Born Chesney Henry Baker Jr. on 23 December 1929 in Yale, Oklahoma, Chet Baker was the son of Vera Baker and Chesney H. Baker Sr. The family moved to California in 1939. A couple of years later, around the time that the US entered World War II, young Chet began playing the horn. Initially his father had given him a trombone, but it was too big for the boy so it was replaced with a trumpet. He listened to trumpet players on the radio, learning by ear to play like them, but he also played with his high school band. His music teacher is said to have told Baker he would never make it professionally.
Baker joined the US army in 1946 and was sent to Berlin, Germany, where he performed in a military band. While in the army he listened to jazz on the Armed Forces Radio Network and later said that his playing was transformed at that time by listening to trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. When Baker returned to civilian life he briefly attended El Camino College in California. He married Charlaine in 1950, but the marriage ended without producing any children. In 1952 he auditioned for jazz legend Charlie Parker in Los Angeles and played in his band for a while. Later that same year he joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and quickly became a star.
Soon he was leading his own group. He recorded a great deal during the 1950s, often singing in a seductive voice that complemented his good looks, as well as blowing the trumpet. He appeared in a low-budget war movie entitled Hell's Horizon in 1955. Many believe that, if not for his drug habit and its concomitant legal problems, he might have become a movie star. As it was, he only appeared in a few films, including a couple in Italy.
In 1956 he married Halema, a beautiful Pakistani woman who appears in some of the famous photographs of Baker taken by William Claxton. They had a son, Chesney Aftab Baker, in 1957 ('Aftab' is more or less equivalent to 'Junior' in Halema's homeland). In 1959 Baker went off to play a gig and left Halema and Chesney Aftab with American sculptor Peter Broome in Paris. The marriage may have continued for a while afterward, but Broome seems to have taken over parenting Chesney Aftab, who goes by the surname 'Broome'.
Baker met an English actress, Carol Baker, in Italy around 1961. Married in 1964 and (although separated during the 1970s) never divorced, they had two sons and a daughter, Dean Baker, Paul Baker and Melissa (aka Missy Baker). In later years Baker was involved with a number of women, the longest-lasting probably being Diane Vavra and singer Ruth Young.
Baker's personal life often overshadowed his professional one. He was extremely talented but self-involved, needy and manipulative. His drug addiction ruined his reputation in the US but earned him a degree of sympathy among many Europeans. This sympathy was not shared, however, by law-enforcement authorities in Europe, and he was banned from several countries during the 1960s, only being allowed to return in the late 1970s.
The greatest crisis, among so many, in his life was a physical assault by hoodlums in the late 1960s that destroyed his teeth. After years of struggling to learn to blow the horn with dentures, Baker was finally able to play on the same bill with his old colleague, Gerry Mulligan, in 1974.