Baker was born and raised in a musical household in Yale, Oklahoma; his father was a professional guitar player. Baker began his musical career singing in a church choir. His father introduced him to brass instruments with a trombone, which was replaced with a trumpet when the trombone proved too large.
Baker was a heroin user from the 1950s for the remainder of his life, and eventually saw his musical career decline as a result. At times, Baker pawned his instruments for money to maintain his drug habit. In the early 1960s, he served more than a year in prison in Italy on drug charges; he was later expelled from both West Germany and the UK for drug-related offenses. Baker was eventually deported from West Germany to the United States after running afoul of the law there a second time. He settled in Milpitas in northern California where he played in San Jose and San Francisco between short jail terms served for prescription fraud.
In 1966, Baker was savagely beaten (allegedly while attempting to buy drugs) after a gig in San Francisco, sustaining severe cuts on the lips and broken front teeth, which ruined his embouchure. He stated in the film Let's Get Lost that an acquaintance attempted to rob him one night but backed off, only to return the next night with a group of several men who chased him. He landed finally in a car where he was surrounded. Instead of rescuing him, the people inside the car pushed him back out onto the street where the chase by his attackers continued, and subsequently, he was beaten to the point that his teeth, never in good condition to begin with, were knocked out, leaving him without the ability to play his horn. He took odd jobs, among them pumping gas. Meanwhile he was fitted for dentures and worked on his embouchure. Three months later he got a gig in New York.
Between 1966 and 1974, Baker mostly played flugelhorn and recorded music that could mostly be classified as West Coast Jazz.
At about 3:00 am on May 13, 1988, Baker was found dead on Prins Hendrikkade, near Zeedijk, on the street below his second-story room (Room 210) of Hotel Prins Hendrik in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with serious wounds to his head. Heroin and cocaine were found in his hotel room, and an autopsy also found these drugs in his body. There was no evidence of a struggle, and the death was ruled an accident.
Baker's body was brought home for interment in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. A plaque outside the Hotel Prins Hendrik now memorializes him.
His brilliant music still lives on… Check it.