English trumpet star
© 1999 Kenny Mathieson The Scotsman, 1999
Kenny Baker was
one of a handful of British jazz stars of the traditional and Swing era
seemed to offer
genuinely international jazz credentials. Much of his career was spent
in contexts which
did not allow him to exercise those credentials in sufficiently challenging
he was always a consummate professional, and was valued for his ability
anchor a band
as an outstanding lead trumpet as well as for the fireworks he could produce
His best known
association was with the Ted Heath Band immediately after the war, where
-- the most famous was Bakerloo Non-Stop -- lit up what could be a rather
staid band in
jazz terms. His technical command of the horn was complete, and his adaptability
allowed him to
forge a lucrative career as a studio musician and on television, as well
in contexts ranging
from variety shows to jazz blowing sessions.
was born into a musical family. His father played saxophone and clarinet,
he began his
own musical journey as a child on his mother's instrument, piano, before
accordion and tenor horn in turn. He finally settled on cornet (and
trumpet and flugelhorn) at the age of 14, and received valuable training
band tradition, initially with a local mission band, and then the West
He performed with
Manley's Orchestra, a dance band in Hull, while still in his mid-teens.
when he went on tour with comedian Sandy Powell, and played a summer
season at Teignmouth
with drummer Les Watson in 1939. He rejoined Powell for another
tour, but quit
when they reached London to join the throng of musicians who gathered daily
Street at that time, where the band bookers would seek out players for
halls and tours.
His first engagement
was a week at the Streatham Locarno, after which he joined band leader
Lew Stone in
a revue at the Palace Theatre. A number of opportunities began to open
off to the armed forces, and he worked with a sequence of band leaders
Ambrose, whose orchestra was the leading dance band of the day. He made
his first recordings
with the band.
He joined the
RAF in 1942, where he played in the Fighter Command Band, and frequented
the West End
clubs where visiting American jazz musicians could be found. His reputation
was now well established, both in jam sessions and on record, and he was
into a skilled arranger.
Ted Heath recruited
Baker on his demobilisation in 1945 for his new band. As well as lending
his skills to
Heath's well-honed overall band sound as lead trumpet, Baker was prominently
featured as a
soloist, both in the full band and in the so-called "band within a band"
performed a cameo
within the show as the Kenny Baker Swing Group.
remained with Heath until 1948, helping to establish the trombonist at
British dance bands. When he left the band, he began a pattern that would
of his career, alternating leading his own groups with spells with other
carrying on a busy studio session career, playing whatever was required
His standing in
the public eye was elevated even further when he was invited by the BBC
a band for what became a popular radio show, Let's Settle For Music , which
in April, 1952, and ran until the end of 1958. The band, Baker's Dozen,
allowed him to
practice his arranging as well as playing skills, but his jazz abilities
served on record
by the smaller offshoot of that band, Baker's Half Dozen.
a celebrated hot trumpet solo for actress Kay Kendall to mime in the film
1954, and continued his career in variety with the then up-and-coming comedy
team of Morecambe
and Wise in Blackpool in 1955. This led to further variety bookings, and
in turn to television
and film appearances, but he continued to play in jazz clubs whenever his
full schedule permitted.
He remained a
busy freelance throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including renewing his
a famous colleague from the Heath band, drummer Jack Parnell, who was
at ATV in the early 1960s, and who considered Baker to be a crucial
any band he was putting together, whether for studio or concert work.
He also worked
regularly with another Heath alumni, trombonist Don Lusher, both in the
of British Jazz
touring band, and in the 'ghost' band under Lusher's leadership which bore
name of the Ted
Heath Orchestra. He revived his own Baker's Dozen concept in 1993, and
toured and performed
throughout the decade, maintaining a high standard until the end.
He played cornet
on the soundtrack to Alan Plater's television drama The Beiderbecke Affair
, and was featured
alongside Dizzy Gillespie in an episode of The Muppets . He performed in
settings with a number of notable American jazz musicians in his career,
Goodman and Gerry Mulligan. In 1989-90, he remade all of Louis
recordings (with Armstrong's original vocals dubbed in) for a massive
released as The Louis Armstrong Connection .
That mammoth undertaking
was an ironic echo of the days when Baker was held up as an
exemplar by the
Musician's Union in the interest's of enforcing their ban on American musicians
playing in the
UK in the 1950s -- who needs Armstrong, they asked, when we have Baker?
may have been misguided, but it is indicative of the trumpeter's standing,
of fellow trumpeter Digby Fairweather's confident assertion that Baker
lead trumpeter, solo performer and improviser".
He is survived
by his third wife, Sue, and their daughter, Julie.