Home > In the Spotlight, Now You Know > The Tragic Tale of Chet Baker

The Tragic Tale of Chet Baker

November 15, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

by Cat Johnson

Flipping through the Chet Baker section is always a bit of a bummer. The arc of his story is a tragic one, indeed. He went from being an over-the-top-handsome, young up-and-comer in the jazz world, to being a heroin addict who lost the ability to play his trumpet and died on the street.

The bright side of the story is that he left us with some magnificent music. One of the giants of cool jazz, Baker epitomized the laid-back, subdued style that epitomized West Coast jazz. His work with the Gerry Mulligan quartet is held up as some of the finest interplay between trumpet and sax ever recorded. His vocal renderings of such classics as “My Funny Valentine” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” sealed his fate as a multi-faceted musical gem.

The dark side of the story goes like this: Baker picked up a heroin habit early on. Over the course of his life (and rapidly declining career) he pawned his instruments for drug money; was imprisoned and kicked out of countries for drug charges; he served time for prescription fraud; he was beaten and had his teeth knocked out, resulting in an inability to play the trumpet (he was later fitted for dentures and mounted a somewhat successful, though short-lived comeback); and he was found dead outside his hotel, on an Amsterdam street at 3am with wounds to his head and heroin and cocaine in his system. He was 59.

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  1. November 15, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Popular theories of death include:
    -He was stoned, and just fell out of his hotel window
    -He was pushed out by a drug dealer he owed money to
    -He was making obscene comments to a woman who ignored him. He leaned out further to make sure she heard him, lost his grip, and fell to his death.

  2. November 15, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Cat. Chet is an oft forgotten icon.

  3. November 17, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    My pleasure, Hans.
    None of those theories are making me feel any better about Chet’s life; yet they all seem plausible. Are they real theories or trumpet player speculations (I’m referring, in particular, to the third one)?
    Cat

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