Chet Baker’s life of beauty and pain ended twenty years ago tonight on an Amsterdam sidewalk. He may have killed himself. That is unlikely, in my opinion. He may have fallen from his hotel window. He may have been thrown or pushed. Either way, as hard as Baker was on nearly everyone else in his life, he was even harder on himself. Far from the first gifted artist to burn himself out, Chet did it rather slowly compared with Charlie Parker, Bix Beiderbecke, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe. It is a tribute to the toughness of his Oklahoma country genes that despite decades of self-abuse, he lived nearly fifty-eight years.
Jazz is an art most of which disappears at the instant of its creation. We can be perversely grateful that Baker supported his destructive habit by recording whenever anyone asked him to. There may be a major jazz artist with a larger body of recorded work, but I can’t think who it might be. An astonishing percentage of it is good. He did some of his best playing on record in his final years, when the conventional wisdom was that he was a creative shadow of his young self. He made the brilliant Chet Baker in Tokyo in concert less than a year before he died. It includes the ultimate version of his signature piece, “My Funny Valentine.”
Because YouTube has withdrawn most of its clips of Baker under threat of legal action, there is little internet video of him. This brief clip from a performance of “Nardis” is an exception. This web site is a grab bag of things Baker and has links to several clips, including scenes from his dreadful 1950s movie Hell’s Horizons. Be patient; the site has maddening buffering problems as the clips come up. This Jazz Icons DVD is the best bet for extended exposure to Baker playing on camera.
The best biography of Baker is probably yet to come because Jeroen de Valk is revising his substantial 1989 account of the trumpeter’s life. Those who think that Baker was trashed in James Gavin’s hateful Deep In A Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker are looking forward to a more balanced treatment in de Valk’s new edition.
The Chet Baker Foundation’s web site contains a touching remembrance of Baker by his former drummer and loyal friend Artt Frank, who is at work on his own book about Baker. Its background music is a wonderfully intimate version of Chet playing “My Funny Valentine.”