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David Baker, Who Helped Bring Jazz Studies Into the Academy, Dies at 84 – The New York Times

David Baker, Who Helped Bring Jazz Studies Into the Academy, Dies at 84 – The New York Times



David Baker, Who Helped Bring Jazz Studies Into the Academy, Dies at 84


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The performer, composer and educator David Baker. He founded Indiana University’s jazz studies program in 1968. Hugh Talman/National Museum of American History 

David Baker, a performer, composer and educator who helped bring jazz studies into the academy at a time when the ivory tower considered the field infra dig, died on Saturday at his home in Bloomington, Ind. He was 84.

His death was announced by the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he was a distinguished professor emeritus.

A trombonist and later a cellist, Mr. Baker founded Indiana’s jazz studies program — one of the first of its kind at an American university — in 1968. It remains one of the most respected among the dozens of academic jazz programs now flourishing in the United States.

As a performer, Mr. Baker played in the ensembles of Quincy Jones and George Russell. With Gunther Schuller, he founded the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in 1990, serving for many years as its artistic and musical director.

As a composer, he wrote hundreds of pieces, including jazz works and jazz-inflected concert music, for instrumentalists and ensembles including the violinists Josef Gingold and Ruggiero Ricci, the cellist Janos Starker, the Beaux Arts Trio, the Audubon String Quartet, the New York Philharmonic and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

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For his work, Mr. Baker was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2000 and a Living Jazz Legend by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2007.

Mr. Baker’s laurels are all the more noteworthy in that he had been forced to reinvent his musical career three times: first when he was barred from making his way as a classical trombonist because of his race; second when, as a jazzman, he had to forsake the trombone after a devastating jaw injury; and third when he was driven from a teaching job because he had married a white woman.

David Nathaniel Baker Jr. was born in Indianapolis on Dec. 21, 1931. A gifted classical and jazz trombonist as a youth, he graduated from Crispus Attucks High School, then a segregated institution for blacks in Indianapolis.

As a teenager — “From the time I was able to draw a mustache on with an eyebrow pencil and pray it didn’t rain,” as he later said — he haunted the city’s thriving jazz clubs.

After studying at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music in Indianapolis, he received a bachelor’s degree in music education from Indiana University in 1953. He earned a master’s in the field there the next year.

Afterward, he hoped to make a career as a symphony musician. But as he discovered when he auditioned for the Indianapolis Symphony in the 1950s, few orchestras were open to him.

“He was told, ‘You’re probably the best one we’ve heard, but we can’t employ you because of your color,’” Monika Herzig, a jazz pianist and the author of “David Baker: A Legacy in Music” (2011), said in a telephone interview on Monday.

He continued his jazz career, over time playing with Mr. Russell’s sextet and Mr. Jones’s big band.

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But in 1953, as Mr. Baker was returning from a gig in northern Indiana, the car in which he was riding was struck head-on by another. Asleep in the front passenger seat, he was thrown through the windshield and suffered severe injuries, including a broken shoulder.

It was some time, Ms. Herzig recounted on Monday, before Mr. Baker’s companions could find a hospital that would admit a black patient. And even when they did, the hospital failed to take note of a crucial injury.

“They didn’t diagnose that his jaw was broken,” she said. “So he kept playing on this barely grown-back-together bone.”

Mr. Baker was able to continue playing until the early 1960s. But soon afterward, a chronic facial tremor resulting from the injury put an end to his life as a trombonist.

He switched to the cello, on which he became skilled enough to perform with his own group, David Baker’s 21st Century Bebop Band.

Mr. Baker had joined the faculty of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., in the mid-1950s. A historically black institution, the university had begun to admit white students in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark desegregation case of 1954.

But in 1957, he was fired after he married Eugenia Jones, a white opera singer, in Chicago: Anti-miscegenation laws were then in force in Missouri.

Mr. Baker taught privately before joining Indiana — where he was the only African-American faculty member in the music department — in 1966. There, he was asked to inaugurate a program in jazz, a taboo subject in universities at the time.

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“It was not the thing to do,” Ms. Herzig said. “When he went to school — at any of the colleges — they were not allowed to practice jazz in the practice rooms: You could get expelled.”

Little by little, Mr. Baker won his colleagues over, and today, jazz studies at Indiana encompasses the history, composition and performance of the genre. He was the program’s chairman from 1968 to 2013.

Mr. Baker’s first marriage ended in divorce. His survivors include a daughter from that marriage, April Ayers; his second wife, Lida Belt Baker, a flutist; and a granddaughter.

Widely recorded as a composer and performer, he was the author of many books, including “Jazz Styles & Analysis — Trombone: A History of the Jazz Trombone via Recorded Solos” (1973) and “David Baker’s Jazz Pedagogy” (1989).

His compositions include “Jazz Suite for Clarinet and Symphony Orchestra: Three Ethnic Dances”; “Le Chat Qui Pêche,” a work for orchestra, soprano and jazz quartet; a concerto for saxophone and chamber orchestra; and a sonata for tuba and string quartet.

What was very likely his best-known composition originated as a kind of postmodern commentary. Accepting a highly specific commission from the Chicago Sinfonietta, Mr. Baker wrote his Concertino for Cellular Phones and Orchestra.

The work depends vitally on audience members setting off their ringtones — a concert-hall phenomenon normally met with murderous stares and hissed invective — at specified moments in the score.

Writing about the world premiere of the piece in The New York Times in 2006, Daniel J. Wakin said, “It was like an aviary gone mad.”

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He added, in what is almost certainly the only known use in this context of adjectives of approbation:

“The orchestra onstage was unfazed. The composer was delighted.”


Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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