With his cover-boy looks, wistful singing voice, and murmurous trumpet playing, Chet Baker was a jazz artist of exquisite grace. But it was his fall from grace that came to define him. When his final, still-unexplained fall came — from an Amsterdam hotel window on May 13, 1988, at age 59 — he left behind a tale of youthful beauty and ugly excess that still mesmerizes, inspiring books, a documentary, and talk of who should play him in a biopic.
The very image of the West Coast ”cool jazz” movement he helped spark when he joined saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s quartet in 1952, Baker formed his own group the following year and released his first collection of vocals in 1954. With a breathy, almost androgynous, take on standards like ”My Funny Valentine,” Baker garnered critical attention and teenage fans. Charlie Parker, for whom Baker once played, supposedly told the New York jazz vanguard after meeting him, ”Watch out — there’s a little white cat on the West Coast who’s gonna eat you up.”
But heroin ate Baker up. Essentially banished from the American jazz scene, he recorded prolifically in Europe from the mid-’50s onward — in between drug arrests. (His Paris sessions are considered among his finest.) Time in an Italian prison didn’t clean him up, nor did a mysterious 1968 beating in San Francisco that cost him his teeth. By the time he appeared in Let’s Get Lost, director Bruce Weber’s 1989 documentary about Baker, the jazzman looked a decade older than he was — the (barely) living embodiment of every romantic cliche entwining jazz, genius, and self-destruction.
”Chet lived as close to the edge as anybody,” says James Gavin, whose bio of Baker will be published next year by Knopf. ”He beat the devil for 30 years. It’s astonishing he lived as long as he did.”
Remarkably, Baker’s movie-ready story has never been filmed. In 1991, Brad Pitt, a Baker fan, expressed interest in playing him. Producer Harry Gittes and Columbia Pictures are grooming the story as a possible vehicle for Pitt, Matt Dillon, or Stephen Dorff — any of whom could embody the moody Baker charms that Gavin says ”had that indefinable thing called ‘soul.”’
Time Capsule: May 13, 1988
AT THE MOVIES, Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood opens on its eponymous date and carves out a spot in first place. The movie’s success allowed hockey-masked killer Jason to go two more rounds — Jason Takes Manhattan and Jason Goes to Hell.
IN MUSIC, Terence Trent D’Arby’s ”Wishing Well” reaches No. 1 on Billboard’s singles chart. D’Arby, who declared his debut album ”better than Sgt. Pepper’s,” has to retrench two years later when his follow-up sinks.
IN BOOKSTORES, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities sets the fiction list ablaze. In 1990, Hollywood turns it into a flop vanity project for Bruce Willis.
AND IN THE NEWS, Democrats propose the formation of a national service program to aid education, child care, and public safety. In 1993, Bill Clinton will make it one of his first initiatives as President.