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Submitted by Nicky Smith
(1 March 1921 - 7 December 1999)
The Guardian: 9th December 1999
His career took in big bands, variety, broadcasting, small group jazz - and playing trumpet for Kay Kendall in a famous film
The British trumpeter Kenny Baker, who has died aged 78, was, throughout his long career, the sort of musician who thrived in the demanding - but lucrative - pre-Beatles world of session music, turning up to play whatever was required of him. He was also lead trumpeter with Ted Heath's pioneering big band in 1945, going on to form his own Baker's Dozen, which featured in a long-running radio series.
Jack Parnell, musical director at ATV in the 1960s, once said of Baker: "If I haven't got Kenny in the studio, I know I haven't got a band." He was paying tribute to Baker's prowess as a lead trumpeter, a soloist, and above all to his inspirational professionalism. Anyone who hired Baker could be assured that he would give of his best, whatever the circumstances. Baker's career encompassed everything from big band, variety and television appearances, through to small band jazz, and the dubbing of the trumpet part for actress Kay Kendall in the 1954 British hit film, Genevieve. It all began in East Yorkshire, where his parents were musicians; at his mother's instigation, Baker tried piano, violin, saxophone and accordion before settling for cornet at the age of 14.
Within a year, he had be come proficient enough to make his first broadcast, turning professional on tour with the comedian Sandy Powell. When the troupe reached London, Baker went down to Archer Street (then an informal labour exchange for musicians) and was soon engaged to play the Streatham Locarno. A period with Lew Stone followed and, with the onset of the war, Baker began to deputise for musicians missing from other bands, until he was hired by Ambrose, the top bandleader of the day. The young trumpeter was featured on Ambrose's recordings and was soon in demand for freelance gigs around town. He elected to join the RAF in 1942, playing in the Fighter Command band while managing to make it to the West End most nights. This brought him into contact with visiting American jazz stars. He appeared in special jazz concerts, played informal sessions at the Nuthouse Club, and consolidated his reputation as an all-rounder on records with George Shearing and Buddy Featherstonehaugh.
Baker was also able to hone his skills as an arranger. When trombonist Ted Heath formed his big band in May 1945, he wanted to match the standards of the best American outfits, and hand-picked his team accordingly. Baker was among the first musicians to be contracted. His composition Bakerloo Non-Stop was a popular feature at Heath concerts and the trumpeter was always highlighted as a star soloist, playing out front in a "band within the band" billed as the Kenny Baker Swing Group, with Jack Parnell on drums. When he chose to leave Heath in 1948, it was to form his own touring jazz unit, which at one time included the 16-year-old saxophonist Tubby Hayes. Baker was greatly encouraged when he was approached by Pat Dixon of the BBC to put together his Baker's Dozen for a series of late evening broadcasts. The first session was aired in April 1952, and the show soon took off, running through until December 1958. Listeners liked the show's relaxed after-hours mood, aided by compere Wilfred Thomas's laid-back style, and the star musicians used by Baker responded with alacrity to the chance to play uninhibited swing-style jazz.
In an era when a trumpeter like Eddie Calvert could make it into the pop charts, it was no surprise that Baker's skills brought him wider prominence, starting in 1955 when he appeared at Blackpool with the up-and-coming comic pair of Morecambe and Wise. This led to numerous variety bookings, with TV shows and film appearances.
He worked on the Muppets with Dizzy Gillespie, played the soundtrack for Alan Plater's Beiderbecke Tapes television series, found time to back all the great vocal stars of the day, and toured extensively with the Best Of British jazz combo and his re-formed Dozen.
Whenever the Heath band was revived or trombonist Don Lusher formed a big band, Baker was there, his endurance, range and instrumental brilliance as remarkable in his later years as they had been in the 40s. He won awards by the sackful, endeared himself to fans and friends with his vigour and can-do personality, and stood supreme among British jazz trumpeters. Kenny Baker is survived by his third wife, Sue, and their daughter, Julie. © Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999
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