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Obituary: Kenny Baker

Steve Voce
Saturday 11 December 1999 00:02 GMT

"HOW ARE the teeth?" was Kenny Baker's opening to any conversation with Humphrey Lyttelton. It is perhaps to be expected that older trumpet players are most concerned about the shipyard-like metal constructions within their mouths that support one of the most important tools of their trade.

Although he took his trumpet virtuosity for granted, and never had the mien of a "star", Baker was more highly regarded throughout the world than any other British jazz player. He was so well known in the States that, when Harry James died, James's executors asked Baker to come to America to take over the Harry James Band. Although Baker declined, he could have done the job with ease and no doubt with considerably better musical taste than James.

During the Second World War, whilst in the RAF, Baker was seconded to Glenn Miller's Army Air Force Band as a temporary replacement for an American trumpeter. Predictably the work was duck soup to Baker, and he very much enjoyed playing with the American musicians. At the end of his spell with the band, Leading Aircraftsman Baker asked to see Major Glenn Miller. Admitted into the presence, Baker said, "I just wanted to thank you for the chance to play with such a fine band, sir." Miller looked at him coldly. "Stand to attention properly," he said.

Later, Baker was to have happier experiences with American artists when he worked for, among others, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Benny Goodman, Billy May, Barbra Streisand, Nelson Riddle and Burt Bacharach. He was an arranger and trumpeter for a Benny Goodman recording session in London in November 1969 when there was a reversal of the Glenn Miller incident. Goodman, a strict disciplinarian used to getting his way with the infamous steely "BG Ray", told Baker to change the tempo of one of the numbers. Baker refused, stared back, and directed the band to play the piece in his own way. The resultant album, London Date, was the most exquisite of Goodman's later years.

Baker was born at Withernsea, not far from the mouth of the Humber. His father played saxophones and clarinet and his mother was a pianist. As a child, Kenny learned piano, saxophones, violin and accordion. One of his uncles gave him a tenor horn which he also played, and before long switched to cornet. He played in the local Gospel Mission Band and later led his own band in a local hotel. When the family moved to Hull, the 14-year-old Baker took work in a music shop and joined the West Hull Silver Prize Band as solo cornet player.

He and a friend who played accordion and piano formed a duo that played in the local hotels. For his first gig he was paid two half-crowns, one of which his mother gave back to him. He kept it all his life. When he was 15, the duo played in a radio programme from Leeds called Yorkshire Round-Up, and this was the first of his countless broadcasts for the BBC. He was by now drawn to jazz through the recordings of the American giants, but played commercial music to earn his living.

He answered an advertisement to join the comedian Sandy Powell to tour in variety. Eventually he went with Powell to London, where they worked in the West End for two weeks before, with the beginning of the Second World War, the show closed. Baker found work at the Streatham Locarno dance hall and soon joined Lew Stone's band which was backing Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert in a show called Keep It Under Your Hat. He swiftly moved to other bands, including those of Jack Hylton, Geraldo, Maurice Winnick and Ambrose. He became particularly friendly with Bert Ambrose and, although he had long left the band, played on almost all of the records that Ambrose made during the Forties.

When he was 18, Baker had a flat off Leicester Square, but all-night jam sessions at the 400 Club meant that he saw little of it. Such night- clubs were soon to close, and one of the reasons given was that Englishmen in their cups might have given away national secrets to the German spies who were thought to hang around in such places. Baker joined Sid Millward's band to tour with Jack Warner in a show called Garrison Theatre. Baker volunteered for the RAF in 1942 and joined Fighter Command's military band at Hendon. Oddly, the band normally only worked in the morning and Baker, with a living-out pass, was free from midday on to return to his flat and to work in civilian bands in the evenings.

By now there were American service bands in London, and Baker mixed with jazz musicians like Mel Powell, Peanuts Hucko, Ray McKinley and Sam Donahue. Baker also worked in the American Base Command Dance Band in 1943. "I wrote arrangements for them," he told me in a 1993 BBC North broadcast, "and they paid me in tobacco or whatever they could." He and the trombonist Ted Heath were both impressed by the proficiency and discipline of the American musicians, and Heath applied their standards when he formed his own band, Ted Heath and his Music, in May 1945. Heath offered Baker a job and, because he had work to go to, he was released from the RAF.

He became the band's lead trumpeter at 23, staying until December 1948 while the band won large followings in the United States and in Australia as well as in Britain. One of the band's first substantial jobs was to provide the music for the film London Town (1946), which starred Petula Clark and Sid Field and included an appearance by the drummer Jack Parnell. Parnell became a lifelong friend of Baker's.

The band played a famous and long-running series of jazz concerts entitled Sunday Night at the London Palladium and it was for one of these that Baker wrote his composition and feature for his trumpet entitled "Bakerloo Non Stop". This exhilarating piece was recorded and was hugely successful later when the band played at Carnegie Hall in New York. Heath regularly featured a small group from within the band called the Kenny Baker Swing Group.

Eventually Baker felt the need for a new challenge and in 1949 started his own band which included some fine saxophone players - Harry Klein, Jimmy Skidmore, Vic Ash, and eventually the 16-year-old Tubby Hayes. The band's coach was involved in a serious crash on tour in 1951 and there were several injuries, with Baker suffering a fractured right-hand finger. This was a potentially disastrous injury for a trumpet player, but he taught himself to play with the remaining fingers and the tour went on. The band broke up when Baker had to take a long period off playing to deal with a hernia.

He returned to begin the most successful and rewarding series of broadcasts ever undertaken by a British band. The producer of The Goon Show, Pat Dixon, invited Baker to form a band for a series on the BBC Light Programme to be called Let's Settle For Music. The emphasis was to be on musical quality rather than "pop" sounds, and there were to be no vocals. An Australian, Wilfred Thomas, presented the series, and Baker was given a free hand in choosing the musicians, selecting the material and writing the music.

He developed a genius for instant arranging in the studio, and the ink on the sheet music was often still wet when the band went on air. He was able to pick the cream of the country's session musicians as regulars and, although the trombonist George Chisholm was the best-known name, players like Harry Klein, Keith Bird, Keith Christie, Tommy McQuater, Bill McGuffie, Allan Ganley, Phil Seamen and Don Rendell were equally distinguished. The band regularly featured E.O. "Poggy" Pogson, an eccentric multi-instrumentalist who brought all kinds of previously unheard instruments into the band.

The broadcasts usually lasted for 40 or 50 minutes and, although originally designed as a brief experimental series, Let's Settle For Music began on 19 April 1952 and lasted until 23 December 1958. The BBC, even then beleaguered by expense problems, kept trying to dismantle the series, but the efforts of Dixon, powerful support from the musical press and an enthusiastic following kept the series afloat.

During the run, in 1952, Baker appeared for many weeks at the Aldwych Theatre providing live music for Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Laurence Olivier and starring Vivien Leigh. The next year Baker formed a quartet that included Stan Tracey on piano and had an 18-year-old Ruby Murray as its vocalist. George Martin, who supervised its recordings, gave the group a recording contract with the Parlophone label.

In the same year Baker ghosted the music for Genevieve, a film that had the glamorous star Kay Kendall apparently playing hot trumpet in a night- club. He also provided the music when Norman Wisdom mimed the trumpet in the film Trouble in Store. Baker worked too in variety again and for 20 weeks in 1955 played in a Blackpool summer show with Morecambe and Wise.

He was incessantly in demand for studio work and appeared in all manner of radio and television programmes including Round the Horne, The Generation Game, Michael Bentine's It's a Square World and The Avengers. He also worked with every combination of instruments from quartet to symphony orchestra and made guest appearances with brass bands and youth orchestras and provided the soundtrack music for Alan Plater's television series The Beiderbecke Affair and The Beiderbecke Tapes.

During the Eighties he toured with an all-star group that he called "The Best of British Jazz". It included Jack Parnell and the trombonist Don Lusher. Baker also toured with the re-formed Ted Heath band led by Don Lusher. In 1989 he was the key player in a prodigious recording of jazz pieces associated with Louis Armstrong and he played in every one of The Muppets television series. Tired of touring, he went back to studio work, but it didn't appeal any more. "I don't like today's studios with everyone screened off from each other," he said. "Unless you get up and walk about, you don't know who you've been playing with half the time."

During the last 10 years, Baker chose his work to enjoy himself. He collaborated with the author Robert Crosby on the book Kenny Baker: the life and times of a jazz musician (1999). He happily took jazz jobs throughout the country, averaging about four a week until he became ill a month ago. His power and range on the trumpet remained undiminished and he was able to play easily and convincingly with musicians whom he had not met until five minutes before the session began. He had a good system, being taken to his jobs in a camper van driven by his third wife, Sue. He would arrive early, shave, eat and relax in the camper van, play the job and then be driven home. "I'll retire when the phone stops ringing," he told Crosby. It never did.

Kenneth Baker, trumpeter, bandleader, composer and arranger: born Withernsea, Yorkshire 1 March 1921; three times married (one daughter); died Chichester, West Sussex 7 December 1999.

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