Chet Baker died in a fall from a window in the Prins Hendrik Hotel in Amsterdam. Like my dad, who also died in a fall and played trumpet too, but not like Chet, with his hollow cheeks and pompadour, and when I was young I wanted to emulate cool guys, not dad’s crew-cut optimism, hot and hungry, bouncing on the balls of his feet, pencil-line moustache carefully trimmed.
But now I could see they’d both come to the same place — where the dreams of youth aren’t much good anymore and they both died at age 58, free-falling.
Had Baker nodded off and fallen from that open window? Had he jumped? And when they found my dad on the floor, where he’d apparently fallen, it wasn’t the cancer that had killed him. Was it an accident? A suicide giving up?
Chet understood the wages of sin in America, and so spent his last years in Europe, where admirers supported and abetted him, never tired of his music, and didn’t expect clean and sober.
In Amsterdam, Baker’s fans encouraged the legend, as they did with Herman Brood — Amsterdam’s bad boy musician and painter who, at age 56, had stepped off the roof of the Hilton Hotel in the finale of a story whose end he had foretold.
Amsterdam invites you to live out your fantasies, to follow dreams or demons, gives you all the rope you need to hang yourself.
Photos of Chet and Brood show the decline from insouciant pretty boys to men slumped in their 50s, eyes dead. Yet like Chet, Brood maintained a defiant bravado, even in his later days.
My dad tried to get along, Chet locked his jaw into dust bowl defense, but Brood challenged the establishment, their disapproving faces like Golden Age portraits of civil guardsmen, wearing armor over silk and small tight mouths with in-drawn lips. His face resembled theirs, but in flip side mockery, with contempt to match Chet’s disdain, revealing the anger out of which music miraculously emerged. Women loved them.
“Brood Is Dead!!” read the headlines when he finally jumped, as if they had been waiting and could now confirm at last, though he had, like Chet, defied them by becoming middle aged. “The only bad thing about drugs is the price,” said Chet, but it climbed as they aged, to the Hilton roof, the window of the Prins Hendrik, to the edge of my father’s hospital bed.
Every time I pass that hotel, I glance toward the alley where Chet landed on the bricks, and see them all three falling, faces forward, hands at sides, not trying to stop.
“Life is struggle, son,” my dad always said. Towards the end, he gave up, though, like Brood and Chet; he thought you could win. From them I learned you can’t.
And it freed me to turn inevitable descent into flight, gliding with the sleek grace of Brood’s pompadour on currents of Chet’s melancholy songs and my dad’s optimistic moustache pencil-thin, gliding to meet the bricks as if I’d planned to be there all along.