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Versatile English trumpet starCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Baker, KennyKenny Baker was one of a handful of British jazz stars of the traditional and Swing era who seemed to offer genuinely international jazz credentials. Much of his career was spent playing in contexts which did not allow him to exercise those credentials in sufficiently challenging settings, but he was always a consummate professional, and was valued for his ability to anchor a band as an outstanding lead trumpet as well as for the fireworks he could produce as a soloist.
His best known association was with the Ted Heath Band immediately after the war, where his trumpet features -- 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 as work in contexts ranging from variety shows to jazz blowing sessions.
Kenneth Baker was born into a musical family. His father played saxophone and clarinet, but he began his own musical journey as a child on his mother's instrument, piano, before sampling violin, saxophone, accordion and tenor horn in turn. He finally settled on cornet (and subsequently trumpet and flugelhorn) at the age of 14, and received valuable training in Yorkshire's brass band tradition, initially with a local mission band, and then the West Hull Silver Band.
He performed with Manley's Orchestra, a dance band in Hull, while still in his mid-teens. He turned professional 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 in Soho's Archer Street at that time, where the band bookers would seek out players for dance 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 up as musicians went off to the armed forces, and he worked with a sequence of band leaders until 1942, including 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 as a formidable player was now well established, both in jam sessions and on record, and he was also developing 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" which performed a cameo within the show as the Kenny Baker Swing Group.
The trumpeter remained with Heath until 1948, helping to establish the trombonist at the forefront of British dance bands. When he left the band, he began a pattern that would see him through much of his career, alternating leading his own groups with spells with other bands, and simultaneously carrying on a busy studio session career, playing whatever was required of him.
His standing in the public eye was elevated even further when he was invited by the BBC to put together a band for what became a popular radio show, Let's Settle For Music , which began broadcasting 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 are better served on record by the smaller offshoot of that band, Baker's Half Dozen.
He contributed a celebrated hot trumpet solo for actress Kay Kendall to mime in the film Genevieve in 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 increasingly full schedule permitted.
He remained a busy freelance throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including renewing his association with a famous colleague from the Heath band, drummer Jack Parnell, who was musical director at ATV in the early 1960s, and who considered Baker to be a crucial component of 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 Best of British Jazz touring band, and in the 'ghost' band under Lusher's leadership which bore the 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 more conventional settings with a number of notable American jazz musicians in his career, including Benny Goodman and Gerry Mulligan. In 1989-90, he remade all of Louis Armstrong's self-led recordings (with Armstrong's original vocals dubbed in) for a massive 15-CD project 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? That attitude may have been misguided, but it is indicative of the trumpeter's standing, and a further justification of fellow trumpeter Digby Fairweather's confident assertion that Baker was "a world-class lead trumpeter, solo performer and improviser".
He is survived by his third wife, Sue, and their daughter, Julie.