17 January 2020

The Chet Baker Conspiracy

Chet Baker in Bruce Weber's Let's Get Lost.
Rumors that jazz legend Chet Baker was murdered started shortly after his death.

Filmmaker Bruce Weber was still in post production on his Chet Baker documentary Lets' Get Lost when he got the news that the jazz trumpeter had fallen to his death from a hotel window in Amsterdam. "...it wasn't really Chet's style to jump," Weber told the Los Angeles Times in 1988, seventh months after Baker's death. "He was always getting into trouble with drug dealers. He called me a month-and-a-half before his death and said, 'Something might happen. This cocaine dealer is after me.'"

If drug dealers were after Chet Baker, it wouldn't be the first time.  According to John Wooley in "What Happened, Man," Chet Baker was attacked in 1966 by multiple assailants outside a San Francisco jazz club. "Whatever its motivation," Wooley writes, "it had cost Baker several teeth." Wooley guesses it was drug related. Jeroen De Valk's Chet Baker: His Life and Music affirms this, describing five thugs sent by a drug dealer to beat Chet.  Born to Be Blue, starring Ethan Hawke as Baker, chronicles the same beating, and how the damage knocked Chet, along with his teeth, out of the jazz game.

Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker.
Drummer Artt Frank, who started playing with Baker in the '60s, writes about Chet's attempted comeback in his 2013 memoir  Chet Baker: The Missing Years.  Frank discussed his book in a radio interview with James Paris, and he made some provocative statements about Baker's end. He claimed that Baker contacted him before he died and said he was being followed. Frank said that Chet's widow also believed her wayward hubby was murdered. Speaking for Chet's widow is mere hearsay. Claiming Baker told him he was being followed the night before his death, especially since it echoes Bruce Webers statement, is more convincing

Robert Budreau, the director of Born to Be Blue, also made The Deaths of Chet Baker, a short film about Baker's final moments.  It depicts a drug dealer knocking a very high Baker out the hotel window. It's total conjecture. There's a brilliant three second moment that captures Chet right after doing heroin as he experiences the highest of highs. I was inclined to believe that Budreau got us as close as we'll get to the truth of Chet Baker's end. Case closed. Cue up the album Playboys (made with fellow hardcore junkie Art Pepper) and lament the days when smooth was in and distortion was seen as a mistake.

Tom Schnabel's Rhythm Planet.
Then I read Tom Schnabel's article for KCRW's Music Notes, "How Chet Baker Really Died." Schnabel was the music director for KCRW (he's largely responsible for making Morning Becomes Eclectic a drive time juggernaut). Here's what Schnabel has to say about Chet's fall:

I got a call from a patron at Santa Monica's now-deceased music store, Hear Music, and was told that he knew what happened. He was there at Amsterdam at the same hotel. He said that Chet was chatting up a woman in the lobby, went upstairs to get some cigarettes or keys, and found he had locked himself out of his hotel room. The door to the room next door was open. He entered, went out onto the balcony and tried to get over to his own balcony. He lost his footing, fell and died. The caller told me, "Ask Little Jimmy Scott, he was there at the hotel and remembers."

Little Jimmy Scott
A few months after Schnabel spoke with the caller, he met with singer Little Jimmy Scott. Schnabel writes that the jazz vocalist "corroborated every detail the caller told me about Chet's accidental death."

Schnabel's version lacks intrigue, and if it wasn't for the tragic outcome, is really pretty silly. This only makes it more believable to me. Chet had drugs in his system when he died. Trying to cross from balcony to balcony like Errol Flynn seems like the impulsive move that someone high would pull. Especially if a hotel hook-up was at stake.

What's interesting is that the Chet Baker murder rumors lingered unabated after Schnabel's article was published in 2012. It was like it was written in a vacuum. Wikipedia didn't notice until 2019. The Chet Baker murder rumors live on to this day, though Schanbel's article should probably lay them to rest.

I think "How Chet Baker Really Died" proves two contradictory things about conspiracy theories.

First, it shows that sometimes the answer isn't some complicated plot or deep cover up. Sometimes things happen. It's hard to believe that someone revered, worshipped, viewed as special, out of the ordinary, could meet their end like the rest of us jokers.

Stephen King's  11/22/63:
 Time Traveller vs Lone Gunman
Take the Chet Baker murder rumors, multiply them by what ever number that the hopes and dreams of America equals, and you have the JFK conspiracy theories. Stephen King begins his 11.22.63, his tale of time travel and the JFK assassination, with this quote from Norman Mailer:

It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security. If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd.

Occam's Razor tells us that if there are two explanation for something, take the easiest one with the least assumptions. The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald acted alone. Tom Schnabel proved that Chet Baker slipped and fell. It's an absurd world, folks. Don't make things more difficult than they need be.

Yet there is a second, and very different, conclusion to be drawn: Sometimes the truth is ignored. Or worse.

A series of fateful deaths that defy the odds.
You wouldn't think that the JFK assassination and the purported cover-up that followed would make good stand up material, but I saw Richard Belzer (standup veteran and TV's Detective John Munch) deliver a hilarious set on exactly that. He was at West Hollywood's Book Soup presenting Hit List:An In-Depth Investigation Into the Mysterious Deaths of Witnesses to the JFK Assassination. Maybe you had to be there. Anyway, I won't recite the litany of people who claimed to have special knowledge of the assassination and then died shortly after. To quote Belzer:

An actuary engaged by the London Times calculated the probability that at least eighteen witnesses would die of any cause within 3 years of the JFK assassination as 1 in 100,000 trillion.

I've heard people say that the assassination of a president is too big to cover up; if there was something there, it would've come out by now. Belzer argues that it did, and it was stepped on.

Schnabel's little essay for KCRW was ignored, but eventually it did change Chet Baker's Wiki page. If you hear the murder rumors now, all you have to do is check Wiki. We all do that. In a way, Schnabel got to rewrite the ending. Richard Belzer is just one in a long line of researchers and crusaders trying rewrite an ending, to reach the tipping point on another Wiki page. The truth is out there, the X-Files tells us. The implication is, you have to find it. 

I'm Lawrence Maddox.

My travels are taking me away from Sleuthsayers for a few months. If during that time you need your fix of Yours Truly, check out my novel Fast Bang Booze, available from DownAndOutBooks.Com.


Tweets are welcome: Lawrence Maddox@Madxbooks



  1. Fascinating stuff, Larry. I'll have to see if I can catch Born to Be Blue.

    Also, we'll miss you here at SleuthSayers. Hope you'll be back soon. P

  2. I recently mentioned I'm deeply suspicious of assassination non-conspiracy theorists. A number of thoughtful people have been troubled by inconsistencies and 'coincidences'… As John Brunner said, the definition of a coincidence is you weren't watching what the other hand was doing.

    Stand-up commedian Bill Hicks does a great job tackling the Magic Bullet. Here's Bill talking about the museum.

    Larry, already can't wait for your return!

  3. Thanks Paul! I hope to be back soon enough.

  4. I've heard the name but didn't know anything about the man or his music. A lot of great music came out of that period. Always glad to see your posts.

  5. Leigh, I’m in total agreement w/ you re: non-conspiricists. Rubes. And thanks for sharing the greatly missed Bill Hicks.He sums it up nicely

  6. Thank you Anne. Yep, some amazing music, played by some very cool people.

  7. I believe in (some) conspiracy theories. I've even started a couple, although the only one I'll share here is that Jim Morrison is not buried in Pere LaChaise Cemetery, but, after a few years, became part of "Dead Can Dance".
    But I also believe in bad luck (some people have nothing but), chance, the doofus factor (never underestimate the power of stupidity), and shit happens.
    And yes, Larry, come back soon - we miss you!

  8. I really like your Dead Can Dance theory, Eve! And how about The Doofus Factor as a name for a crime novel? Hope to be Saying some Sleuths again soon.

  9. Just ran across your blog about Chet Baker, and I loved it. And you're not alone in printing the "going from one balcony to the other balcony" death story. The hotel DOES NOT HAVE BALCONIES and the windows only open 10 inches. TEN INCHES. I'd love to see a fully clothed Chet Baker, who I personally met and heard play more than once, get himself through that tiny space and go from that window (NO BALCONY) to the next one, get it open TEN INCHES, and somehow get inside. When all he had to do was ask the desk clerk for a key. It's B.S.

    1. Thanks for your reply RodMac. So the plot thickens...
      First, I gotta say how jealous I am that not only did you get to see Chet Baker play live, but you got to meet him. He was one of a kind in the world of jazz, which is saying a lot. I personally like his playing over his singing, but both were unique.
      If Chet didn't accidentally fall out the window, then I think he was murdered. He may have been slowly killing himself for years, but was also a surviver. People who knew him say that suicide wasn't in his blood. What was in his blood when he died was drugs. Large of quantities of drugs and booze were also found in his room. Would a very high Chet baker try to go from window to window, even without balconies? If you look at the exterior of the Prins Hendrik Hotel, the windows are right next to each other. It's not unimaginable he tired to enter the other window and failed. Jimmy Scott corroborates this theory. But you are right, there are no balconies. Chet had his enemies. Still, if the window only opened ten inches, how did he he end up dead on the pavement below? That doesn't help either theory. I buy death by misadventure theory, but I could believe something more sinister if there was eyewitness evidence to back it up. I think that, either way, the drug habit eventually caught up to Chet Baker.


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