How Chet Baker defied the odds to become a jazz great: “Nobody can play with false teeth”

Chet Baker

It’s hard to pick a genre that can be considered the most ‘important’ given that all music is deeply rooted in expressionism. Therefore, any form of music with which someone feels they can effectively express themselves is incredibly consequential. However, if all modern music were to be traced back to its roots, it would be hard to find a sound that doesn’t have jazz in its foundation. The importance of the genre is only matched by the significance of those who both founded and developed it, one of whom was Chet Baker, a man who truly defied the odds in perfecting his craft.

Baker never had an easy life. Music was a constant in what was a world of inconsistency. He struggled with a decades-long drug addiction that began in the 1950s, he had an incredibly nomadic lifestyle as a result of touring, and he struggled to truly settle as a result. For context, he once referred to his life being “1/3 in a car, 1/3 sleeping, and 1/3 playing music”.

It was this lifestyle which led to one of his most significant setbacks. The story goes that in 1966, Baker had his top teeth knocked out after he was jumped by a group of thugs. Apparently, he got into a dispute over money with drug dealers, which led to them beating him up badly.

“The first real set back was in San Francisco when I got jumped by those five guys,” he said During an interview at Ronnie Scott’s. “I lost all my upper teeth and I had to stop playing.” Baker was always determined to play music and was making a considerable name for himself as a jazz legend at the time, too. So, despite such a massive setback, which would have seen a number of other musicians throw in the towel, he pushed through it.

“I got a plate and I was determined to find a way,” he said, “They told me, you know, nobody can play with false teeth, and er, I didn’t go for that. I knew there must be, must be a way of doing it and I was going to find it. I worked at it for three years, it was three years before I worked professionally before a live audience.”

Through his determination, Baker was able to teach himself how to play the trumpet once again, even with false teeth. He would go on to define himself as one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time and continued to play to sold-out rooms until late into his life.

His final show was on April 28th, 1988, at the Funkhaus Hannover in West Germany. His persistence with music and dedication to his craft meant that he was able to continue to perform to the best of his ability. However, his consistent struggles with drugs overshadowed his life, and he passed away on May 13th, 1988, after falling from his hotel room window. It’s tough to know where music might be today were it not for the influence Chet Baker had on jazz, as he truly beat the odds to solidify himself as one of the very best.

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