Jazz Journalists Association, Straight ahead

The Baker coordinates

I had been to Amsterdam before but never tracked down Chet Baker. I blame the city for this oversight because it swallows travellers whole, reorders their plans, confuses them with a multiplicity of offerings. You arrive, you drift through the alleys and before you know it, it’s time to check out. This time I was not to be distracted. As soon as I awoke I grabbed an early breakfast, noted down Chet’s address and headed for the red light district. His hotel was located in Prins Hendrikkade, a street on the edge of sanity. A quarter where bored women knit cardigans behind dimly lit shop windows.

At first, I missed the address as the hotel was being refurbished. I wandered up and down confused and eventually stopped for a coffee. After gulping it down I asked the young barista for directions. ‘Oh yeah – Chet’ he said shaking his head sadly. I was amazed that he had heard of Chet Baker as he looked about eighteen. He grabbed me by the arm and led me onto the pavement and pointed to a spot directly above us. A third story window was propped half open- and behind it – Chet in silhouette. “Talk to Pim next door”, he said. “He’s the man to help you”. I navigated my way around a stack of building offcuts and entered a crowded lobby. “Chet Baker”, I said and the man behind the desk beamed in my direction. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” he said, pointing me toward a glass cabinet containing a few items of Baker memorabilia. It was an odd assortment, a copper bugle, secondhand books on Chet, some faux Delftware and two paperweight trumpets.

When Pim was free of his duties he led us to a padlocked door which in turn led us to where the construction was happening. Inside, behind the plywood panels and stacked tools was another smaller door which hid a commemorative brass plaque. “He died right here,” he said, pointing to the ground below the plaque. We all stood silent for a time, reflecting on this gifted but flawed genius and his legacy. The beautiful youth with James Dean looks who morphed into a drug-ravaged parchment skull. The trumpeter who impressed Parker, the melodic improviser, the man with the mesmerizing androgynous voice. The man who could break your heart because he fell in love too easily. https://youtu.be/3zrSoHgAAWo

Looking up at the third-floor window I pondered over the many versions of his untimely death. I ran them past Pim who had clearly heard them all before: (1) he had nodded off in front the open window, (2) he owed money and was trying to escape angry drug dealers by climbing across to the next balcony, (3) he was pushed out the window by the drug dealers, (4) he was locked in his room by mistake and was trying to jump to the next balcony (5) suicide. Pim looked thoughtful for a minute and then spoke, “There’s another credible theory” he said as he paused for effect. We were all ears. “I believe that he was abducted by aliens because he was so uniquely talented, and after they had mapped his brain they tried to return him to his room. At this point, a tragic miscalculation occurred as their coordinates were out by a metre. It is rumoured that one of the younger aliens had forgotten to allow for the warping of time during transportation. A rookie mistake that robbed us of his musical genius”.

As we returned to the foyer I asked him if he would accept a tip as he had gone to so much trouble. He nodded happily and I handed him ten Euros. He held it up to the light, beaming as turned it over. “I like this so much,” he said, “that I will take it on holiday with me next week”. I now favour this new theory. It gives me hope that the aliens, appalled by their miscalculation, are working to correct it, planning to travel back in time and return Chet to his room in the Prins Hendrik. If they do I am certain that Chet and Pim will appreciate each other’s company.

Posted from San Francisco – John Fenton October 21, 2018.

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