David Brent Johnson
If formal jazz education is a growing part of the music's history and evolution, then there should be a considerable chapter set aside for David Baker. Born in Indianapolis on Dec. 21, 1931, Baker emerged from the same city scene that produced J.J. Johnson, Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard, making a name for himself as an adventurous, high-speed trombonist. After visiting the Lenox School of Jazz in 1959, Baker and his Indianapolis hard-bop group came under the tutelage of pianist and theorist George Russell, who made a series of records with Baker for Decca and Riverside that still stand among the most compelling small-group jazz recordings of the 1950s and '60s.
But lingering complications from an early-1950s car accident that had injured his jaw would eventually force Baker to abandon the trombone, right around the time that DownBeat magazine gave him the 1962 New Star award in that instrument's category. That year, fellow trombonist Curtis Fuller told DownBeat, "If there is to be a new era in jazz, Dave Baker should be in the center of it." Fuller was talking about Baker's trombone playing, but his words would prove to be prophetic in another sense; as an educator, Baker has imprinted his jazz DNA on several generations of musicians, who have carried his codes forward through their own playing and teaching.
The head of Indiana University's jazz studies program since 1966, a jazz cellist (Baker took up the instrument in his early 30s), conductor of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, and author of numerous analytical and instructional texts, Baker has also kept busy as a versatile and wide-ranging composer, writing hundreds of pieces in small-group, big-band, Third Stream and other stylistic formats. On Saturday, Jan. 21, the IU Jacobs School of Music will host an 80th-birthday-year concert for Baker that will provide an overview of his musical works, featuring former Baker students such as bassist Bob Hurst, pianists Michael Weiss and Jim Beard, saxophonist Ralph Bowen and drummer Shawn Pelton. Here are five Baker compositions that demonstrate the breadth of what George Russell once called Baker's "21st-century soul music."