Chet Baker’s last great concert, on April 28th 1988, was one of the biggest of his life. He was 51 but looked 75, the heroin addiction that he had harboured all his life would kill him months later and his grip on his art was slipping. The idea to re-create Baker’s seminal early album “Chet Baker with Strings” on stage, in Hannover, was developed by German TV producer Kurt Giese. Its success, in fact getting it to happen at all was always on the ropes.
Baker’s existence was a life of awful contrasts. He went from handsome saviour of the jazz world to scarred heroin addled wreck, this icon of romance was a wife beater, who slept with many women, but fell in love with all but one and just days before his glittering final bow, he was playing for tips, broke, on a street corner, with a group of friends in Rome. The money raised paid Baker’s dealer.
Heroin ruled his life; some said he loved no other. Smoking crack had all but ruined his teeth and he found it impossible to play without dentures, which caused him a great deal of pain. His quality, that heart breaking melancholy moan, which his playing had sustained for so many years, was slipping. Walter Norris an engineer who had heard his sound in the weeks prior to the show had described it as dismal: “what is this” he asked “how can someone with such great talent destroy himself.”
Rehearsals for the show, which would see Baker backed by the North German Broadcasting Orchestra, were to start five days before curtain. Baker failed to show. The orchestra threatened mutiny as Giese replaced Chet’s trumpet with a taped recording for the sake of rehearsal, as desperate calls were place to find him. Rumours that Baker had backed out flied, then he called, with two nights to go. He had been to the theatre, but security had failed to recognise him and he had been turned away.
As Baker sat on stage, he was surrounded by musicians, but he was as he had always been, cold, aloof and alone. His life of living a rootless existence was closing in on him. His limitless world of running to the next state, to the next country was fading. Reality was setting in. His application for a new driving licence had been refused, he was grounded, his gums were decaying and a string of girlfriends were leading to agitation and heartbreak, but never love.
The night’s set contained mostly songs Chet had kept returning to throughout his career. “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, “Look For The Silver Lining”, “Tenderly”, “Almost Blue” and a nine minute version of the song that made him famous “My Funny Valentine”.
His face may have been treated harshly by heroin and his features may have become so sunken that it looked as if his whole complexion was comprised of shadows, but his voice remained light and full of the innocence that it had displayed in his youth. His music was night music; it would dissolve in the sunlight. It was the music of street corners, the music of drifting rain down a deserted thoroughfare, a coffee shop at two in the morning, the music of loneliness, of a man fractured out of his scull, who only wants to talk, to re-live a life, but can’t.
It was the final display of Baker talent and it was rapturously received by a sell-out audience. He paid his debts to Miles Davis during the show, for guiding him during his formative years. Playing “Summertime”, Chet can be heard literally channelling Davis on-stage. His saxophonist Archie Shepp said in the wake of the performance, “Chet had become what he always wanted to be, he was playing more like Miles Davis than Miles Davis.”
He did not however stick around to seek out his plaudits; he left moments after the final number and drove off into the night. A mental collapse would follow and a further descent into a heroin fuelled existence. As he said to a friend in the weeks after the Hannover show “I’ve used this stuff for thirty years. You can’t help me, I’m too far out.”
He died on Friday 13th of May 1988, after falling out of a hotel window in Amsterdam. Whether he fell or was pushed remains contentious for some, but there was rarely a moment when he was not high in the weeks before his death.
When Chet Baker sang the line in “Almost Blue” “flirting with this disaster became me”, its hard not to see the resonance with his own life. He preferred pursuing his own personal disaster, his addiction, rather than nurturing his talent. Some have called Chet Baker the James Dean of music, so much promise, unfulfilled. But were as Dean’s talent was snuffed out in a moment of madness, Baker’s was slowly drained from him. His brief return to form in the 1980’s and the Hannover show are a glimpse of what he could have achieved. His record’s from the 1970’s are a testament to his excesses.
But it is of course on the records of the 1950’s and early 60’s that his reputation will be based. Till Bronner, a German trumpet player, who was greatly influenced by Baker described his talent best “It was really a big moment for me to hear a guy who just played melodies. To me, the old trumpet players all tend to play as hard and as loud as possible. All of a sudden this guy comes along and does the total opposite. His trumpet playing came as close as possible to the expressions of the human voice.”
“It’s so touching, Chet Baker was such a romantic guy, he must have been suffering a lot. He must have been on a constant search for love and understanding; otherwise I can’t imagine how he could have played like that.”
Suffering was perhaps his muse. If it was taken away his gift would ebb. His music transcended his pain in the same way the drugs did. But if the pain was gone, what was left? If understanding had been found, why bother to reach the dizzying heights of soulful musicality that he did? The pain walked hand in hand with his profession and like so many artists before him it was his un-doing. Or as Baker himself sang “You don’t know what love is until you’ve known the meaning of the blues, until you’ve loved a love you’ve had to lose.”