Cornelius Boots, 1997

David N. Baker

Educator, Jazz Pedagogy OG, Composer, Leader, Author, Conductor, Trombonist, Cellist, Activist, Black Consciousness Advocate
my teacher 1997-1999

“The final project forces my students to use their imagination.  In everything that I teach, imagination becomes the big point of departure, because the world works because of imagination.  I can teach you to do most anything if I define every parameter, but then what are you going to write? You’ve got more restrictions in a jazz context than anywhere else and it is your job to destroy every one of those restrictions, one at a time or all at the same time, and still have it be coherent.”

(98, Herzig, David Baker: A Legacy in Music)

Black Lives Matter – Excerpt from Email Newsletter, June 25, 2020

In my last email to you all, I talked about the current challenges as relate to the viral pandemic, COVID-19, which continues its unfolding.  Now, we are experiencing yet another wave of turmoil-mixed-with-realization.

If you weren’t aware, the United States of America was founded as an openly hypocritical, contradictory experimental society, using the methods of genocide, chattel slavery, kidnapping, torture, disease and brutality in order to establish an allegedly Free & Equal country.  The rigors of ongoing oppression, stealth economic warfare and rabid deception are now bursting this Great Lie wide open, hopefully wide enough for us to rise above it.  Please don’t hold back in talking to your less-than-illuminated friends, neighbors and family members about the horrors and scapegoating that we have continuously subjected Black lives, immigrant lives, female lives, trans lives, gay and lesbian lives, poor and disabled lives, and many others to, all in the name of Ultra Hypocrisy.

If you thought that a lifelong creative music professional’s email newsletter might need to be free from “politics,” you would not be alone.  This is one of the Lies I have been referring to: in truth, nothing is safe from the reach of most of the so-called “political” aspects of our society.  Many laws do not work because some of them were written by the actual Ku Klux Klan: ever heard of them? Black musicians and all black citizens are both oppressed and at risk for their lives everyday since about the 1600’s on this (and other) continents, and yet we pretend we are “first world.” We act like we are so strong, so advanced, and rich and powerful when in fact, we are scared shitless of what a truly Free & Equal society might look, feel, smell, taste and SOUND like.

As a deeply trained jazz musician since the mid-80s, I have taken for granted a certain advanced level of racial integration, of seemingly pure freedom to engage with fellow musicians from all ethnicities — even while noting ongoing imbalances showing up constantly and all around me; knowing that my idol Eric Dolphy, for instance, moved to Europe as soon as he tasted what it was like to be treated more respectfully and fairly there than in the States, and experience and decision shared by many Black artists in the 50’s and 60’s.  These are complex issues and they are not black and white; however, when not one house is burning but entire villages, you must direct the resources there to help them, and thereby help all of us.  The burning villages in this analogy are Black communities and individuals and legacies, if I was being too obscure, and they’ve been burning from the start.

I have no place really talking much about all this — I’m just a caveman flute player now, who has not experienced directly what living Black in America brings with it, and I am still learning every day and transmuting some of that defensive, powerless guilt into compassion — but because I have been so grateful for Black lives for my entire life, I had to write a little start of something here.  Read Dr. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist; listen to the great James Baldwin; revisit Nina Simone and Dr. Martin Luther King and take them absolutely seriously.  One of the reasons I have not talked too much about race, politics, religion, equity, economics, housing, and education is: once I get started, I might not stop.  Consider the bottle uncorked, as it should be for all of you.

My composition mentor and final teacher within an institution, David N. Baker, was a Black Music Genius: he was basically the Morpheus of Jazz, which makes him kind of the Matrix-Master of Music overall, in my opinion, and Jazz is truly a matrix, the most advanced within musical harmony, and it is meant to be engaged in with depth, precision and absolute spontaneous imagination (which is not the case for an orchestral player grappling with similarly complex vocabulary and complexity).  Like many things, I took his presence and influence somewhat for granted, even though I was in his graduate jazz studies program for 2 years, his jazz ensemble for 3 years, and he was the only IU music school faculty to overtly encourage my composer persona, which I was always deeply grateful for.  He set up a vast creative ethic that, even though I shot away from “jazz,” in my mind, the moment I graduated in 1999, the truth is I have been within the scope of his fluid parameters this whole time.  Teaching by encouraging boldness, allowing space and setting an example, now if that’s not deep Zen, nothing is.

And my first contact with David was in 1995 to interview him about Eric Dolphy; they had been roommates in New York for a short time in the early 60’s.  Eric Dolphy is one-half of the lineage of Black Earth Shakuhachi School (in addition to Watazumi), and my small tribute to Eric (who was born and died in the month of June) in this week’s concert is just a small step toward reasserting that profound influence and responsibility to evolve and share Eric’s creative vision ever onwards, with Professor Baker being an adamantine link in that chain of influence and creativity.