By Marcela Creps
David Baker may not have planted the seed that resulted in the rich garden that is jazz in Bloomington today.
But he has been the longtime caretaker of that seed — watering, fertilizing and protecting the small shoot that grew to unimaginable proportions.
So it seems fitting that Saturday, Baker will receive the 2015 Living Legend Award during Bloomington’s Black History Month Gala.
Throughout his illustrious career, Baker, 83, could have left this small Midwestern town. And he was offered those chances, but he chose to stay.
“I can’t imagine being anyplace else,” he said.
Baker first came to Bloomington in 1949. He stayed through 1954, earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Indiana University. After graduation, he spent time trying to launch his career in Los Angeles and spent a year teaching in Missouri before returning to IU to pursue a doctorate.
By 1966, Baker joined the faculty of the music school at IU. Although he’d established himself as a talented musician, Baker also became known as a great teacher.
Throughout his career at IU, Baker was given the opportunity to expand the program. He wrote books and compositions. At IU, Baker received support from then-music school Dean Wilfred C. Bain and former university President Herman B Wells.
“It was a hotbed of activity,” Baker said.
Despite living in the Midwest, Baker still had opportunities to mingle with famous people. He held board positions. He served on the National Council of the Arts with actor Robert Stack, with whom he enjoyed talking about “The Untouchables.” During meetings, Baker would watch actress Celeste Holm.
“She would knit,” he said. “I didn’t say she paid attention.”
And he traveled extensively throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan and was conductor and musical and artistic director of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.
“It was such a thrilling experience to be all over the world,” Baker said.
Baker’s office in Merrill Hall is full of his life’s memories. He looks fondly at the photos and posters and proudly points to a photo of him talking at a lectern with Bill and Hillary Clinton in the background. He also likes the framed document signed by President Ronald Reagan when he was appointed to the National Council on the Arts.
But some of the photos are a reminder of the passage of time. Baker looks at one photo and guesses about half of the people in it have passed away.
“Those things lie heavy on your heart,” Baker said.
He keeps in touch with high school friends and attends reunions when possible.
“I keep a list of all the people that were close to me that want to stay together,” Baker said.
He also keeps up with many in the jazz community and recently visited his old friend, Quincy Jones. A signed poster by Jones addresses Baker as “my brother from before electricity.”
Baker is able to hear the legacy he’s left. He still attends local jazz shows and enjoys seeing how young people, including kids in middle school, are learning to play jazz.
He’s loved teaching, and his classes at IU were always popular.
When he broke his hip a few years ago, he was teaching a class. Baker’s first words when he fell were to the teaching assistant to continue playing the recording. While the 100-plus students started dialing 911, Baker wanted the students to hear what was coming up next.
Hearing the next generation of performers makes Baker glad he doesn’t have to compete with the youngsters of today.
“That’s the bread and butter of where it’s all going,” he said.
Baker is still eager to teach and has advice for musicians trying to re-create jazz music that’s been done in more ways than can be counted.
“Find something that will set you apart from the people that are there,” he said. “Give me something that tells me that’s you.”
The growth of jazz in Bloomington, he points out, means that on any given night, you can hear jazz being played and enjoyed by people of all ages.
“It can only go one way. It can keep going up,” he said.
© Herald Times 2015