July 28, 2021

Was it an accident ?: the mysterious last days of Chet Baker

When Americans woke up on Saturday, May 14, 1988, and opened the New York Times, they found something terrible. The morning reported it with a small capsule on the side of one of its pages. The news came straight from Amsterdam, and it hit the jazz world.

In the early morning of Friday, May 13, 1988, the legendary Chesney Henry Baker, better known as Chet Baker, was found dead on a street in the Dutch capital. He was 58 years old.

According to the Big Apple morning, Baker died “after falling from the second-floor window of a hotel in Amsterdam.” This was the Prins Hendrik.

“Baker fell shortly after 3.10 am and was found dead in the street by police, according to a spokesman for the Amsterdam police, who did not give information on the causes of the fall,” the note added.

The causes of his death have never been entirely clear. Journalist and radio programmer Tom Schnabel, in an article he wrote for the KCRW site, notes: “I read and interviewed James Gavin about his excellent biography, Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker. It was not very clear how Baker met its creator. He fell from the balcony of a superior hotel in Amsterdam in 1988 and died. The questions arise immediately: Did you overdose? Were you expelled by a merchant? Was it a drug deal gone bad? Committed suicide?”.

However, in that same article, Schnabel assures that years later he had access to a version of events. At first, without any source to corroborate it clearly. “A few years ago, after my nice KCRW interview with James Gavin, I got a call from a customer at the Santa Monica record store, Hear Music, and they said he knew what happened. He was in Amsterdam at the same hotel ”.

“He said Chet was chatting with a woman in the lobby, went upstairs to get cigarettes or keys, and discovered that he had locked himself out of his hotel room. The door to the next room was open. He walked in, went out onto the balcony, and tried to get to his own balcony. He lost his balance, fell and died, “he added.

Furthermore, the person who called Schnabel gave him a clue to back up his thesis: “He said, ‘Ask little Jimmy Scott, he was at the hotel and he remembers.’

And Schnabel did so. Months later he met the singer at The Water Court, in Calfornia Plaza. “I asked him about Chet. He said yes, he was there at the hotel and he was hanging out in the lobby with Chet when he went upstairs, but he never came back. Scott corroborated every detail the caller told me about Chet’s accidental death. “

But another factor apparently would have played a role. The Associated Press news agency quoted Dutch police spokesman Klaas Wilting at the time: ″ By the looks of it, I had just taken heroin. Traces of heroin abuse were found in Baker’s hotel room. “

″ Maybe he started acting strange. He was alone and he pushed the window open and fell or jumped. I don’t think we’ll ever know which one, “Wilting added.

The heroin and Baker thing was a long-standing relationship. During the 1950s he was even imprisoned as a result of drug-related affairs. It was something he could never put down.

The news agency also picked up testimony from a receptionist at the Prins Hendrik hotel, where Baker had arrived on Thursday. According to AP, the woman said that the musician “was a little nervous” when he arrived. And he declined to elaborate.

Although the woman added a revealing fact. The window in the room Baker was in slides vertically, leaving a space of no more than 10 inches. “I don’t know how he got through there,” the receptionist said.

For his part, César Pradines de Clarín, adds other theses, although without specifying his source: “One version indicated that the hotel had prevented him from entering his room due to lack of payment and that he decided to climb the two floors to recover, at least , his trumpet, but this possibility would have been virtually ruled out ”.

“Another pointed out that it would have been As a result of a settling of accounts for the debt he had with several traffickers who, tired of excuses, threw him out the window. Finally, the expertise said that it could have been an accidental death, “he adds.

However his death occurred, Chet Baker left an important legacy as a jazz trumpeter, cultivating the so-called Cool Jazz, the style of the West Coast of the United States.

“There were several limitations in Baker as a musician – his register was limited, his ability to read sheet music was deficient, his technique was little special, his interest in composition was almost nil – but as a soloist he is deservedly among the most outstanding of his generation ”, argues the music critic Ted Gioia in his book The history of jazz (Turner, 2015).

“His instinct for melodic improvisation was solid and confident, and his improvised lines reached a poignant pathos,” he adds of the Yale, Oklahoma native.

In time, Baker was even able to briefly put the trumpet aside and dare to sing. “Although his work in this field was more stylized than his trumpet playing, he also had a deep emotional insight, seemingly contradicted by his natural and direct style,” added Gioia.

In 1968, a beating – apparently related to a drug issue, according to Gioia – left Baker practically without teeth, but this did not stop his career. He even points out that in those last days he was seen to be quite plugged in musically.

“In his later years he played better than ever, still recording prolifically. And, although it is strange to say it, the music of those last days gathered a sweetness and an architectural order in surprising contradiction with the totally disorderly life of Baker ”, adds Gioia.