Herald Times feature: David Baker overcomes obstacles to build renowned jazz program


By Daniel MorganSpecial to the H-T
December 30, 2012

As a teenager in Indianapolis, David Baker would practice the tuba during streetcar rides to and from Crispus Attucks High School. As he tells it, the other passengers would beg him to stop — but he persevered.

David Baker poses in his Merrill Hall office on the Indiana University campus. David Snodgress | Herald-Times

He went on to earn his undergraduate and master’s degrees, both in music education, from Indiana University in Bloomington. He switched to the trombone, then the cello — and along the way built a renowned jazz department for the Jacobs School of Music. He earned numerous accolades for his contributions to jazz pedagogy, was nominated for a Grammy and a Pulitzer, and won an Emmy in 2003.

Baker, who celebrated his 81st birthday Dec. 21, continues to educate and impact students’ lives as a distinguished professor and chair of the Jacobs Jazz Department. But he’s beginning to cut back from some of his commitments. Recently he stepped down as conductor of the Jacobs Jazz Ensemble Number One — a position he’d held since he began teaching at IU in 1966.

He sees it as refocusing some of his energy.

Monty Howell | H-T file photo David Baker recently began playing the cello again after breaking his hip earlier this year.

“There are things I need to be doing and things I want to be doing, along with my writing, so this was a chance because I knew they were in good hands,” he said, sitting in his office at Jacobs.

Brent Wallarab, his successor as conductor of the Jacobs Jazz Ensemble Number One, is a former student of Baker’s and has admired his work since childhood.

“He was the reason I chose to come to IU for my graduate work. I was aware of him ever since I was in high school,” said Wallarab, a trombonist.

Baker and Wallarab have worked together professionally since 1991, when they joined the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra as conductor and lead trombonist, respectively.

Dizzy Gillespie stands with David Baker. Courtesy photo

While Baker had an undeniable impact on Wallarab as a student, he also gave him the freedom to pursue his own style as a teacher.

“Much of what I’ve learned about running the jazz band and teaching has come from my time studying with David and observing him,” Wallarab said. “At the same time, David is acutely aware that I am my own person as well, and I have my own background and my own aesthetic ideas about music and how to run a band.”

Overcoming obstacles

Baker’s formative years were different from Wallarab’s. He attended IU while it was still a segregated school. He wasn’t allowed to stay in the dorms or go to certain restaurants around campus. Despite this, he decided to stay in Bloomington after his graduation because he felt welcomed.

“For me it was a natural thing, and I can’t imagine that I would have gone anywhere else to live,” Baker said. “Bloomington was a safe haven for me, and I made a circle of friends with people who saw beyond the color. If there was a fairy land, I guess this was it.”

Dizzy Gillespie stands with David Baker. Courtesy photo

Following his graduation, Baker wrote music and performed with several bands, including those of Lionel Hampton, Stan Kenton and Quincy Jones. In 1962, he won DownBeat magazine’s New Star Award for his work playing the trombone with the George Russell Sextet.

He was on the brink of a major career as a trombonist when a broken jaw — suffered in a car accident — forced him to give up the instrument.

In 1966 Baker was offered a position on IU’s faculty by the dean of the Jacobs School at the time, Wilfred Bain, who asked him to start a jazz program for the school.

He credits his appointment to Jerry Coker, a former student of the Jacobs School who knew Baker was the man for the job.

“Jerry was (performing and teaching) as a graduate student, and when he left, Dean Bain asked for a recommendation, and he recommended that I be the one to do that,” Baker said. “Jerry went back to Dean Bain two or three different times and Dean Bain asked each time, and he said ‘I’m not giving you any name but David’s.’”

Jazzing it up

Jazz was not widely taught at the time, so Baker had no models from which to take cues.

However, he said the school supported all his initiatives.

David Baker leads the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. Courtesy photo

“Bain had a vision, and I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do simply because I didn’t have any rules because there was no one else here doing this — I was the only one,” Baker said. “It was a strain, but it was also a blessing.”

Baker has built the Jacobs Jazz Department from the ground up, but there’s also a lot to celebrate in the man himself.

When he was a senior at Crispus Attucks, Baker wanted to play the tuba, but there wasn’t one available. So he improvised.

“I took a cigar box and found some springs from a tricycle, and made myself something so I could learn the fingering for tuba,” he said. “Mr. Brown, my music teacher, saw me playing with it, and saw that I had learned the tuba part, so when a tuba became available he gave it to me to play.”

Early days

He began teaching at IU as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum.

“I can remember a wonderful situation not long after I came here to teach, and I had an Afro this big,” he said, holding his hand about a foot over his head.

“I had the high heel shoes, and I wore the dashiki with the beads. The first time I encountered Dean Bain in the hall dressed that way, he walked over to me and said, ‘Why David, what a marvelous costume.’ I went home and changed clothes after that.”

Model behavior

Baker has served as a role model for students and faculty. He keeps in contact with many of his former students, and several of them have joined him as teachers in the music school.

“I got a letter from one the other day, and those letters are copious — every day I have something new,” Baker said. “I’m always so happy, because I remember those people and our relationship doesn’t stop when they leave here.”

Monika Herzig, one of Baker’s former students who has joined IU’s faculty as a lecturer, has known him since 1986 and wrote a book celebrating his legacy and achievements — “David Baker: A Legacy in Music,” which was published in 2011.

Herzig was surprised to learn that no one had written a book about Baker, so she took the opportunity herself.

“It was one of those things that everybody thinks someone else is doing, but nobody was,” Herzig said. “It was time.”

Herzig and Baker are currently collaborating on a book project, that will explore the historical and social context of jam sessions.

Despite all the obstacles he’s faced, Baker is thankful for all he’s been able to achieve and credits his success with the opportunities his peers gave him.

“I’ve written for the New York Philharmonic, the Beaux Arts Trio, Menahem Pressler, (Josef) Gingold, (Janos) Starker, Quincy (Jones) and they’re really the people who were responsible for me because when they commissioned the work, someone said, ‘Maybe this is somebody who we should learn from, if he was commissioned by all these people,’” Baker said.

Baker recently stepped down as the artistic director and conductor of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. He conducted his final concert, a tribute to Count Basie, this past summer.

On Dec. 1 at the orchestra’s annual holiday concert, Baker’s 21 years of service were celebrated and four of his compositions were performed by the orchestra. He has been named Maestro Emeritus — a position honoring his contributions to the orchestra, and is continuing on as senior consultant to the Smithsonian music programs.

Baker remains a strong presence in the Jacobs Jazz Department, and is beginning to play the cello again after recovering from a broken hip.

“Our entire jazz faculty is amazing, and everybody is contributing in really profound ways,” Wallarab said.

“One of the things that makes the current jazz department so strong is the great talent that’s on the faculty, and the keen, cooperative spirit that we’re all making to ensure that David’s legacy at the Jacobs School of Music lasts for a very long time.”

Copyright: HeraldTimesOnline.com 2012

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