Henry N. Baker Sr.

[ Age 87 ] Jazz musician owned a chain of salons that reshaped the African-American hair care business in Baltimore.

April 14, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun reporter

Henry N. Baker Sr., a longtime jazz musician and the owner of a chain of beauty salons that changed the African-American hair care business in Baltimore, died April 7 at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care in Towson. He was 87.

Born in New York City, he was the youngest of four children and the only son of a Georgia-born businessman and a homemaker. When he was still young, the family moved to Washington, where his father was shot and killed, plunging the family into poverty.

"They were actually living very well in D.C." said one of Mr. Baker's sons, Dean Baker, 41, of Bolton Hill. "His father was very enterprising. They had a chauffeur and lived in a big house. But when he was killed, everything just went downhill. ... They went from riches to rags."

FOR THE RECORD - An obituary published yesterday for Henry N. Baker Sr. listed incorrect service information. The funeral will be held at 6 p.m. today at Epworth United Methodist Chapel, 3317 St. Lukes Lane, Baltimore. After the service, a jazz tribute is planned at Gordon's Bar and Lounge, 1818 Maryland Ave. The Sun regrets the error.

After his father's murder, for which no one was ever arrested, Mr. Baker became the family's breadwinner, said his eldest son, Henry Baker Jr. of Baltimore. He worked odd jobs, shining shoes and selling newspapers.

Mr. Baker also played piano and violin and later took up the saxophone, an instrument he mastered. As an adult, he befriended famed musicians Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker on the jazz music circuit and brought them to Baltimore for shows.

From Washington, the family moved to Baltimore, where Mr. Baker graduated from Frederick Douglass High School. After that, he enlisted in the Army, serving in France, Italy and Africa during World War II, family members said. He also joined the Army band.

Mr. Baker received an honorable discharge from the Army in 1946 and returned to Baltimore. About that time, he married his first wife, the former Dorothy Jefferson. Their marriage ended in divorce. He married three more times and had seven children.

He attended Morgan State University, where he studied music theory and started a jazz band. He studied there for two or three years, his sons said, before taking a job with Jos. A. Bank, the men's clothing retailer.

He was close to the owner's son, who mentored him in the clothing business, and in the early 1950s he opened his own shop on Pennsylvania Avenue, then a thriving center of black-owned businesses.

He moved to San Francisco for a short period to pursue a career as a jazz musician, but returned to Baltimore to marry the former Elaine Garrett in 1952, his family said. They were married for 20 years and even after their divorce remained close friends.

Elaine Baker said she and her former husband moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, shortly after they married and stayed there for about three years. Mr. Baker played saxophone to make a living, she said. When they moved back to Baltimore, they settled on Belmont Avenue and Mr. Baker traveled often to New York to play the saxophone. On one trip, he fell into the wig business.

"He saw this woman place a wig on this other woman, and then she turned the woman around to the mirror and the woman broke down and cried," Dean Baker said. "He said when he saw that, everything started clicking. That's how he basically got the idea of getting into women's wigs."

He opened Wig World on Pennsylvania Avenue in the early 1960s, selling human hair wigs to women. But with the advent of synthetic wigs, prices dropped and he decided to get into the salon business, his family said. At the height of his salon venture, he owned nine shops.

He was an astute businessman, said Henry Baker Jr., who recalled his father as someone who "revolutionized" the city's black beauty salon industry by developing a chain of shops. The son said his father was a savvy marketer, using slogans such as "no appointment necessary, no waiting and cheap prices," to hook customers.

Baker's Beauty at Mondawmin Mall still exists.

Mr. Baker mixed business with pleasure when he opened Peyton Place, a jazz club, in 1965. Later, from 1977 to 1989, he ran the Jazz Closet in the 200 block of W. Franklin St. Famed musicians such as Wynton Marsalis performed at the club before it closed.

A funeral service will be held at 6:30 p.m. today at Epworth United Methodist Chapel, 3317 St. Lukes Lane in Baltimore. After the service, a jazz tribute is planned at Gordon's Bar and Lounge, 1818 Maryland Ave. Burial will be private.

In addition to his former wives and sons, Mr. Baker is survived by another former wife, Valerie Baker; three other sons, Jeffery Gordon, Darrell "Max" Baker, and Ivan Baker; two daughters, Amy Baker and Kariss Baker; 15 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by another ex-wife, the former Arbia Brooks.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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