To mark today’s 25th anniversary of the death of Chet Baker, we are pleased to reproduce the following article by the much-missed Mike Zwerin (1930-2010), written shortly after the trumpeter’s death. Thank you Ben Zwerin for the permission to reproduce it.
Death of A Jazzman: Last Notes on Chet Baker’s Final Days
By Mike Zwerin
Amsterdam – Marking eras by some event or other is bound to be arbitrary, but it can be said that the myth of the bebop junkie, the image of jazz and drugs hand in hand, died along with Chet Baker when he fell out of the window of a hotel near the drug dealers’ area on Zeedijk at 3:00 A. M. on Friday the 13th.
Peter Huyts, his road manager, identified the body in the morgue. Chet (he must be called Chet, Baker alone won’t work. Chet was his pianissimo, swinging sound, there are many Bakers but there was only one Chet) had disappeared into the drug subculture for two days before his death. When he did not arrive for a radio broadcast in Laren the evening of May 12, Huyts had a premonition. “Sooner or later something was bound to happen,” he said. “Everybody knew that.”
An autopsy ruled out physical violence, the hotel room door had been locked from the inside and drugs were found in it, which seems to exclude foul play. The results of the blood test are not yet known, but it is widely assumed that there will be traces of drugs in Chet Baker’s blood. The police did not rule out suicide although, like most people who knew him, Huyts doubts it: “It was a hot night, he was probably just sitting on the windowsill and nodded out. One time too many. I picked up his things at the hotel later. His clothes were neatly folded in his suitcase. Somebody about to commit suicide doesn’t do that.”
Eglal Fahri, who owns the Parisian club New Morning where Chet appeared at least once a month said, “We always did good business with Chet. I think one reason was that people thought each time might be the last.” May 5 turned out to be it. The German pianist Joachim Kuhn sat in with Chet that night. “He seemed very tired,” Kuhn recalled. “It was so sad. I remember thinking that this can’t go on much longer.”
Chet was one of the first generation of masters who created the powerful American urban music that came to be called bebop. He was the last of them to remain faithful to heroin, long after the others had cleaned up or died young. It was a love affair more than a habit.
Chet was no revolutionary. He was responsible for no dramatic breakthroughs on a level with Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. But his sound, certain turns of phrases and where and how he place notes have entered the vocabulary. He touched you in a summertime place where the living isn’t easy. People who had never met him cried when he died.
Bebop’s creators had to live with critics who said the jazz they played wasn’t really “music.” But they all heard the sounds they’d discovered in the compositions of acclaimed “serious” composers and on the soundtracks of popular television series. They worked in Mafia-controlled saloons and collected no royalties. They fought alienation by constructing a secret culture with its own style and language – “bad” meaning “good” is vintage bebop argot. Heroin was part of the huddle. It seemed to cure alienation for a minute.
All of this is now a big budget subject. Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins make gold records and play the White House. Today’s young “post-bop” jazzmen wear three-piece suits, arrive on time, drink mineral water and negotiate six-figure contracts. It is no coincidence that heroin disappeared as respect arrived. The death of Chet Baker dots the last “i” of that sad old story.
The creases on his face multiplied and deepened and his lips turned in over the dentures had had worn since he teeth were knocked out by angry dealers in San Francisco. He began to resemble an old Indian, the last of a tribe that had seen a heap of suffering. He looked like he needed taking care of and he did and there were always people around to do it. His persistence and ingenuity in pursuit of heroin and his muse and the ability of that parched body and spirit to survive such a relentless onslaught earned him (sometimes reluctant) respect from people of all ages, races, nationalities and stylistic preference who agree on little else. Chet was the real thing.
A few years ago, he recalled how embarrassed he had been in the 1950s when he placed higher that Clifford Brown and Dizzy Gillespie, both of whom he adored, in the polls because he was a “great white hope” with a pretty face that reminded people of James Dean. He knew he wasn’t in their league yet. In the middle 1980s, when on a good night he was capable of playing as well as jazz can be played, he was dismissed as a has-been. Great white hopes had gone out of style, along with pianissimos. But it was to a large degree his own fault; falling off a chair on stage is not a good career move.
Chet once told a reporter: “I have a medical problem and in Europe they treat it as a medical problem.” So he came to Europe for love and medicine, moving around three weeks here, two days there, in hotels or wearing out welcomes with hosts. He had a methadone prescription from a doctor in Amsterdam. Methadone cures the craving for heroin. On methadone the grace would be healthy. But he always returned to Zeedijk in Amsterdam for the hot flash he needed.
The Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine describes touring with Chet: “He would drive from Paris to Brussels by way of Amsterdam; sometimes he’d fly up there between two nights in Paris. He’d be late a lot and there would be some very heavy panics. The pay wasn’t always it was supposed to be, or when, but there were so many magic moments in the music, they made everything else worthwhile.”
The Dutch impresario Wim Wigt handled Chet in Europe and Japan in the 1980s. It was not an exclusive contract but Wigt estimates that Chet earned over $200,000 after taxes last year. The two albums he made for Wigt”s Timeless Records have sold over 25,000 units each and are still selling. It is not difficult to guess where the money went.
One friend recalls Chet arriving at his house with 30,000 guilders in a shopping bag. He had recently bought a cream-colored Alfa Romeo Giulia with Italian plates. According to Peter Huyts, who drove with him often, Chet was an expert driver who would miraculously sober up behind the wheel no matter how stoned he might have been.
The lanky, bespectacled Huyts looks too young to be a grandfather of two and too straight to be a road manager for jazz bands. He had been running a part-time jazz club when he lost his job as an electronics engineer five years ago. Knowing and loving the music, he began to travel with Wigt’s clients like Gillespie, Art Blakey and John Scofield. He figures he’s heard more than 150 Chet Baker concerts and he probably knew him as well as anyone.
Last Thursday, Huyts was in Schiphol, Amsterdam’s airport, waiting to accompany the coffin on a flight to Los Angeles, where Chet’s mother owns a plot.
“I wanted to be with him until the very end,” he said. “I’m surprised how much I miss him.”
Traveling with Baker was no piece of cake. But despite the fact that Chet spent 16 months in a Italian jail and had at one time or another been deported from Switzerland, West Germany and Britain, there was never any trouble crossing borders.
“Not once,” Huyts said. “That always puzzled me. But Chet had a good ‘act’ for the douane. He knew how to play that game. He could turn on the charm.”
“He was always losing things, leaving things behind, but he kept the mouthpiece Dizzy Gillespie gave him for years. He was very proud of that. It had ‘Birks’ engraved on it,” Huyts added, referring to Gillespie’s middle name.
Gillespie got Chet his first comeback engagement in New York after he had learned to play with false teeth. In a telephone interview Saturday from his home in New Jersey, Gillespie said:
“The major thing he lacked – you see, Chet was so tender. Jazz is a gut-bucket thing, great soloists have got to be able to get tough sometimes. He was too vulnerable.”
Mrs Eglal Farhi says she was “very fond of him, with all his faults. He was friendly, loyal, warm. He did not forget his friends. There ws something very special about him, he was surrounded by myths.”
Joachim Kuhn had recently found him a house to rent near his own outside Paris. Chet told him he had not had a home for too long, he wanted to settle down, to travel less for higher prices, maybe take a few students. Kuhn heard Chet for the first time when he was 8 years old in Berlin in the ’50s.
“He moved me so much I immediately wanted to be a trumpet player,” he said, “only nobody gave me a trumpet. It would have been so nice to have my old hero living in my village.”
Chet was surprised and delighted when the Dutch trumpet player Evert Hekkema told him that he and his teen-age friends had combed their hair and dressed like him. He had the key to Hekkema’s apartment for more than two years. He paid no rent but was always arriving with gifts and never forgot to take care of his long-distance calls.
A rehabilitated addict who asked not to be identified remembers seeing Chet strip naked in search of an uncollapsed vein. He found one in his groin but raised it several times until the needle finally entered. Then his knees buckled and he held onto the sink, moaning “saline solution.” The former addict recognized an overdose and prepared the solution quickly. He gave Chet the syringe and this time he hit a vein in his neck on the first try.
Several hours later, when Chet had recovered and was dressing to go to work, the former addict asked him: “Hey, man, don’t you ever get tired of this stuff”
“It’s a drag,” he replied. “Hotel rooms and airports and getting guys for gigs. I hate the road.”
“I don’t mean that,” he said. “I mean using dope.”
“Oh, that.” Chet shrugged. “I never think about that.”