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The Basics of Baker, Part 2: Our Conversation With Jazz Educator David Baker

David BakerRecently jazz composer, musician, and educator David Baker sat down for an interview with me, and yesterday we posted Part 1, in which David talked about his experiences playing with George Russell and Wes Montgomery, as well as the origins of the Indiana University jazz studies program. The interview originally appeared in Bloom Magazine; here’s Part 2, in which he discusses jazz education and changing trends in the music, his dream band, and the city he lives and teaches in:

DBJ: Did you have any idea when you were doing this (jazz education at IU) in the late 1960s and early 70s that it would grow and become what it is today?

DB: No, I don’t think anybody had a notion. I knew that this was a program that needed to be, because you can’t ignore a music that may be one of America’s biggest exports along with movies and along with theater, but I don’t think anybody thought with any certainly that it would become this mega business. We were very fortunate to have such good people come through the program, too. I don’t like to say lucky, I say blessed because luck suggests something that’s a little off track of what happened. I think blessing is more tangible.

DBJ: A lot has gone on in jazz since you started the program. Fusion was big in the 1970s, and in the 1980s and 90s you had the rise of repertory orchestras and the Young Lions, as well as new avant-garde movements like the downtown New York scene. How has the jazz studies program chosen to reflect or not reflect these trends and absorb them into what you teach?

DB: Well, I think unlike western European music, which moved at a much slower speed simply because as those generations came forward, you didn’t have the technology to make it a global village… With jazz it’s much shorter, we traverse this vast expanse in less than 100 years. And basically we’ve had to keep our ears to the ground, because it’s been dictated pretty much by what the students need, but also by looking backwards and telling them, “This is your legacy but you can’t stop here, because you’ve got to earn a living.” I’ve always thought that with education you have two things that we have to do: one is acculturation, and the other is make them marketable. We can’t expect that all they’re going to play is big band music or they’re going to play all the music of the past, even though the lingua franca is bebop; I think that’s our Bach period.

But music moves so much more quickly now, because anything that’s done or been done before is available to everybody in the modern day. It took a long time for the music of Count Basie to get to somewhere else in a widespread way. That music had been in existence for a while and it caught on because of radio and recordings. By the time we got to long-playing records and so forth, everything was starting to happen at supersonic speed. It’s good that we’ve got such precocious students and a faculty that is aware of all of these kinds of changes. And we’ll find out which ones (trends) peter out and which ones ultimately last because of their merit. We’re going to see a lot of those movements that we thought were the greatest thing since newspapers perhaps just disappear. I watched a lot of what was happening in the 1960’s with esoteric music from India and other places. And what was good lasted. Now you start looking for the best of it, and it’s pervasive, but it’s not perceived in the radical way in which it was first presented. If you had ever told me that there would be a time when a record that was widely improvised with no written music, sent in by a person who was an icon of the avant-garde, would win a Pulitzer Prize (Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar), I would have probably thought you were out of your mind.

I think that there are certain basics on which you build. I don’t think you can throw out literature, like Shakespeare and I don’t think you can throw out Ulysses. I don’t think you can throw those out. You’ve got to be aware of them, but you need to keep abreast of what is happening. I know people who tell me that jazz started with bebop. I know other people who tell me that jazz didn’t even start till you got to Ornette. Most people view all music compared with their birth and we love the music that we fell in love to. But it can’t stop there and I think we have got to be careful not to–there’s too many times I see people who set a perimeter that says, “Here’s where music started.”

DBJ: As you say, classic recorded jazz is more available to us than ever before. Somebody with enough money could go online or go into Borders and pretty much buy the history of jazz in one shopping trip. How does this affect the students that you’re teaching today, how do they compete against Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Duke Ellington and all the other greats of the past?

DB: Well, you know, it’s kind of funny because I remember seeing an anecdote about a boy who brought home an F in History and his father said, “How could you do that? I always got all A’s,” The boy said, “Yes but daddy, when you were my age they didn’t have as much history.” The kids now have access to more information in one day then we would have had in 10 years. I can remember when David Liebman showed up with the first tape recorder you could carry, the Walkman. He got it from Japan and I thought boy, this is impossible. Now somebody can come to class with 3500 pieces on an iPod. And I think because of that, the level of player is so much higher. Now they may not be smarter, but they have such greater knowledge and skills. And we laugh sometimes, me and some of my older colleagues, because we think we couldn’t get into the IU program these days, simply because the kids know so much more. So in that way, they’ve actually got an advantage.

DBJ: Who would be in your David Baker All Star dream band?

DB: Well, I’m going to stay away from all the contemporaries. My trumpet section would probably be Snooky Young playing lead, maybe Jon Faddis. I’ve gotta go with him because I think he’s a monster. Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan for the rest. If I had a trombone section it would be Jay and Kai Winding, Slide Hampton, Curtis Fuller. For the saxophones, Charlie Parker, Benny Carter, Phil Woods, because I’d have to have Phil in there, and John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Wes (Montgomery) would be my guitarist; my piano player, I would probably have to have a three-headed monster here. I would say Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, and Bud Powell. I think the giant of the times for bassists was Ray Brown, but if I moved beyond that you would see people like John Pattitucci and certainly Ron Carter. Drummers, I would probably go with a modernist; it would be either Tony Williams or Elvin Jones, but my favorite drummer of all time would probably be Roy Haynes.

DBJ: Your wife Lida is a flutist and often performs with you. What sort of influence has she had on your musical career and your life together?

DB: Well, she grew up listening to classical music and playing in orchestras. We met when she was a student here a long, long time ago. We’ve known each other for I can’t hardly tell you how many years; we’ve been playing together professionally for the last 15 or 20.
She knows the literature better than I do probably because I didn’t – I know it in a backward sort of way, because what we played in high school was the classical music but rearranged, or in a concert band because we didn’t, for instance, have the bassoons. We play a game sometimes when we’re driving together; we hear a piece of music and it comes on and we want to see if we’ve never heard it before how quickly we can recognize who it might be, when it was done, and rarely do we miss, you know. Sometimes it’s a scoring thing that they do, sometimes it’s whatever. It’s the same thing with jazz.

Lida can play anything that she can hear. I don’t know many people I can say that about. Slide Hampton can do that, Jamie Aebersold can do that. I had to learn to do that. She’ll hear things that I have to think about what they are and she will immediately be able to internalize the music.

DBJ: You’ve been based in Bloomington now for more than 40 years and your history with IU and the city goes back even farther than that. What about the city appeals to you?

DB: I’ve watched it grow from the time when it was completely segregated. But even then there never was the kind of ugliness that occurs in some of the urban areas. It was a place you could raise a family and you didn’t usually have to worry about somebody knocking you in the head or trying to rape one of your daughters. And I don’t know of another place this size that can give you virtually as much as you can get in New York, or Chicago or L.A. Where else can you go and hear an opera? A premiere of an opera, even? Or one night you hear jazz bands and then you go to see a play and then you go to an art exhibit and then go downtown and find that there’s a theater where this is all happening. And you do all of this and it costs you probably $25 and your car will still be there when you get back.

DBJ: A friend of mine from the East Coast was out here and noticed that Bloomington has a really active jazz scene, but that few of the players are African-American–which might simply reflect the racial make up of Bloomington and IU, but what’s your take on the music’s status today within the African American community?

DB: Well, first of all, we are such a small portion of the listening audience, and on a national level the listening audience is very limited. I’m not sure but I think it’s because of all the competing kinds of music and all the competing kinds of entertainment that exist – rap and all of that kind of stuff. On the local level, we simply don’t have the numbers. I’m not even sure how many black people are in the music school, let alone the university at large or the city itself. But I would say it’s no more than five or six percent of the overall population. Those things that are part of Afro-American culture, whether it’s cuisine or entertainment, aren’t easily found, and it poses a bit of a problem. Sometimes it’s hard for me to convince a black student to come here. I think there are students from New York, Philadelphia who come out here and don’t see anybody that looks like them, you know, except for a handful of people. And you know, it’s a drag that it gets down to that because the only thing that separates most of us is the color of our skin, and yet the one thing we hang onto most is the color of our skin.

DBJ: Your recent concert for cellular phones and symphony orchestra, which involved audience participation in the performance, drew quite a lot of attention, with really nice write-ups in the New York Times and Time. How does a longtime artist or composer stay modern and inspired in the way that you have?

DB: It’s easy for me because almost everything I write is on commission. When you’re writing on commission you’re pretty much at the whims of whoever pays for the tunes, so I have to be conversant with whatever they’re asking for. If they say they want a jazz element, I try to narrow it down: do you want the street element or something elite? So that’s one of the things that helps to keep me aware. The other thing is that I need to express myself in what I want to do rather than what someone is paying me to do. And so consequently I’m curious about everything. I probably haven’t done as much with electronic music simply because I’m not literate with computers. But I try a little bit of everything, you know; avant-garde, fusion, everything.

And I listen. I try to listen to the radio because if I’m listening to what I own, I’m listening to the things that I love already know, and on the radio sometimes I’m getting ready to turn it off and something will come on and I will say, “Wow, what was that?”

DBJ: When you’re not playing, teaching, or composing, or thinking about jazz–and I know you love doing all of that because you’ve been doing it for a long time now–what else to do you do for enjoyment or to kind of unwind?

DB: A vacation is an anomaly. First of all, my idea of relaxation is to go from one set of things to another set of things, so composing and writing is a vacation for me. I love to read books. I bought three books yesterday–one by Sidney Poitier, I bought George Foreman’s new book, I got the new book on Glenn Miller. I’m going to read (former CIA director) George Tenet’s new one too, because it covers some pretty important events in recent history. And I’m a sports nut. Particularly basketball and football. Basketball more so, whether it’s the IU Hoosiers or professional. Last night I watched the Spurs win the NBA. Now my team for years has been the Lakers and we’ve fallen on hard times, so I’ve got to wait until we resuscitate ourselves. I also really enjoy studying the Bible and being a born-again Christian.

DBJ: Given everything you’ve done to date, what are you most proud of in your life?

DB: I would probably say being a teacher and raising a daughter that I am so proud of. Being a teacher because I think of the thousands of people that if I reach one, they reach one, who reaches one, who reaches two… So consequently probably almost anywhere I go I can find somebody who either studied here or studied with somebody who studied with me. So I’m very proud of that influence because I try to always follow the golden rule. I treat people like I would want them to treat me. I’ve not been lucky, I’ve been very blessed. I don’t think I have any enemies. I don’t hate anybody. I hate people’s ideas sometimes, but I really feel like it’s my job to present the best picture in the world when I speak to somebody. You rarely ever see me walking down the street telling someone my problems. People sometimes get confused because somebody will see me in the car and they smile and I wave and I know they are going “I wonder who that was?” It’s really great when I’m in another country or even in New York, because anytime someone smiles at me I say hello. I think it’s more likely to happen with minority groups if they are the minority, particularly in a place where that is not the norm. But I’ve been that way with everybody because I love what I do and I just love being around young people, that’s how you stay young. I tell students, “I wish I could come in and say, ‘tell me what you want to know,’ but I can’t trust that because you don’t know what you want to know.” One of the beautiful things about not zeroing in on a particular area, music is a little different than this but generally speaking, I feel people learn the most when they’re asking questions. So I have an insatiable curiosity. I don’t even like to sleep long because I’m afraid something’s going to happen while I’m sleeping and so my sleep pattern is maximum six hours. And then I have to be up because I’ve got to look at the paper, I’ve got to listen to the radio, I’ve got to turn on the TV, and I think that’s another thing that really keeps me fired up because I can’t do just one thing. I’m writing, I’m reading, I’m watching TV, all of those things can happen simultaneously with me.

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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