Baker’s Bebop to Bartók

When I was in high school I went every summer to the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Camp in Elmhurst, Illinois. The very first time I was placed in David Baker’s combo. (The tenor saxophonist in the same combo was Chris Cheek, a marvelous player who his since gone on to a major career here in NYC.)

David Baker was a thrilling personality. He had hung out and played with major jazz figures, and we loved hearing him tell stories about the masters from the vantage point of being a casual friend.  I remember him talking about whispering the changes to “Sugar” to Lee Konitz onstage at a big hall before Lee took the second solo after composer Stanley Turrentine. According to Baker, Lee played the hell out of “Sugar” that day, “Even though he had never heard the tune before.”

One day that week Baker came in and began singing Denzil Best’s “Wee” to us. No chart: We had to learn it by ear, and deal. The next day he made us play Lee Morgan’s “Ceora” in all twelve keys.

To this day, making the kids learn by rote and transpose are two things I always do when teaching a combo workshop myself.

Baker was also a serious composer. I had yet to become immersed in classical music, but Baker gave me a book that was a strong indication that I should investigate more 20th-century composition.

From 1973, Advanced Improvisation remains one of the hardest exercise books I’ve ever seen. Truthfully much of the material is a little ridiculous, like the wide leap “threading” of “Ladybird” changes made even more avant by the embrace of avoid tones. But the long listening lists full of Coltrane and Stravinsky next to each other remain eternally relevant.

It’s all there on the inside flap, with a review of a Baker cello sonata played by the great Janos Starker. I’m touched by the dedication from Baker himself, “To Ethan with affection.”

Baker 2


When Baker recently passed away at 84 I listened to his Cello Concerto with pleasure. The problem with this atonal work is the “jazz” in the last movement, which of course doesn’t swing. But the first two movements are great. 

For all that he is associated with jazz and jazz education, it may be that Baker was actually more intuitive and creative with his first language, classical music.

Another significant part of Baker’s legacy is editing (along with Lida Belt Baker and Herman Hudson) the book-length collection of interviews The Black Composer Speaks. It is mostly classical composers but Herbie Hancock and Oliver Nelson are in there too. 

In high school I kept re-checking out that big book (500 pages, hardbound) from the college library, especially since Herbie’s interview in Black Composer Speaks is so much more revealing and interesting than anything Herbie ever said to a jazz magazine.

The penny is only dropping now: The interviews I do on DTM are profoundly influenced by The Black Composer Speaks.