OBITUARIES : Fought Lifelong Battle With Drugs : Famed Jazz Trumpeter Chet Baker

Times Staff Writer

Chet Baker, who was likened physically to James Dean and musically to Miles Davis but who never approached the success of either man because of his addictions, died Friday after falling from the second floor of his Amsterdam hotel.

The Associated Press reported that Baker, 59, fell from the hotel window shortly after 3:10 a.m. and was found dead in the street by police.

No precise reason for the trumpeter-singer’s fall was disclosed.

Baker was in Amsterdam as part of a multi-appearance tour of the Netherlands.


Famed for his appearances with Gerry Mulligan in the early 1950s, a seminal period in West Coast jazz, Baker had spent the intervening years struggling with personal demons.

He was on and off methadone programs to treat his addiction to heroin, survived divorces from several marriages that were both happy and unhappy and once even suffered the ignominy of having his teeth knocked out by a disgruntled drug dealer.

That was the down side. The up was Baker’s bell-like horn and reedy singing voice, which often sounded like a young boy’s and which had a wide appeal for women.

Born Chesney H. Baker in Yale, Okla., his family moved to Southern California in 1940 and Baker began studying trumpet at junior high school in Glendale. He went in the Army, played in a military band in Berlin and then was discharged and studied harmony at El Camino College in Torrance.


He played some West Coast dates with Charlie Parker in 1952 and then joined Mulligan’s revolutionary quartet, one of the first that did not feature a piano.

From 1953 to ’58 he won a series of Down Beat, Metronome and Playboy jazz polls in this country and similar accolades in Europe.

Flushed with those successes, he started his own quartet, which featured his light, pure sound and quiet trumpet lyricism, and toured Iceland, England and then Europe. It was there that his troubles first surfaced. His piano player died of a heroin overdose and Baker returned to the United States, only to be arrested for possession himself.

He spent time at the federal narcotics hospital in Lexington, Ky., and served a prison term at Rikers Island. Released after six months he left again for Europe in 1959, not to return for five years.


But he was jailed again, this time in Italy, where he also saw a deal for a planned film of his life fall through. He traveled to Munich to earn some money, but Italian authorities refused to let him back across the border. He journeyed to Paris and England, but instead of going to work he went back to jail, this time for accepting drugs from a hotel clerk.

He was thrown out of England and then Germany and it wasn’t until 1970, when he went on a methadone program for seven years, that any semblance of order was restored to his life.

In recent years Baker would say he had stopped taking drugs, but some who saw him perform, including Leonard Feather, The Times’ jazz critic, doubted that.

In a 1984 interview with Feather, Baker said that despite the anguished years, all the glory days would sometimes come back.


“It’s odd, but when I’m working regularly, when I’m together and it’s a good night, I think I’m playing better now than when I was winning all those polls.”