Chet Baker was a primary exponent of the West Coast school of cool jazz in the early and mid-'50s. As a trumpeter, he had a generally restrained, intimate playing style and he attracted attention beyond jazz for his photogenic looks and singing. But his career was marred by drug addiction. Baker initially played in Vido Musso's band, then with Stan Getz. His break came quickly when, in the spring of 1952, he was chosen at an audition to play a series of West Coast dates with Charlie Parker, making his debut with the famed saxophonist at the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles on May 29, 1952. That summer, he began playing in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, a group featuring only trombone, trumpet, bass, and drums — no piano — that attracted attention through recordings on newly formed Pacific Jazz Records, beginning with the 10" LP Gerry Mulligan Quartet, which featured Baker's famous rendition of "My Funny Valentine." The Gerry Mulligan Quartet lasted for less than a year.
Baker went solo in 1953, forming his own quartet, which initially featured Russ Freeman on piano, Red Mitchell on bass, and Bobby White on drums, and making his first recording as leader for Pacific Jazz. Baker was hailed by fans and critics in the next few years. In 1954, Pacific Jazz released Chet Baker Sings, an album that increased his popularity but alienated traditional jazz fans; he would continue to sing for the rest of his career. Acknowledging his chiseled good looks, nearby Hollywood came calling and he made his acting debut in the film Hell's Horizon, released in the fall of 1955. He then formed a quintet that featured saxophonist Phil Urso and pianist Bobby Timmons. Contrary to his reputation for relaxed, laid-back playing, Baker turned to more of a bop style with this group, which recorded the album Chet Baker & Crew for Pacific Jazz in July 1956. Baker had become addicted to heroin in the 1950s and had been incarcerated briefly on several occasions, but his drug habit only began to interfere with his career significantly in the 1960s. Baker's addiction caused him to lead a disorganized and peripatetic life, his constant need for cash requiring him to accept many ill-advised recording offers, while his undependability prevented him from making long-term commitments to record labels. As a result, his discography is extensive and wildly uneven.~ William Ruhlmann