Chesney Henry "Chet" Baker Jr. was raised in a musical household in Oklahoma (his father was a guitar player), and coming of age in Southern California during the bebop era of jazz, Baker found success as a trumpet player in 1951 when he was chosen by Charlie Parker to play with him for a series of West Coast engagements.
In 1952, Baker joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, which was an instant phenomenon. Baker became famous on the strength of his solo on their recording of "My Funny Valentine" a piece he was later said to "own". The Quartet, however, lasted less than a year because of Mulligan's arrest on drug charges.
In 1954, Baker won the Downbeat Jazz Poll, beating Miles Davis among others. Over the next few years, Baker fronted his own combo, playing trumpet and singing. He became an icon of the west coast "cool school" of jazz, helped by his good looks and singing talent. By the early 1960s, Baker had begun playing the fluegelhorn, as well.
Then, drug addiction caught up with Baker, and his promising musical career declined as a result. Heroin addiction created a myriad of legal problems for him as well; he served more than a year in prison in Italy, and was later expelled from both West Germany and England for drug-related offenses. Baker was eventually deported from West Germany to the United States after running afoul of the law there a second time. He settled in Milpitas in northern California where he was active in San Jose and San Francisco between short jail terms served for writing his own prescriptions.
In 1966, Baker allegedly was severely beaten while attempting to buy drugs after a gig in San Francisco, sustaining severe cuts on the lips and broken front teeth, thus ruining his embouchure. Accounts of the incident vary, largely because of his lack of reliable testimony on the matter. From that time he had to learn to play with dentures, a difficult process for a brass player.
Between 1966 and 1974, Baker mostly played flugelhorn, with its wider mouthpiece, and recorded what must be considered slick mood music. He eventually moved to New York City and began recording again in earnest with other well known jazz musicians such as Jim Hall. Later in the seventies, Baker returned to Europe where he was assisted by his friend Diane Vavra who took care of his personal needs and otherwise helped him during his recording and performance dates.