Award-winning composer, educator and writer David Baker is being remembered for his dedication to jazz music. Baker died today at the age of 84.
Baker didn’t come from a musical family, but he was certainly a product of his environment.
“People tend to excel in the areas that are open to them so at that time a black was expected to play religious music, rock n roll or jazz,” Baker told WFIU in an interview.
Born Dec. 21, 1931, Baker grew up in Indianapolis when it was heavily segregated. He and his friends went to the all-black Crispus Attucks High School. It was a close-knit community not just inside the school, but in the neighborhoods where black families were concentrated at the time.
“So Indiana Avenue kind of became a focal point for cultural activity, particularly activity of the sort of jazz and I suppose art and poetry much like we were having in Harlem with the Harlem renaissance,” Baker said.
Dozens of businesses, clubs and entertainment venues dotted the area.
“They were in high school but they couldn’t get into the clubs,” says Baker biographer Monika Herzig. “They wanted to listen and jam. Their teachers were there. They often tell the story that the teacher was playing pool, and if you had a question you just walked in and said ‘Hey, how does this fingering go?’”
Baker had dreams of becoming a trombone player in the orchestra. He attended Indiana University, earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees in music education.
“I thought that playing the trombone. That came easy for me, and I had won the New York New Star poll in 1962, I believe,” Baker said. “And I thought, man, I’m on my way, but a higher power said ‘Not that way,’ though.”
Baker was playing with the George Russell sextet in the late 1950s when a jaw injury forced him to abandon the trombone.
He tried switching to the piano “and practiced 8 hours a day only to discover that it was an unforgiving instrument, and it wanted nothing to do with me,” Baker said.
From there, he went to the bass.
“I played bass for about a year or two years, and my bass teacher said ‘David, that instrument is not going to challenge you enough,’ so he went out to a pawn shop and bought a $15 cello and put it together and gave me the cello,” Baker said. “And to the day he died, I would joke with him, ‘Mr. Brown, how could you do that to me? You said I was one of your favorite students and you would start me at cello at 34 years old.’”
Baker liked to laugh and tell that story, but ultimately he said everything that happened was God’s way of putting him on the path he needed to be on.
Not long after switching to the cello, Baker got a call from the Dean of Indiana University’s School of Music inviting him to come back to his alma mater and start a jazz studies program.
Check out this restored 1976 footage of Baker:
“He told stories how oftentimes he was in meetings and people just shut the door and said ‘We don’t want this jazz in here,’” Herzig says.
Baker would have to prove himself and prove that jazz could be taught in an academic setting.
“It was kind of looked down upon,” Herzig says. “Meaning can you teach that, how do you evaluate that, do they learn as much as in other academic settings? So he sort of had to prove to the classical-oriented academia that this is possible, and also he was the only black faculty at that time, so that was a big challenge.”
Baker succeeded by making jazz a systematic study that could be tested.
“Before that, it was very much an oral tradition,” she says. “You know it was more the mentorship type — ‘I’ll show you how it goes, and you copy it off one-on-one’ — but this made it possible for it to be taught anywhere all over the world.”
Baker has more than 70 books and 400 articles to his credit.
See Baker perform in this video from 1998:
His environment at Indiana University gave him the opportunity to learn not only from his students but his colleagues, who in many cases were the best in the world on their particular instruments.
Baker’s first commission came from famed violinist Josef Gingold. Soon, Janos Starker followed, and then Jim Campbell, Harvey Phillips and the Beaux Arts Trio.
Baker’s career was marked by the seamlessness with which he blended jazz and classical elements and by his prolific rate of composition — more than 2,000 works, commissioned by more than 500 individuals and ensembles ranging from the New York Philharmonic to the African-American a cappella group, the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Baker was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and a few years later in 1979 for a Grammy.
His other include honors include a place in the National Association of Jazz Educators Hall of Fame, a John F. Kennedy Center For the Performing Arts Living Legend Award. He was named an American Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and he was the musical and artistic director of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.
This past February the City of Bloomington — Baker’s hometown for more than 50 years — presented him with its Living Legend Award.
And Baker’s legacy will live on worldwide, not just through generations of prominent working musicians ranging from drummers Peter Erskine and Jeff Hamilton to horn players Mike and Randy Brecker and Chris Botti, but in all of those who continue to use his materials to learn how to teach jazz.
Baker is survived by his wife Lida, a flutist with whom he recorded many times, his daughter, April Ayers, and granddaughter, Kirsten Bartalone.