Composer, professor David Baker dies at 84


David Baker speaks to the audience about civility March 9, 2010 in the IMU Whittenberger Auditorium. The jazz master was the keynote speaker for IU Diversity Days.  Chasity Mottinger Buy Photos

Jazz musician, composer and IU professor David Baker died in his home Saturday at age 84.

Baker, who was born and raised in Indianapolis, studied music education, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1953 and a master of fine arts degree in 1954 from IU.

Baker joined the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music in 1966 and founded its jazz studies program, where he served as chair from 1968 to 2013.

"The Jacobs School and the profession will be eternally indebted to David for what he built, guided and codified," said Jacobs Dean Gwyn Richards in an IU press release. "He was a distinguished and cherished professor who built our jazz program from the ground up and, through it, influenced generations of artist-teachers."

In 2012, Baker was awarded the IU President’s Medal for Excellence. At the time, IU President Michael McRobbie called him a “cool cat" and one of the greatest professors to ever teach at the University.

"David Baker was one of the truly great figures in the history of jazz," McRobbie said in the release Saturday. "He was deeply respected and extensively admired as a charismatic educator, innovative and virtuosic performer, prolific composer of depth and subtlety, and scholar of enormous range."

During his time as a student, jazz wasn’t seen as an important music, Baker told the Indiana Daily Student in 2012. This led him to push to convince peers the genre was as worthy of study as classical music.

“We were of the notion that jazz was America’s music,” Baker said. “I mean, if we’re talking about music that was born here, it would be music that had come out of slavery, that had come out of Black Prohibition, all those early years when blacks were not allowed to go to the movies, could not get into most schools.”

As a composer, Baker was commissioned by people and groups from renowned violinist Josef Gingold to the New York Philharmonic. He also cofounded the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and served as its conductor and musical and artistic director for 22 years.

He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his composition “Levels” in 1973, and he received a Grammy nomination in 1979. Baker was also honored three times by long-running jazz magazine Down Beat, including an induction into its jazz education hall of fame.

Baker also worked as a performer, appearing as a trombonist on six albums with pianist and composer George Russell in the early 1960s. After a jaw injury left him unable to perform, he switched to cello as his primary instrument.

Baker continued to perform into his 80s, including appearances in the Jazz Fables series at Bear’s Place.

He constantly revised his curriculum as a professor, he told the IDS in 2012, while also using life experience as a teaching tool.

“What I do is teach life experience,” Baker said. “For instance, music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And so when I teach music, I’m teaching people how the world works. At the same time, there’s music, there are wars, there are pestilences, there are illnesses, there are new inventions, old inventions, cell phones, new things. And what I teach is all of that because I’ve lived all of that. So I teach those things that are part of my life experience.”

Jack Evans

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