Today was David Baker’s birthday, and everyone who knew him is posting a picture of themselves in his company, so I’ll join the party. When he passed away, I posted this:
You can find plenty online describing his greatness, his kindness, his generosity, and how much he was liked and loved; but I’d like to add a few cents from my experience.
I met David when I was in high school, and was fortunate enough to hang around with a crop of other young would-be jazzers, many of whom were in the IU Music School.
At the time, jazz was forbidden there. I mean literally. This was long before the jazz program became a beacon of the school. We bebop punks would get together in groups of 4 or 5 or maybe 6, and jam in the practice rooms at East Hall, an old postwar quonset hut complex located where the IU opera theater now stands.
It was a big deal whenever one of the better players would be present, such as Larry Ridley or Joe Hunt or Al Kiger, but especially David Baker, whose trombone playing was already highly respected by many. These were important times, but the guy in charge of the practice rooms was unimpressed, and would regularly come around and shoo away any of us who were caught playing jazz, David included. He laughed, regarding it as sport.
Whenever we were kicked out we would, like a cluster of ants, quickly reassemble in another room some distance away in the building, where we would resume jamming until we were discovered again.
At some point, I decided to start my own group, and got a few like-minded horn players, bass and drums to sign on, although I was still in high school. But I didn’t have any charts for us to play.
I told David about my situation, and he said “I’ve got a seven-piece book. Why don’t you copy the charts in it and use that?”
Mind you, this was long before copy machines, digital cameras, or the other tools of today’s trade. I had to copy each part by hand, not an easy task, but eventually I got it done.
We played our charts for dances and parties, and sometimes in small concerts at my high school. University High School was a quite progressive institution (to prove it, consider this: I got a diploma!) Only once did we run afoul of a teacher, a gentleman who asked that we not announce the title of David’s composition, “Dog Fashion.” from the stage. I didn’t know why he objected to that title back then.
A couple of decades later, I was in LA and starting to get paid for writing charts, affording me the luxury of using a copyist. My copyist pointed out a few little peculiarities in my manuscript, which I realized were artifacts of having learned arranging mostly by painstakingly copying David Baker’s charts.
After David’s passing, when I read people who praised David’s generosity, the four horn library popped into my mind.
Another random memory: When I had the house band at the Embers in Indianapolis, musicians who came to town with the acts would inevitably ask about David. I remember driving Bassist Herb Mickman, who was working with pianist Peter Nero at the time, over to David’s house, so he could take a lesson while he was in town.
A few years ago, my wife and I were in Bloomington to visit relatives, and we made a nostalgia visit to the IU campus. We walked around the music school (Sarah was a graduate in Voice there) and we passed a room with David’s name on the door. I shyly knocked, and David opened the door wide. The room was quite large, and he was teaching a class at the time.
I started to apologize for disturbing him, but he pulled us inside, and introduced me to the class, as if I was a big deal. I think that moment was probably my coolest moment ever.
No matter how well you knew David, or how casually you knew him, he made you feel like a close friend, and that brand of genius is rare and blessed.