Those Who Can Do, Teach

March 2, 2010

David is not only a giant in terms of awards, books, and honors, but is a true jazz legend and brilliant teacher. The saying, “those who can’t do, teach” does not apply to Baker or even his own mentors. Baker has studied with some of the greatest jazz legends, including J.J. Johnson, Bob Brookmeyer, George Russell, William Russo, and Gunther Schuller, and a list of Baker’s own students reads like a list of who’s who in the modern jazz world. He’s performed with Lionel Hampton, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, George Russell, and Quincy Jones, to name a few, and told JAZZed that the state of jazz in America has “never been better.”

JAZZed: How did you get started playing music?

David Baker: Well, I started when I was in about the 7th or 8th grade and didn’t really get serious until I got into high school. I went to a high school called Crispus Attucks High School which was famous simply because Oscar Robertson was an alumnus, but J.J. Johnson, Leroy Vinegar and a host of others also had attended and, by law, had to go to that school. This was during the time of segregation you know: “separate but equal” facilities.

We had excellent teachers, and because that was one of the only schools that blacks could go to that meant we probably had the crème de la crème of teachers, also. There were so many teachers at Crispus Attucks who had Ph.D.s or Masters Degrees in Music. So, it turned out that something that had all kinds of negative connotations was actually a blessing for those of us who went to that school.

JAZZed: Who were some of your major influences as both a player and teacher?

DB: All of my teachers at Crispus Attucks were major influences on me. And, as it was the school where J.J. Johnson graduated, it was a natural thing that I would gravitate toward the trombone because he was already an icon by that time. I believe he graduated in 1942. By the time I got to that school four or five years later he was already legendary.

My degree at Indiana University was in music education and, considering the models that I had my own teachers it seemed natural that I would gravitate towards that. When I saw my graduation yearbook at our [high school] reunion this summer, the first thing I noticed was were it said, “Name, Nickname, Pursuit” my pursuit was “music teacher,” so I’m sure that I had some serious leanings to be a teacher already.

JAZZed: You studied at Indiana University at a time when jazz was not taught. What pushed you to study jazz?
DB: Well, I ended up at Indiana University, so I was practicing and learning how to play classical music because that’s what Indiana University taught, as did most other schools. It was still a long way in the future before jazz would become a part of the educational institutions. But, I also knew that, given those times of segregation, I wasn’t going to play in the symphony orchestra and I probably wasn’t going to play in the opera or ballet. I think that people tend to excel in the areas which are open to them and, for me, that would have been rhythm and blues, rock #149;n’ roll, jazz and I suppose of what was left of vaudeville at that time. So, this is a choice that I’m glad I made, but it was a choice which was limited because of the times.

JAZZed: You were instrumental in the creation of Indiana University’s jazz program at a time when jazz was not accepted in academia. Can you tell us a little bit about the evolution and changes that you’ve seen over the years within Indiana University’s jazz program?

DB: For all intents and purposes, this is a degree that I started. I started the degree program but actually, for three or four years before that, Roger Pemberton, Jerry Coker and others were teaching isolated classes. So, in 1966 they brought me in to bring all of those things together to make a program. The three people who had laid the foundation were Buddy Baker, who was also on faculty as a trombone teacher; Roger Pemberton, who taught arranging; and Jerry Coker, who was working on a masters degree at the time. Actually, Jerry’s the one who recommended me for the job of coming in and starting a degree granting program. They were offering some jazz courses, but they were disparate and not really a part of a cohesive curriculum. So, when I came in, my charge was to put together a curriculum that would then make it acceptable to the Dean and the committee to make it a degree granting program rather than a group of independent classes that were being offered.

At the time, I was only one person and that made it very difficult because you have only one person who is trying to teach all of the subjects.

Of course there were fewer numbers, too, because it was in its infancy. At that time, there were not many people because there was not a future for most people. It has now evolved into one of the major programs, and it’s a program now which is one that has been imitated by other schools. I think it’s merited because of the people, we’ve turned out, from John Clayton to Bob Hurst to Peter Erskine — you can pretty much name it. So consequently the changes have been material but changes which are very, very big changes in the sense that they’ve kept abreast with all the other programs now which have blossomed and made America a place where you really, really can go and get a major education in the jazz area.

But, we went maybe six or seven years where I was doing it by myself. Across the years as we added other faculty members, it gave the students more viewpoints and as you add different viewpoints, it gives the students a much more rounded exposure.

JAZZed: Other than the addition of new faculty members, how has the program evolved academically?

DB: The basic principals have remained the same, but when you add other faculty members, they bring new information, new blood, and new approaches to it. Now we’ve grown in numbers this last semester I had 60 students in my basic improvisation class which obviously necessitates another way of approaching the information, so that you get everybody involved and also requires that you change how you begin to disseminate that information.
We’ve added a Masters Degree and we have added high specificity courses like “The Music of Duke Ellington.” We now have coverage, across the board Latin jazz, all the things that have happened since Ornette Coleman, and we certainly in our history classes have tried to incorporate everything from roughly around ragtime up through to the present. So I guess yes, we’ve expanded, not only the amount of information, but the different ways to present that information as well.

I’m sure I’ve changed some, too. When I started writing books, Jerry Coker and a few other people were the only people who had books. That was in the early 1960s. Now, if you pick up a Jamey Aebersold catalog, it’s almost like picking up a thesaurus or encyclopedia because there’s so much information and so many different ways of disseminating that information. Obviously I’m not living in a vacuum, so consequently I’m sure that, as I have grown and had access to a lot more information, I’ve changed the ways in which I present that information.

JAZZed: Speaking of Jamey Aebersold, how do you feel about the standardization of jazz education?

DB: Well it’s very difficult for me to speak with much detachment, simply because I taught Jamey. But I think that certainly bringing it into some way where it was verifiable, whether people were learning the intonation or not [was important]. In an article I wrote in 1967, I criticized that, essentially, we were getting formulaic results to problems that existed. What happened was that we were teaching teachers, to teach teachers, to teach teachers, to teach teachers, without any of them having done anything I mean played! And, when that happens, I do think that it can be very dangerous. But by and large, I think that has been dealt with, at least within the major venues that I come into contact with.

JAZZed: There’s that old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.”

DB: Oh that’s absolute nonsense! I think that lost its validity a long, long time ago. Basically, the best teachers, in most situations now, are people who are players in the classical world, as well as the jazz world. It might not be that they play at the level of say John Coltrane but then again, who does?

When I came into this, Jerry Coker, myself, Nathan Davis, Donlad Bryd, and Rufis Reed we were among the only people who were really coming at it with playing backgrounds. I mean, having played with any of the major artists. I know that there were probably other people we didn’t even know about who were doing this. I think that over the years, most of the problems it seems to me, anyway have already come to a head and been solved in a reasonable way.

JAZZed: What is the hardest thing about teaching jazz?

DB: I suppose it’s getting past the mechanics. The easiest things for the teacher are the things that can be imitated the things that have to do with the technical side of it. How do you play the instrument? What chord goes with what scale? So, that leaves the hard part how do you make music out of all of those things where, in fact, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

JAZZed: Right, and much of jazz can’t really be taught.
DB: Well, you put it that way, buy how do you teach the idiosyncrasies of the music of Haydn? I don’t subscribe to the notion I think what we do is present information and try to put it in a package that allows people to access that information and bring to bear what they play. So I’m not so sure that there are even any elements of jazz that you can’t teach.

It’s like language. What happens with people so often is they start teaching all the syntax and grammar before the people can have a natural sense. Like when we were little kids and we learned how to speak “I wanna go potty. I’m hungry” nobody says that we have to put it in proper form with verbs and nouns, et cetera. So you learn the language and then you learn how to apply the language.

In jazz, I think that we sometimes have done it backwards. We start off by telling people about scales, we tell them about the rhythms, we tell them about all of these kinds of things, but we never tell them how to make music! So, I’m so glad to see that your magazine and others have now begun to champion the fact that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

JAZZed: What’s your favorite thing about teaching?

DB: The passion for teaching and for loving working with young people. Young minds who are probably eminently more talented than the people of my generation were, simply because now they have access to better teaching facilities, all the electronics, all the things that have now made communication almost an afterthought. Who would have ever thought that all those years ago when I started learning and wanting to teach, there would come a time that someone could walk around with something the size of a package of cigarettes in their pocket and it has 2,000 tunes on it!

People have recognized that this music is now one of America’s gifts to the world. I think if you stop and think about it, it may be the one place in the world that this music could have, given the circumstances, evolved into what it has now become. Now that it’s uniformly admired, taught, and learned all over, wherever there are people who are interested in the fine arts, people who are interested in jazz, they know they can come to America and find schools that are comparable to anything because we’ve been the leaders for all of these years.

JAZZed: What do you think about the state of jazz education today?

DB: Never been healthier, never been better. I think jazz is in the best position monetarily and otherwise than ever. I can’t think of a single school that doesn’t have a jazz band or a jazz program of some sort high schools, junior high schools, college or whatever, and I think that’s healthy because then people can get angry with each other, they can make different decisions, make more mistakes, and still survive.

The beautiful thing about it is there are so many different people that you will gravitate towards the ones that come closest to the idea that you believe in. I think there are more schools teaching jazz at this time and more people who are equipped, because teachers evolve and become better, the materials with which they work, become better, and the circumstances in which they can obtain jobs become better.

So I think that jazz has never been in better shape than it is now and watching what I read, as well as listening to students all the time when I go out to do clinics or what have you and to see with wide-eyed wonderment just how lucky we are to have so many talented young people well I shouldn’t say just young people, people in this music period it’s really a beautiful thing.

I think that JEN is doing a wonderful job. Mary Jo Papich she’s really pulled the people and the resources together and the fact that the National Endowment for the Arts is still picking Jazz Masters says a lot too. So I think we’re not maybe in as dire straights as one might think.

You can look at the young cats who came out the generation after Hank Jones, Moody, and myself, and they’re the ones who are the torchbearers the Maria Schnieders, the David Douglas’, the Terance Blanchards. There are people out there who are doing this and I think that with JEN, people are starting to look to the resources that are there. That’s why you have your oral history projects and you’re always accessing the people who got you to where you are the people who were the building blocks I think that it’s been wise that you can find those in books and you can find them in teachers who are my age or older who are still teaching these courses.

JAZZed: What advice do you have for young players?

DB: Get the best all around education possible. Learn everything that is possible for you to learn so that you’ll be equipped for whatever things appear. Whether it’s in the jazz area, whether its rhythm and blues, whether its classical whether its ethnic music or whatever. Furthermore, to not put any of these [genres] in an elite place, be prepared to accept them for what they are and take advantage of them as they emerge.

JAZZed: Speaking of “other music,” country and hip-hop now dominate the charts. As a teacher and musician, how do you feel about the decline of jazz as popular music?

DB: I think that after the swing era, that happened. A.B. Spellman in his book, Four Lives in the Bebop Business, said that bebop had the effect of removing jazz from popular music. That’s such a thorny area because hip-hop and all of these [genres] have to be measured according to the people that are playing them and the kind of music that’s a result of the techniques and things that go with that. I certainly wouldn’t criticize Quincy for hip-hop and the things that he or his son does with one of his companies, so I think there are so many variables. It’s hard to be, you know, stuck in a hard place and say that I’m not gonna budge one way or the other. There’s music I listen to that I think is important music that maybe would be labeled one of those renegade musics.

JAZZed: What advice can you give teachers?

DB: In short order, I would start by having students listen to all of the music they can. I think that’s important. If you don’t hear the music or you have no situation in which you’ve listened — how do you learn to play? I think the teacher should make suggestions, but when they’re walking around with their iPods and things, they should be listening to as much variety to find out what they are. You need to let them listen to what they want so that they have something to build on. You start where they are and take them to where they want to go.

Be prepared. Learn everything that you can not just about the music but also about the environment in which it was created. For instance, I don’t think that in classical music, anyone would ever teach about Beethoven without teaching about the period in which he lived, or without teaching about what was happening in Germany at that time. I don’t think they would teach about Brahms without talking about where Brahms came from. So in jazz, I think we have to be so careful not to make the mistake of thinking about the music as though it existed without an environment that made it possible.

JAZZed: So, too many teachers are concerned with analysis of jazz without thinking about the environment or time in which the music was created?

DB: When you take music out of the culture in which it grew up, of which it was born, at some point you’re going to lose the essence of the music.

I think that more and more teachers are going to people who have the background and are also teaching that it wasn’t just in a book. History, is “His – Story” and it’s whoever is writing the history book who makes the decisions about what’s important and what isn’t, and that’s another reason why I’m glad to see so many books on the market that you can choose from. If you only have a few sources, then you’re more likely to make those kinds of egregious errors and get caught into that kind of thinking.

Now with so much out there so many good schools I can’t think of any good school with repute that doesn’t offer something in the jazz area. I just came back from New Orleans I went out there to do the Monk Institute and those kind of organizations, the Monk Institute, JEN, the Jamey Aebersold camps I think all fit into kind of a patchwork that allows you to actually choose where you want to go or at least be advised by some people who know about which way you should go and where you might want to go that will give you the desired results for which it is you’re searching.

JAZZed: You’ve been a big part of the jazz world for so long. What are the highlights of your career?

DB: Longevity. Being able to stay active across this many years at a major university, and that’s like 44-45 years. The other highlight is, of course, being somebody who was able to be a part of those evolving scenes to play with George Russell, to play with Kenton or Maynard Ferguson or whoever. To have all of these opportunities not only to teach, but also to teach having had the experiences that I can bring to the classroom.

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