The Big Band Music of David Baker

by Monika Herzig

We recently lost one of our jazz legends, David Baker, but his legacy continues. The stories, tributes, and pictures that were shared in the Remembering David Baker Facebook group speak volumes about his impact on the jazz community worldwide and beyond.  In addition, major publications all over the world published beautiful tribute pieces – here are some examples: The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, and NPR.

David Baker was the keynote speaker for the first Jazz Education Network Conference in St. Louis in 2010.  He challenged the capacity crowd to pick up the torch of jazz education and carry it far into the future.  “It is crucial that we encourage our students to get the best all-around musical education possible, and to be prepared to work in a wide variety of musical environments,” he said.  “This includes teaching them to listen – this is why we have two ears and only one mouth – and to learn about the historical and cultural context in which the music to which they are listening was created.  He closed with the following challenge to all attendees:

“In closing, let me leave you with this final thought: Vision without action is daydreaming.  Action without vision is marking time.  But vision plus action can change the world.”

Here is an opportunity for all of us to make sure his legacy continues:

One facet of David’s work that has not been documented well enough are his Big Band compositions and arrangements. Over nearly 50 years of leading the top Indiana University band with players that include Chris Botti, John Clayton, Peter Erskine, Shawn Pelton, Pharez Whitted and so many more, he created some of the most sophisticated and beautiful charts for the group similar to Duke Ellington’s work for his long-time band of supreme players.

Here is a short excerpt from the book David Baker – A Legacy in Music (IU Press, 2011) where Brent Wallarab, Associate Professor in Jazz Studies at Indiana University, describes David’s impact on Big Band writing:

“As an orchestrator, Baker remains consistent in bridging tradition with innovation.  He is both a classicist, utilizing traditional techniques developed by Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and others, and an innovator. Baker often employs devices associated with the great writers of the genre including 5-part closed-position saxophone section writing (Benny Carter/Duke Ellington), brass section/sax section call and response (Fletcher Henderson), tuba grounded small ensemble (Gil Evans/Gerry Mulligan), trombone section comping (Gil Evans), prominent independent bass trombone/tuba (Gil Evans/Stan Kenton arrangers), and rich open low brass section as melody and background (Pete Rugulo/Bill Russo).  His love for the genre and the great writers is illustrated by the way he masterfully and seamlessly integrates these techniques.  As an innovator, he has established a palate of colors that are purely “Bakerian” devices that upon hearing brings knowing smiles to the faces of those familiar with his music.  From subtle to dazzling, the orchestration techniques employed make a Baker chart as recognizable as one by Thad Jones or Billy May.”

The Buselli-Wallarab Orchestra is taking on the task of producing a recording of David Baker’s Big Band music entitled Basically Baker 2, a follow-up to their 2005 release Basically Baker which got raving reviews worldwide – here is more info. The recording will be released on Patois Records in September 2016. There is a current opportunity to join the crowdfunding campaign and spread the word. All proceeds from the recording will go towards the David Baker Scholarship fund making it possible for young musicians to pursue their jazz studies.

PLEASE NOTE: An anonymous donor has pledged to match every dollar of new pledges towards the current Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign from May 30th until it closes on June 12, 2016.  Please share this link and join the legacy.

Dr. Monika Herzig is a jazz pianist and the author of “David Baker – A Legacy in Music”.  She is a Senior Lecturer in Arts Administration at Indiana University. Her project, “The Whole World in Her Hands,” will be released June 10th on Whaling City Sounds.