Chet Baker was the greatest Oklahoma-born, toothless, drug-addicted, trumpet-playing jazzman ever to fall out of a hotel window and die on foreign soil.
It wasn’t suicide and it wasn’t murder. It was loss of balance, which is an appropriate metaphor for his life.
He was born Chesney Henry Baker Jr., on the family farm near Yale on Dec. 23, 1929, two months after the Wall Street crash that heralded the arrival of the Great Depression. The only child of hardworking parents, he lived in Oklahoma until tough times forced the family’s emigration to California in 1940.
Baker’s father, a western-swing guitarist, was a fan of Jack Teagarden, the musician (and one-time Oklahoma Cityan) whom Louis Armstrong called the blackest white man who ever lived. When Baker was 13, his father gave him a trombone, hoping that his son would emulate Teagarden.
But the kid was too small for the instrument. He couldn’t work the slide, and the mouthpiece overwhelmed his lips.
The trombone went away, a trumpet appeared and the rest is history, more or less. With musicians, one never can be sure. They may play notes and make records, but they don’t take notes and keep records.
Baker died on May 13, 1988, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. He had self-medicated with a speedball, that admixture of heroin and cocaine. Groggy in his upstairs hotel room, he had opened a window, lost his balance and fell headfirst to the pavement below. He was 58 years old. “William W. Savage Jr.