We’re mourning the loss of a giant – jazz legend, educator, composer, activist, scholar, and friend David Baker. He spent many hours at our kitchen table delivering and correcting scores and of course I had the privilege of numerous classes, private lessons, performances, and his dissertation advice during my years of doctoral studies at Indiana University. With the help of many friends and experts, we were able to document his legacy in the 2011 IU Press release David Baker – A Legacy in Music. Over the course of five years I interviewed friends, family, colleagues, and experts in the fields listening to fascinating stories and testimonials that had one overarching theme: beyond his superior musical and pedagogical talent and intelligence he was genuinely kind, loving, and caring to anyone – period. The outpouring of love and testimonials on blogs and Facebook groups speaks for itself. All interviews, pictures, performances, listings are archived on this website. In an August 2010 interview, Lida Baker summarized this special trait best:
He was just this incredibly kind, genuinely nice person, very friendly, very outgoing, very nice to everybody. It didn’t make any difference if you were the president of the university or if you were a custodian. That impressed me enormously. I already knew that he was a wonderful composer, a teacher, a performer, a writer, before I ever really knew him. But when I first met him and was just observing how he behaved and acted with people, I was just so impressed with how kind and generous he was.
Many are not aware about his prolific output of classical and jazz compositions – over 2,000 published and commissioned pieces. His music was sophisticated, full of beautiful melodies and challenges for the performers, but always idiosyncratic for the instrument. He claimed to always study and learn an instrument before writing a piece for it and it shows. Cellist Manuel Fischer-Dieskau did masterful recordings of some of the most beautiful pieces and it was a privilege to participate with the Suite for Cello and Jazz Trio. Here is one of the recordings and this site includes some hidden gems. And what fond memories of this performance together with David and Oliver Nelson Jr at the IU Art Museum in 1998!
One of his closest friends was saxophonist James Moody. The date of David’s passing also happened to be Moody’s birthday and the day before Easter. Moody told me in a 2009 interview why he initially contacted David for lessons:
That’s what I’m saying! You know, I know somebody’s brilliant when I see them or hear them, you know, so, give me a little bit of that!
David’s dedication to teaching and to his students is best expressed in a quote from the Coda Chapter in “David Baker – A Legacy in Music”
There is a parable in the Bible about the man who gave his sons 10 talents each. Two of the sons used their money to buy grain and plants and one had put his talents under a barrel so that they wouldn’t be stolen. And the lesson of the parable was you don’t hide your talents under a basket. You use them to bear fruit. And I really believe that my role as a teacher is to help kids maximize their talents. That’s why I’m so impatient with students. When students don’t give me everything that they got to give me, then I take it as a personal offense.
He provided an in-depth discussion of his teaching philosophy in this blog. And he gave everything until he wasn’t able to give anymore. How lucky we all are to be the recipients of his gifts! A wonderful obituary can be found here.