A Jazz Teacher for the Ages
John Edward Hasse
April 11, 2016 5:43 p.m. ET
David Baker, who died March 26 at age 84, may not have been a household name, but he did more than anyone to teach students how to play jazz. And he led the way for the acceptance of jazz in American higher education. It wasn’t easy. In the 1950s, music departments were so Eurocentric that at Indiana University, where he was enrolled as a student, he had to keep his interest in jazz under the radar. “If we got caught playing [jazz] in a practice room,” he said, “probably we would lose our practice-room privileges.”
David Baker, who died in March. Photo: Courtesy of Indiana University Jacobs School of Music
But a decade later, Mr. Baker was back at Indiana, this time to build one of the first jazz programs in an American college or university. As a dynamic classroom teacher at universities and at summer jazz camps for high-school and college students, and as a tireless author—he wrote more than 60 books and hundreds of articles—he attained enormous influence and built a large following.
Inspired by George Russell’s “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization,” Mr. Baker codified an accessible method for learning how to improvise jazz: For every chord in the jazz lexicon, the improviser can choose notes or patterns from one or more specific scales. As his method caught on, light bulbs went off over the heads of thousands of young musicians, even classical players with no prior experience improvising. What had seemed totally baffling—how a musician creates a solo line at the speed of thought—suddenly seemed far less forbidding and mysterious.
With infectious passion, prodigious energy and a challenging standard of excellence, he taught thousands of students to improvise, and also how to analyze and transcribe the music of the masters, how to compose and arrange, and how to grasp the history of the music. His teaching and methods are likely to remain influential for a long time.
“It was David’s attitude, humanity, sense of humor and vast knowledge that made him so special,” saxophonist Dave Liebman recalled in a recent email. “He treated everyone with respect from the beginner to the seasoned pro, all of whom he knew. When he conducted a harmony class, he was a combination of drill sergeant, actor and philosopher, all rolled into one.”
Some of his students went on to attain major jazz careers, including trumpeters Randy Brecker and Chris Botti; saxophonists Jamey Aebersold and Michael Brecker; bassists John Clayton and Robert Hurst; and drummers Jeff Hamilton, Peter Erskine and Shawn Pelton.
As a performer, first on trombone and later on cello—he was one of the few jazz cellists—Mr. Baker made more than 100 recordings. He was also a prodigious composer of jazz, classical and “third stream” music, securing commissions from more than 100 individuals and ensembles, including Josef Gingold, Janos Starker,the Beaux Arts Trio and the New York Philharmonic.
In 1990, when the Smithsonian Institution, where I serve as a curator, secured funding to establish the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, I helped recruit Mr. Baker—with whom I had studied extensively at Indiana University and who became a mentor—to become its musical director. (With typical generosity, he agreed to accept if his mentor, Gunther Schuller, would serve as co-director.) Under Mr. Baker’s musical leadership, the orchestra set a distinguished example, helped train a generation of professional musicians to play earlier styles of jazz, won new fans for the music at every performance, and became a stimulus for other jazz bands to explore the music’s bounteous history.
With generosity of spirit, selflessness, and love and concern for his students, he served as a role model for countless aspiring musicians. “I can’t think of anything much more honorable than teaching young people to be decent, to be successful,” Mr. Baker once told his family. “Teaching is such a sacred act. To show somebody about life . . . I teach under jazz, but what I teach is living.”
Mr. Hasse is curator of American music at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where he founded the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and Jazz Appreciation Month. His most recent book is “Discover Jazz.”