The story of David Baker, who died at 84 on March 26, is indelible for many reasons.
As a composer, educator, trombonist and cellist, he was named both a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2000 and a Living Jazz Legend by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2007.
I was first drawn to Baker’s music through the 1987 premiere of “Ellingtones,” which featured the New York Philharmonic, conducted by James DePreist, and tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, in a trio with pianist Tommy Flanagan and bassist Ron Carter. I’d never heard jazz in such a classical setting before.
And I’d never heard a musical voice like Baker’s as composer. The experience sent me backward and then forward through Baker’s recordings, and it opened my mind.
Baker’s bold creativity was evident from the start of his career, and especially through his work as trombonist and composer on a series of groundbreaking recordings by pianist and composer George Russell. His resilience and persistence was singularly inspiring. As Margalit Fox noted in a New York Times obituary:
Mr. Baker’s laurels are all the more noteworthy in that he had been forced to reinvent his musical career three times: first when he was barred from making his way as a classical trombonist because of his race; second when, as a jazzman, he had to forsake the trombone after a devastating jaw injury; and third when he was driven from a teaching job because he had married a white woman.
And yet Baker leapt over any and all barriers, and ultimately combined all his interests and aspirations. He helped articulate an understanding of jazz as an expression of Black culture, and, as Fox notes, he “helped bring jazz studies into the academy at a time when the ivory tower considered the field infra dig.”
In fact, Baker’s greatest legacy is perhaps expressed through the courses of study and consciousness he established at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, where he was distinguished professor.
Now, friends of Baker, with the support of his widow, are putting together a recording titled Basically Baker Volume 2: The Big Band Music of David Baker featuring the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra. All proceeds generated by sales of the recording will go directly to the David N. Baker Scholarship Fund to provide a financial means for prospective students to attend the Jacobs School of Music Jazz Studies Program. The CD will be released by Patois Records. An added feature of this project is the rerelease of “Basically Baker, Vol I,” recorded in 2005, which made Downbeat Magazine’s “100 best Recordings of the Decade” list in 2010.
To support this worthy project, go here—and do it now: The indiegogo campaign ends June 12.
Here’s my brief interview with Brent Wallarab, who played under Baker’s direction with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and teaches at the Jacobs School, about his mentor’s legacy.
What made Baker unique?
David had an amazing ability to effectively and passionately communicate about jazz to everyone regardless of experience, background, or environment:, from audiences with no musical background to academic scholars, from the most shy freshman college student to the President of the United States. When it came to speaking about and teaching this music he loved so much, David could reach anyone, inspiring them no matter their station in life.
How did he affect your personal musicianship or scholarship?
Like many others before me and after me, David saw my potential before I saw it myself. While in grad school in the late 80’s I became obsessed with Duke Ellington and the solo styles of his great trombone players and as an arranger I transcribed as much Ellington as I could. When David became director of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in 1991, he called on me to be in the trombone section due to my ability to recreate those styles and assigned me the role as chief transcriber for the band. I found myself performing and transcribing at a higher level that I could have ever imagined, all because of David’s certainty that I was up to the task.
What will this CD and this scholarship add to jazz culture?
While his classical work is widely recorded and performed internationally, it is a strange irony that David Baker’s jazz big band writing rarely sees the light of day beyond the Indiana University campus. With this recording and the reissue of Volume 1, we want the rest of the jazz world to know what so many of us who have come through the program at Indiana University know—that David Baker has a truly brilliant and unique voice as a writer for jazz big band. In pursuing this project, not only will we be introducing more listeners to his amazing music, but will be helping the next generation of studying the program he developed 50 years ago. We see these recordings as maintaining the legacy of a great musician and teacher while looking to the future by investing in the next generation.