How Chet Baker Really Died

Written by
Chet Baker: 1929 – 1988 (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I’ve listened to Chet Baker for a long time. From the early stuff in Paris (1955, Barclay Records) to all the great Pacific Jazz recordings with Russ Freeman et al that helped define the “West Coast Sound”, so beautifully photographed and chronicled by the great William Claxton. These jazz classics have a display at the wonderful Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-65, a must see exhibition now running at LACMA.

I also read and interviewed James Gavin on his excellent biography, Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker. It wasn’t really clear how Baker met his maker. He fell from an upper hotel balcony in Amsterdam in 1988 and died.  Questions come up immediately: Did he overdose? Was he pushed out by a dealer?  was it a drug deal gone bad? Did he commit suicide?

Well actually, none of the above. Chet Baker enjoyed getting high, and got used to the hassle of scoring heroin. A great set of liner notes for his album Live in Tokyo has him and another junkie “nodding out together in a hotel kitchenette, having completed the necessary travail of scoring, cooking, and fixing. The other musician asks Chet, “You ever get tired of this shit, man?” Chet answers, “Oh, you know it,” his voice slurred and his eyes closed tight. “The airports, the customs inspectors, the promoters, checking into the hotel and playing the gig…”

“No, man,” the other junkie says, slowing waving a hand to indicate the debris of the spoons, syringes, and glassine bags. “This shit!”

Chet opens his eyes and looks at the other guy like he’s out of his mind.

In the book Chet was depressed about breaking up yet again with a girlfriend, was getting on in years and the years of abuse were taking their toll. In the biography it’s not clear, however, that anybody knew exactly what happened.

A few years ago, however, after my enjoyable KCRW interview with James Gavin, I got a call from a patron at Santa Monica’s now-deceased record store, Hear Music, and was told that he knew what happened. He was there in Amsterdam at the same hotel. He said that Chet was chatting up a woman in the lobby, went upstairs to get some cigarettes or keys, and found he had locked himself out of his hotel room. The door to the room next door was open. He entered, went out onto the balcony and tried to get over to his own balcony. He lost his footing, fell and died. The caller told me, “Ask Little Jimmy Scott, he was there at the hotel and remembers.”

A few months later I was sitting next to Little Jimmy Scott at  The Water Court at Calfornia Plaza. It was the night after he’d performed there at the wonderful (and always free) Grand Performances series. I asked him about Chet. He said yes, he was there at the hotel, and was hanging out in the lobby with Chet when he went upstairs but never came back. Scott corroborated every detail the caller told me about Chet’s accidental death.

Chet Baker was a great trumpet and flugelhorn player. And even as time ravaged him physically, his playing actually got better as he aged. Who knows how much longer he might have lived and continued playing had he not slipped and fallen,  that fateful night at the Prins Hendrik Hotel?

Tom Schnabel's Rhythm Planet