The life and career of David Baker, a prolific jazz musician, composer and IU professor, will be celebrated this Saturday in the Musical Arts Center with a panel discussion and a concert of his work.
Baker, who founded the Jacobs School of Music’s Jazz Studies Program, died last March at age 84.
“The thing about Baker is that he was incredibly prolific and not just in one area,” said Tom Walsh, the current chair of the jazz studies department. “He was what you might call a Renaissance man. He was a trombonist, he took up the cello, and he’s written so much music.”
During his life, Baker was a jazz master of the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, a Grammy nominee and an Emmy winner.
He was inducted into jazz halls of fame, presented awards for his teaching and given five honorary doctorates. He is the reason students can study jazz at IU.
Saturday’s celebration will feature a panel discussion at 2 p.m. in the MAC lobby. Baker’s daughter, April Ayers; his biographer, Monika Herzig; Brent Wallarab; Luke Gillespie and several other former students will speak about different aspects of Baker’s life and music.
There will be a concert of Baker’s work at 7 p.m. Saturday, and IU President Michael A. McRobbie will speak. The first half of the concert will feature Baker’s classical music with a string ensemble and a classical trio -- piano, violin and cello -- and the second half will be a performance of some of Baker’s jazz music, played by both small and large jazz groups.
“The music he wrote, the music we’ll be playing and hearing Saturday, is for everybody,” Wallarab said. “So much contemporary music is hard to understand if you haven’t studied it, but Baker meant for his music to be enjoyed by all people. And it really is joyful to listen to.”
Baker began his career as a trombone player, but after a car accident injured his jaw and made it difficult to play his instrument he became a cellist.
Later in his career Baker was well-known for his composing. He is credited with writing more than 2,000 pieces of music and often composed pieces for specific faculty members at Jacobs, Walsh said.
“Ultimately there is nothing quite as satisfying as playing for friends, colleagues and the people who have been fans for years,” Baker said in an Indiana Daily Student article from July 31, 2003. “It’s really important to be able to play for the people who are so close to me.”
One of his more unusual compositions was the “Concertino for Cellular Phones and Orchestra,” which he wrote for the Chicago Sinfonietta’s 20th anniversary. It incorporated the sound of a ringing phone, usually a distraction in a concert hall, into the music.
Baker’s most well-known style of music was his third-stream jazz, which combines elements of both jazz and classical music, Walsh said. Baker wrote for all kinds of groups from small jazz bands to symphony orchestras.
Baker also cofounded the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, which he conducted and directed for 22 years around the nation and the world.
Baker was the chair of IU’s jazz studies department from 1968 to 2013. He often taught four or five classes every semester, retired ethnomusicology professor Portia Maultsby said.
“He was a very dedicated man and such a giving professor,” Maultsby said. “He was full of innovative ideas in his composition and his teaching, which was certainly an experience every one of his students cherished.”
Wallarab, a former student of Baker’s and a musician in the Smithsonian jazz orchestra, said Baker was one of the kindest but most demanding teachers he knew.
“He held himself to a very high standard and held us to that high standard, too,” Wallarab said. “He worked us hard, but it was because if we were going to go out into the world with our music, he knew we needed to know and love and respect the history and tradition of jazz.”
Baker’s presence alone drew many students to IU. Former student Gillespie, now a jazz piano professor at IU, said he came to IU specifically because of Baker, who encouraged Gillespie to pursue jazz and classical degrees.
“Berklee College of Music in Boston was known for jazz, and Juilliard in New York City was known for classical, but finding a school that had a strong curriculum in both jazz and classical music was extremely difficult,” Gillespie said. “So I owe everything to David Baker.”
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