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The Basics of David Baker: a Conversation

Photo of jazz educator David Baker

A few weeks ago I interviewed jazz composer, educator, and musician David Baker, who played in George Russell's early-1960s progressive-bop group (featured in the Night Lights program When Russell Met Baker). For the past 40 years David has run the jazz studies program at Indiana University while continuing to compose and perform, and he also leads the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. A new CD of his big band compositions performed by the Buselli-Wallarab Orchestra, Basically Baker, garnered four and a half stars in a recent Downbeat review. Here's Part 1 of the interview, which originally appeared in Bloom Magazine. Baker talks about the early days of the Indianapolis jazz scene, playing with Wes Montgomery and with George Russell at the Five Spot in New York City, why he had to abandon the trombone for cello, and the beginnings of the jazz-studies program at Indiana University:

DBJ: You grew up in Indianapolis in the 1940s, at a time when the jazz scene on Indiana Avenue was thriving, but it was also a time when segregation posed a lot of barriers to an aspiring young African American musician. What led you onto the path of becoming a jazz artist?

DB: Probably being exposed to so much music, hearing everything from the Mills Brothers to The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet. My thoughts weren't about being a musician at that time, but just enjoying music; on Saturday night I would hear Minnie Pearl on Grand Ole Opry and at the same time I was listening to the music from a Tennessee radio show called Randy's Record Shop. So I was hearing jazz, but my real love was country music. I knew all the country tunes. But I had a cousin who gave me a Dizzy Gillespie record and told me to listen to it. I said I would, but I didn't pay any attention to it.

And a few days later he came back and asked, "How did you like that record?" I said, "Oh, it was great!" and he said "Then you don't need these anymore" and he picked up all my country-western records and broke them. I now have one record! I didn't get mad at him, because he was bigger than me and it was pointless to get mad, but it opened another door and I started listening. It was a hell of a baptism. But what a revelation.

Then there's the very practical reason that, given the circumstances of that time, the only things that were open were those things that were designated for blacks. That is, gospel music, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, big jazz bands, if you will. It was probably foolish to aspire to play in the symphony orchestra or have a major career there, even though we were encouraged at my school, Crispus Attucks, which was the black school. The Klan was responsible for that school, but I don't think they could have ever known what a blessing it was… to have a whole faculty of musicians teaching us and the fact that we were exposed to the whole history of the diaspora and black achievement. Oscar Robertson, the great basketball player, put Attucks on the map, but there's a whole legacy of great musicians as well-J.J. Johnson and (saxophonist) Jimmy Coe, (bassist) Leroy Vinnegar, (pianist) Carl Perkins, (saxophonist) Jimmy Spaulding and Wes Montgomery .

DBJ: These days, if a young musician wants to get a jazz education he or she comes to a place like Indiana University and takes courses with people like you and Pat Harbison or Luke Gillespie. But how did the teenage David Baker get his jazz education?

DB: Well, first of all, that didn't exist as a concept at the time, so the education took place in the street. You had people that encouraged you like Wes Montgomery, and you went to jam sessions, which were rife at the time. For instance, in Indianapolis, on a Tuesday, in the late 1940's, you could go from one end of Indiana Avenue to the other end, and there would be a club on almost every block. We'd go around to the clubs listening and trying to get in; because we weren't old enough, we'd put on our berets and our horned-rimmed glasses, draw mustaches on our upper lips and hope it didn't rain.

I also had a very tolerant teacher named Russell Brown. Even though jazz was not his forte, he encouraged us and put together a group called the Rhythm Rockets. We were sad, I mean really horrible, but he was patient and made us listen to music. And for me, that's the thing that became the basis of my teaching, to recreate as accurately as possible those circumstances, but in the context of a formal situation. Figure out what you can and we'll fill in the gaps. It's a little like the Berlitz method of learning a language. When you're learning to speak a language, you don't start out by reading it and learning about syntax and grammar. You learn to speak as a practical matter and then somebody goes back and puts labels on those and tells you how they work.

DBJ: You mentioned Russell Brown. Who were some of your other musical mentors, and what kind of impact did they have on you as a young musician?

DB: Everybody at Crispus Attucks, all of the music teachers that were there. But perhaps in the jazz area the people that affected me most were the members of the Hampton family. (Trombonist) Slide Hampton I probably owe more than I will ever be able to repay him, because Slide was able to put things like what J.J. Johnson was doing into terms that I could understand. We were playing in the family band and we would practice at their home; they would have a big tub of Kool-Aid with ice in it. We would play a piece by Stan Kenton or a piece by Dizzy and we would slow it down or they would help each other and we would learn the piece and learn our own parts. This was long before there was such an animal as a play-along book. And I learned, ultimately J.J.'s solos or whoever's solos that I could figure out how to play.

DBJ: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with J.J. Johnson? Was he sort of your early model on the trombone?

DB: He was the first one but sometimes what he was doing wasn't always accessible, because of the level of difficulty. For me it was more the iconic posture that was there. Look, I could walk down the halls of Crispus Attucks and see all the graduating classes' photographs and there from 1942 or whenever it was, there's J.J. and I can stand and see J.J. but then there's Jimmy Coe, there was Eldridge Morrison, and almost all these other guys who are on the wall too. And if nothing more than that you had this to which you could aspire. It was an exciting time.

DBJ: You also knew Wes Montgomery in the years before his national star took off. There's a great picture of the two of you standing back to back, with Wes holding his guitar and you holding your trombone. What was it like to work with him?

DB: Well, Wes was the one (of the Montgomery brothers) who decided to stay home in Indianapolis, more than anything because he and his wife Maureen had a lot of children to take care of. We would play sometimes at summer parks or other jobs and Wes would teach us his tunes by rote. The only real problem was in the course of a long set of solos, when we got ready to take the tune out, we couldn't remember what the head (melodic theme) was or how it went. And fortunately, being around Wes, pretty soon you developed the skill of memorizing everything. This is really what you bring to the table when you're an improviser; to be able to bring to the surface all that you've heard, all that you know, without having a piece of music in front of you. With Wes, the most deadly words you could hear were, "You'll hear it." Because you'll ask him how you did that, and he'd just say, "You'll hear it." And basically, over the long haul, you probably would or you might choose to go into another field.

Around this time Gunther Schuller heard my big band when he came out as a horn player with the Metropolitan Opera. I had some killer players from IU and the band was smoking. He wrote an article for the Jazz Review called "Indiana Renaissance." I had taken him to see Wes Montgomery and I don't think I will ever forget his reaction hearing Wes for the first time. Wes just astounded people. I can remember shortly after that taking (saxophonist) Cannonball Adderley down to the Missile Room (an afterhours club) to see Wes for the first time. I remember his head rolling back and shaking. He immediately called the record producer Orrin Keepnews. We were suppose to play together that next week, Wes and I, and instead he ended up having to go to New York and make a record with his trio. Like they say, the rest is history.

DBJ: Can you describe what it would be like if you went back to 1956 and walked down Indiana Avenue? What would you have seen and heard?

DB: It would have been alive then. A more accurate time would be 1949 and 1950, even though it maintained an elevated status beyond that; but if you were to go there in 1950 you would start at Ohio Street. Pawn shops lined one side and the clubs lined the other. You would go into the Golden Keg, Henri's, the Sky Club, George's Bar, all the way down to the General Hospital which was by Lockefield Gardens. And every one of those clubs had a jazz group in it. I don't mean something that passes for jazz like now, when you go to a jazz festival and only about 20% of it is actually jazz. Not all of the groups were great, but it really was a little like being on New York's 52nd street at this time. One club would have Carl Perkins and Leroy Vinnegar and one would have Wes Montgomery and Buddy Montgomery. My friends and I went to the jam sessions and we were accepted even though we weren't very good; we'd play the one or two tunes that we knew, pack up our horns and go to the very next club on the next block. So in the course of an evening, we would get to play but we would play the same tune at each club and probably the same solo if we worked it out.

DBJ: In the late 1950s you and some members of your Indianapolis group went to the Lenox School in Massachusetts, and that seemed to have a profound impact on your jazz conceptions and your subsequent career. How did your studies and your exposure to musicians such as Ornette Coleman end up affecting your musical thinking?

DB: We were at the Lenox school because Gunther Schuller had invited us. You had to go on scholarship. The year I went in 1959 was the year Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry came to the East Coast. I had some antipathy to the new sounds, because our group hadn't even been discovered yet, and here we were finding out that we were already old- fashioned. But it was an exciting time because we had history classes, private lessons with people who are legends now. It was the foundation of the jazz education system.

We were in the center of this jazz revolution and (composer/pianist) George Russell said, ‘Ornette is going to really upset New York City." I couldn't envision that, but when he went into the Five Spot he did, he upset it and turned the way people were thinking by playing the new music. It was called Free Jazz, some unmentionable things as well.

DBJ: You ended up playing in New York City's Five Spot nightclub with George Russell, who pretty much absorbed yor Indianapolis group. This was at a time when people like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and Miles Davis were performing regularly. What was it like playing on the New York City jazz scene in that era?

DB: George had come out to Indianapolis and we rehearsed every day, all day long, preparing to go to New York I remember opening night in the Five Spot, George had written all of this music and we hadn't perfected it but we had it under control; it was out in a lot of ways. I remember looking out and there was J.J. Johnson at one table, John Coltrane with one leg against the wall eating a box of Sunkist raisins, Miles Davis was there, you name it, not because of us but because of George Russell. We were so busy trying to play this difficult music that we couldn't really think about them watching us, but we also had the advantage of them not knowing exactly what we were trying to do!

The Jazz Gallery and the Five Spot were owned by the same people, which meant if we were playing in one club, we could go to the other club for free; so we would go every night to hear whoever was there at the time. That's how I met Monk for the first time, and it was so wild, because we'd been going there every night to hear them but they hadn't been to hear us. So one night I looked up when I'd finished playing a solo and I opened my eyes and Monk is standing 20 feet from me with his hat on and his arms crossed and when I came off he said, "You do look a little like me." Somebody told him that he looked like me. This was 1959. I didn't see Monk again until 1964. I was with Jamie Aebersold and we were in Cincinnati and we were down in the ballpark under the park in the warm-up rooms. I'm sitting with my back and I hear a gasp and I look around and there's Monk and Monk walked up to me and he said, "But you're uglier than I am." And I thought, "This is so out. This conversation started five years ago." I did get to know him a little later.

DBJ: In 1962 you won the Downbeat New Star Award for trombone players. What led you to take up cello instead, and why did you choose that particular instrument?

DB: In 1952 or 53 I was in a car accident coming back from a gig at Lake Hamilton I was asleep in the front seat and I was thrown through the front windshield and they thought I was going to die. I didn't die but across six or seven years damage was done to my jaw and I didn't know it. One side had atrophied and I was making compensating movements to make it work and all of the sudden I started to have to play with an acrylic brace to keep my teeth apart. One of the last records George Russell and I made, I was playing with that thing holding my teeth open. I really knew I had to learn to play another instrument if I was going to stay in music. So I stupidly tried to learn piano, even though I knew after the first day I wasn't going to stay with it. I practiced six or seven hours every day for a year and I switched to bass for two years. Mr. Brown said that thing wasn't going to challenge me so I went to a pawn shop and bought a $15 cello and put it together and foolishly I started the cello. I taught myself and I had disastrous fingers.

I think God works his wonders in mysterious ways because if I had stayed in New York, I probably wouldn't have turned to teaching and all the other things I do like composing, but because of that accident it forced me into areas I would have never considered.

DBJ: What was the story behind the beginning of the IU jazz studies program in the mid 1960's?

DB: People like Roger Pemberton and Jerry Coker had already begun making some incursions into the thinking of the dean, Wilfred C. Bain And Dean Bain, who'd helped start the very first jazz program at the University of North Texas before coming to IU, was probably sensitized to the fact that this was something rising. They didn't really have a jazz program so much as they had some individual classes. Jerry Coker, who was leaving, recommended me. I was a distant choice; they auditioned Bill Russo and talked to a lot of other really famous people and then I was the one who accepted when they offered me the job. I'd been teaching in Indianapolis all the time that I was recuperating from all the trauma that had happened because of the thing with my face. To show you how long ago it was, I was charging $1.25 for lessons. I came here in 1966, the degree program was approved in 1968 and for the first 10 years I was the sole person teaching it. Then Dominic Spera, who'd been my teaching assistant when he was working on his masters, came back and started helping me run the program.

I think one thing that helped make it a major program was the occurrence of the civil rights movement, and the death of Dr. Martin Luther King. And all of the sudden there was this interest in diversity at the degree level. Because remember even the armed services I don't think were integrated until 1952. School was just beginning to be integrated and so consequently people became very interested in having some awareness of who black people were. The jazz history courses, the other courses, were beginning to gain some credibility and I can remember having a class that I had to teach over in the business building because it had so many people and it was being sent off to Gary, South Bend, and some of our other campuses over TV. I can't imagine that it would have gained that kind of influence had it not been for the fact that people now needed to have the credibility of taking courses that had to do with minority concerns.

We were also among the first people who had street cred to come in, to do a jazz program. Coker played with Woody Herman and I had played with George Russell and toured with Quincy Jones. So all of a sudden now you've got some people who have street cred teaching these courses where street credibility is so important because that's the only way you could learn at the time.

(Continued in The Basics Of David Baker, Part 2)

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