “the trial of the vipers.” The public had sympathy for Halema, but not so much for Chet.
After months in prison, the judge came out with his verdict.
35. He Got A Stiff Penalty
Much like public opinion, the judge took pity on Chet’s wife and set her free. But when he turned to Chet Baker, his kindness was all used up. The jazz musician received a much stiffer sentence in Italy than he ever had in America: 17 months in an institution described as medieval. Once again, Chet would have to go cold turkey.
36. He Gave Free Shows
Chet quickly settled into his life in prison. Guards showed him some kindness and let him have his trumpet. To pass the lonely nights, he played every night in his cell. After a while, a curious thing started happening. Local residents got in the habit of standing outside the prison in the moonlight and enjoying a free concert by the international celebrity: Chet Baker.
37. They Shut Him Out
After this long stint, Chet decided to go in another direction—he traveled to Germany. While in Munich, he landed a gig. The concert went off without a hitch, but he was eager to get back to Italy. He’d somehow managed to sign a contract with RCA Italiana and he was itching to start work. On his way home from Germany, he arrived at the border between Italy and Germany.
It seems the border guards were aware of Chet’s reputation. They made a severe judgment call—and refused to let him into Italy.
38. He Lost A Bundle
Because he couldn’t get back into Italy, Chet Baker lost his recording contract and, according to him, about three million lire. He now needed to find a country that would let him in. He stayed in Paris for a few months until he got an interesting offer: a movie role. Chet had given a career in the movies a firm no, but there was something about this film that piqued his interest—or was it someone?
39. He Played Himself
Chet Baker’s second film offer was 1963’s Stolen Hours. One of the draws for him was working alongside multiple Academy Award nominee Susan Hayward. Another great draw was how little energy the role would take. After all, he only had to play himself. It was easy money for Chet, and he certainly needed it. However, all this bouncing around from country to country cost him a fortune.
And speaking of bouncing around…
40. They Lost Their Patience
After making the movie, Chet Baker returned to his wily ways. The authorities in England wanted him out, and he was unceremoniously shown the door—which led him back to Germany. In Berlin, he played just one night at the Blue Note and—surprise surprise—got into trouble again. The Germans were a little more sympathetic to Baker’s addiction and put him up in the hospital, where he spent a whopping 40 days.
Once treatment was over, German authorities lost their patience. They didn’t just kick him out of their country, they kicked him out of Europe.
41. He Left Him In Paris
Somewhere along the way, Chet Baker managed to divorce Halema and marry the Elizabeth Taylor look-alike, Carol Jackson. The relationship with Jackson seemed more serious, and the two had three children together. But sadly, there was no happily ever after for Chet Baker: Life continued to throw him the most outrageous curveballs.
42. He Ran For His Life
A happy marriage didn’t do much to settle Chet down. In 1966, he left a Sausalito restaurant and immediately noticed that some suspicious characters followed close on his heels. Many believe that these men were after money the musician owed them. Chet decided to book it and the group of men started chasing him. Horrified, he searched for a safe place to hide.
Chet found an unlocked car parked at the side of the road and dove right in. However, there was only one problem—the owner was still in the car.
43. He Was Terrified
Chet tried to hunker down in the car while the group of angry men circled around it. The owner of the car wanted nothing to do with Chet—or his beef with this mob of hooligans—so he kicked the desperate musician out of the vehicle. Forced back into the street, Chet faced down one of the most terrifying moments of his life.
44. They Didn’t Hold Back
The group of men had only become angrier, and they let Chet Baker have it with full force. When the dust settled, he was in the roughest shape imaginable. Beyond the cuts and bruises, there was something worse, much worse…His front teeth were gone—either punched out or pulled out, no one knows for sure. And the most horrifying part of all? Without his front teeth, playing the trumpet was impossible.
Chet Baker had finally done it: He’d ruined his career.
45. He Fell Hard
Chet had finally lost everything. He was broke and had no choice but to get a regular job. Believe it or not, Chet Baker—jazz musician extraordinaire—took employment as a gas jockey at the local station. To make matters worse, he and his family had to move in with his mother. It must have been an eye-opening experience because a few months into it, Chet Baker couldn’t take it any longer. He got dentures and retrained his mouth to play the trumpet.
46. He Found A Cure
In the 1970s, Chet Baker signed on for treatment using a wonder drug: methadone. With his addictions more or less under control, he continued to record and perform. The late 70s and early 80s saw the musician mostly touring Europe. Something had changed though: Chet Baker couldn’t manage by himself and required an assistant. He hired his good friend Diane Vavra.
47. He Met A Man In A Bar
In 1986, Chet was at a club in New York City and began talking to a young fan. The young man said he’d been a fan of his since he’d seen his handsome face on a record cover back in the 1960s. The fan asked Chet for a photoshoot. Quite likely Baker had no idea how to take this offer. Well, it turned out that the young fan was none other than celebrity fashion photographer Bruce Weber—famous for taking pictures of men in their underwear. Chet Baker took a chance.
He said yes, and it gave his career a much-needed reboot.
48. He Went On A Little Long
Weber didn’t just want to take Chet Baker’s picture, he wanted something more: to make a film about the musician’s wild life. The film was only supposed to be about three minutes long, but, in the end, it clocked in at two hours. If Baker wanted to talk, they talked. If Baker wanted to play music, the film was put on hold and Baker did that. Weber took a big risk and invested a million dollars of his own money, and what did he get in the end? An Academy Award-nominated documentary.
Sadly, no amount of recognition could save the doomed musician from his tragic fate.
49. He Got Locked Out
Sometime in the night—on May 13, 1988—an intoxicated Chet Baker found himself locked out of his Amsterdam hotel room. He probably wasn’t thinking straight when he decided to scale his neighbor’s balcony in an attempt to get back to his own room. He was only on the second floor. What could possibly go wrong?
50. He Slipped
Even for a sober person, the journey from one balcony to another would have been difficult—but for Chet, it was insanely treacherous. While taking a step toward his balcony, Chet slipped and fell the two stories to the sidewalk below. It was a fatal plunge: He suffered serious head injuries and died. This unexpected tragedy occurred only months before the release of Let’s Get Lost, Weber’s film about Chet Baker’s life. Sadly, only 35 people attended his funeral.
51. He May Not Have Fallen
The story about how Chet Baker managed to fall from his hotel room has become a subject of speculation. One camp has decided that Chet jumped to end his life, while another is quite a bit darker. It seems that some pundits believe that his fall was the result of a ruthless murder—that he’d been pushed out of the hotel room window by dealers.
We may never know what happened that fateful night, but if there’s one thing that’s well documented, it’s Chet Baker’s tragic fall from grace.