Ann Baker

Listen to “Baby, Won’t You Make Up Your Mind?”

Ann Baker

1915-1999, Charleston, Kanawha County

Known as “Charleston’s First Lady of Jazz,” Ann Baker grew up in Washington, PA and got her start singing in Pittsburgh jazz clubs alongside such notables as Harry and Jerome Betters and Bernie Crenshaw. By 1941, she’d been discovered by Louis Armstrong, and made her Broadway debut with his band. She later joined big bands led by Lionel Hampton and Count Basie before taking on her signature gig. Baker replaced Sarah Vaughan in Billy Eckstine’s band. Known by many as “The Dream Band,” it featured a lineup that included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis and Art Blakey. During her tenure with Eckstine, Baker was featured in the 1946 film Rhythm in a Riff in which she sang “I Cried For You.”

As big bands went out of vogue toward the end of the ’40s, Baker retired from the road and married Charleston tennis star and restauranteur Delaney “Wag” Wagner, who owned Wag’s Barbecue, a downtown hot spot. While in Charleston, Baker continued to perform, backed by local combos like The Earl Tate Trio, The Francis Taylor Trio, and the Billy J Trio, which featured Hubert “Rabbit” Jones on bass. The couple also started a West Side club called The Shalamar. There, Baker sat in with a succession of big names from Nat King Cole to Hampton to pianist Errol Garner. Before integration, the club attracted lawyers, doctors, politicians – clientele from among the elite of Charleston. Baker was a regular at the old West Virginia Jazz Festival, and later had a jazz series of Charleston’s Multifest named in her honor.