A conversation with NEA Jazz Master David Baker

David Baker on the cello, which became his second instrument after an accident ended his trombone days.

When friend and Jazz Education Network board colleague (and fine keyboardist in her own right) Monika Herzig – a proud Indiana University grad and student of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master David Baker – asked me to contribute a chapter to the book she was editing on David’s rich career and life, I was honored. That ask also took me back to when I first met David after years of reading about his exploits, first as a very promising trombonist whose horn had been silenced by the aftermaths of an auto accident, then as an honored composer, and later how he had contributed so diligently and expertly to jazz pedagogy as an educator. Most important to this writing assignment however was David’s quite significant career as an arts & jazz advocate of the highest order.

In 1984 my work as an arts administrator commenced with a contract with the former Great Lakes Arts Alliance to conduct a jazz field needs assessment in the midwestern states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. (GLAA later merged with a fellow regional that worked the upper midwest states of Iowa, Minnesota, North & South Dakota, and Wisconsin to become today’s thriving and visionary 9-state regional Arts Midwest, which took my family to Minneapolis for four wonderful years.) That needs assignment, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, meant traveling those four states to interview musicians, educators, broadcasters, presenters, and jazz club owners.

David Baker was definitely on the A-list of top priority interviewees for the project, along with folks like drummer J.C. Heard and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave in Michigan, jazz radio legend Oscar Treadwell in Ohio, and members of the AACM in Illinois. Eventually we interviewed over a hundred jazz folks in the region, gathering needs evidence which led to the new merged agency Arts Midwest adopting our nascent efforts into a core jazz services program for the midwest. (Proud to say that among other efforts which arose from that program, we produced the first jazz media conference, at the University of Illinois-Chicago which gave birth to the Jazz Journalists Association, which is about to celebrate its annual Jazz Awards program.)

So early one Thursday morning in ’84 I flew into Indianapolis, rented a car and drove down to Bloomington to meet and interview David Baker. We took the tour of IU’s music conservatory, met some of Dave’s students at the time (including bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Shawn Pelton, and trumpeter Pat Harbison), and sat down at the Baker home for a very illuminating interview. I was impressed by Baker’s obvious credentials as a true jazz renaissance man. Little did I know at the time that our paths would cross quite significantly in the future, starting in ’89 when I was appointed executive director of the ill-fated National Jazz Service Organization, when Baker was still the NJSO board chair. We’ve continued to connect, through yet another ill-fated jazz service organization, the late International Association of Jazz Educators, and more recently through my coordinating work with the NEA Jazz Masters Live grant program. So Monika’s assignment of chronicling David Baker’s jazz and arts service career was a no-brainer. Below is one of our more extensive conversations for that chapter in the 2011 book David Baker: A Legacy in Music (by Monika Herzig; Indiana University Press).

David Baker conversation

Willard Jenkins: Beyond playing, composing & educating, you’ve also had a career in service to jazz. What do you consider true service to the artform?

David Baker: I think the basic thing is the perpetuation of the artform, and that perpetuation is in the hands of young people; making sure that they get the truth from our griots – because we’re losing them every time you look up. It was such a shock again, even at 91 that Hank Jones would pass away. But this is happening with some regularity, we’re losing what’s remaining of the people who were the progenitors of the music. If we don’t do something to make sure that those things are preserved – while we’re getting them in truth from people who were there, much like the perpetuation of the legends in an African tribe when you’re talking about the griots, and I guess in every generation.

The other thing is investing money in trying to set up situations where old and young come together. I think basically one of my jobs, like with the Smithsonian [Jazz Masterworks Orchestra], is to take the Smithsonian to places where we make the impossible possible – by having them hear Chick Webb in 1934 and people like Ella – but to hear how the music keeps changing, because I think any time a music starts to stagnate it’s gonna die. I know people – educators as well as writers — are becoming a lot more tolerant of hip hop and all of these other tangents because a lot has changed since the major books were written in the 1950s and 1960s, and somebody’s got to replace them.

It is happening somewhat in the new book on Fats Navarro and one on Duke Ellington, Monk and those people. Those are very, very good, but it needs also the vibrancy of the major writers to deal with this in a lot of ways, because many of them have fallen into the business of perpetuating the music that you fell in love to. I can dig that, but I just think that putting boundaries to the music – Ellington said ‘don’t put the music in a box’, and it’s easy enough to do. I think Clark Terry said ‘the difference between a groove and a grave is just a couple of letters.’

As you developed your craft as a musician, composer & educator, at what point did you begin to seriously contemplate actual service to the artform and why?

DB: I’m not sure that I made the decision, I think the decision was made for me because I was drafted into it. I think one of the most valuable ones was the one you were executive director of [NJSO]. As somebody who was a goody two shoes in school, I got things thrust upon me that I would not anticipate always doing. Like with the jazz program here at [IU], I didn’t start out to try to put that together – Jerry Coker had single [jazz ] courses and things. But then Dean Bain asked me to do that, then I understood a little bit how that led up to the appointment to the National Council on the Arts and the NEA and stuff like that. And I think that it is as much happenstance as it is planning the thing, but I think the good idea is to be prepared when that circumstance takes place.

What would you say was your first effort in the way of service to jazz in particular and the arts in general?

DB: I think maybe it wasn’t even within the purview of just jazz, because it was being appointed, right after Nancy Hanks had taken over, being appointed to those NEA panels. The panels gave us, if nothing else, a picture of how the American government viewed us. Those very first meetings – late 1960s – you stop and think that at that time they were giving maybe a million dollars to the symphony and the ballet, and the entire money for the Folk-Ethnic panel [which covered jazz grants at the time] which I chaired, with Milt Hinton and all those guys, that whole amount was probably less than $5K; that’s anecdotal, I don’t remember the exact number.

But it was enough to show me that jazz was not being afforded the same kind of position in the music world that classical music was.

Were you selected for that NEA Folk-Ethnic panel in the 60s out of the blue, or was that something that developed over time?

DB: I think it was out of the blue at the time, because basically Jimmy Owens, Clark Terry, a few of us were at that time stationary. So consequently, because they could locate me all of the time [due to his teaching position at IU] here at IU, they would ask me to be on the panels more quickly than somebody like Cannonball [Adderley], who they had to chase [due to the Adderley Quintet’s busy schedule]. So it was the luck of the draw a lot of the times that I would get in those kind of situations, and one inevitably led to the other.

I remember Antoinette Handy [dir. of the Music program], busy as she could be sometimes, was very instrumental in picking out people [for NEA panel service] who she thought would take the time – and since I didn’t have a major career playing the music, I was stationary at the school – she was able to do that, and knowing that I didn’t have any axes to grind either. At that time I hadn’t built any kind of large career, except with George Russell.

You mentioned some of the people who were involved in those early stages of jazz funding support and some of those early panels. Was it your sense that at that time the Endowment was looking for ways to support jazz, and looking for you and the members of that panel to help guide them in that sense?

DB: I think it was partially that, but the other thing I think they were responding to any criticism of them that was aimed at them about them NOT doing what they should for American music; and particularly American music which – as Quincy Jones has said so many times, you can go anywhere… Japan, China, Romania… and the music that you hear that is common to everybody is not often the folk songs, but it’s American jazz and American music; whether it’s American jazz, American blues, hip hop or whatever. And then I heard A.B. Spellman say once that anywhere there was music on a Saturday night, you could trace it back to the jazz diaspora. I really believe that. For me, because I’m stationary [giving service to jazz] is something that I enjoy doing, even though I have never learned how to say no to somebody who needs something [from me].

With those NEA panels, were they asking questions of you in terms of seeking to find ways to better support jazz?

DB: I think that was the case, but I also think they were looking for things which were high profile enough to enable them to say ‘this is what we’re doing [for jazz].’ For instance when they ran that study that Harold Horowitz did [1985] on the jazz audience, I think it was as much publicity as it was devotion to the music. What seemed to happen was that each time they had a new person [as Director of the NEA] – they had started with a bureacrat and then they started going to people like Jane Alexander and people who had big faces but people also who had a lot of cache as far as being able to publicize what they were doing. When we went through the whole [Mapplethorpe controversy during the Reagan administration] thing when they tried to take the NEA out, when they had the really controversial [visual arts] exhibitions.

When you were on the panel did you find a sense of openness for what you, Jimmy Owens and some of the others were recommending?

DB: Only in the sense that they were giving individual grants, and the individual grants almost always mirrored the people who were enjoying some kind of adulation with the public, the names I would have seen in the music magazines.

One of the next service opportunities was when you became President of the [late] International Association of Jazz Educators.

DB: And that came as a little bit of a surprise, because at that time we [the jazz education field] were still in the throes of Stan Kenton and Neophonic Jazz… anything that was like “spectacular” or whatever. I’m not even sure how it came about [his IAJE presidency], but again I think it was because I was in a central location. We had seen in the jazz education situation, teachers teaching teachers to teach teachers to teach teachers… and not going to people [as educators] who had some experience playing the music.

Certainly they had Clark Terry, they had Milt Hinton, George Russell… but when they got somebody to take charge of [IAJE], I think maybe they wanted somebody who maybe had a little distance so they weren’t simply in search of grants. Now again, that’s speculation on my part.

What year were you president of IAJE? Is it your suggestion that at the time you were president of IAJE, jazz education was at a bit of a crossroads?

DB: (June 2002-July 2004) I think it was at a crossroads, but the crossroads this time was one that was on its way trying to go up. I told them when they asked me if I would take that position, my first thing was is it going to be a point of stasis where we’re standing still, if not why don’t we change the name to International because basically we’re still the leaders of the world as far as changes – formative changes – in this music. That had been denied by a lot of people; I got tired of reading in magazines where ‘if its gonna be good, it’s going to come from Europe, Japan or somewhere else, even back then. I thought this was a timely place for IAJE to begin expanding; I have no notion how it worked because we know [IAJE] had a troublesome ending, but I think the idea [of moving NAJE to IAJE] was the right one because we know there were people in Czechoslovakia, people who were in other places, who did acknowledge that America was the birthplace of this music. Not only that, I’m not sure that it was the most accurate use of the word “America’s Music”, but I think it certainly was very, very high on the pole representing what this music was supposed to stand for in the world.

[Warrick Carter and Bunky Green preceded DB and Ron McCurdy succeeded him. He muses that IAJE wanted to make sure it wasn’t an African dynasty.]

Then we come to NJSO. How did you become involved in the development of the National Jazz Service Organization?

DB: This again was Antoinette Handy. She called a meeting and said why don’t we get together some of the best minds in jazz and we’ll meet up at Wingspread [the Johnson Foundation conference center in Wisconsin]. It was intended to just explore ideas; and the ideas – they had Billy Taylor, Donald Byrd and all the cats up there. Out of that grew the notion that maybe – and at this time it really was groundbreaking because when they asked us ‘what is a service organization?’ I don’t think any one of us could have told them what’s the model we were going to use, what is it supposed to do and how does it work.

So, all across those years – however many you & us were together with this, it was still trying in a lot of ways to find out [what we were supposed to do with this]. We were bailed out a little bit by the Lila Wallace Fund, which gave a kind of illusory notion that this was the way it was going to be continually, that there would be these major funding sources making themselves available. [Here David is speaking about the then-unprecedented $3.4 million dollar grant from Lila Wallace that NJSO co-administered with the New England Foundation for the Arts and which developed the pioneering National Jazz Network of presenting organizations, which later morphed, after a fashion, into the Doris Duke Foundation JazzNet project.]

But when we fell out of the limelight, it seemed like that money began to dry up also. I think people look for something that they think is already successful and I don’t care how you try to perpetuate that success, it depends then on new blood all the time. I think it became like an albatross at the time, because if we hadn’t had that [Wallace] money we might have been encouraged to try to find a [funding] source that was going to be a continuing source. I think that was not going to happen, I didn’t see any of the big companies buying into [NJSO] like they might have had it been West Side Story and Leonard Bernstein.

Describe some of the responsibilities you took on in the initial stages of NJSO.

DB: We put together what we thought was a very good and very diverse board. I think Muhal [Richard Abrams], Donald Byrd, James Jordan… we all had great things in mind but I’m not sure we had a firm plan. I would like sometime to go back and see what our mission statement was. And after the mission statement, what were the goals that would come out of that mission statement. You can have a vision, but a vision without action is marking time. The only way we could have gotten the action that we wanted was to have the same thing that happens to these major organizations now that exist that are in classical music or contemporary art, because we have since run into the same kind of wall trying to do something with Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra; trying to find people to back it; we find people who say ‘I believe in it, but I ain’t got no money…’

I think there was a good mix of brainpower [on IAJE’s board] of people who could get along with each other about what we were going to do because I don’t think we were wedded to any particular [style] of [jazz]. For instance, it would have been very easy given the fluidity of the thinking of Muhal for it to have gone that route. But at the same token you’ve got Billy [Taylor] who’s standing in the center of jazz at that time, and I think if we maybe had been able to have each one of these factors brought into play it would have made sense. But none of us could contribute full time to this.

You were the first and only board president of NJSO?

DB: Yes.

One of the original aims of NJSO was the development of a national center for jazz, which is how you characterized it [in the New Perspectives on Jazz book which chronicled the discussions at Wingspread that led to NJSO’s birth; a book which was eventually marketed as NJSO’s first “product”]. We’re seeing such efforts on different scales in different parts of the world, but what would you say happened to that plan for a national center for jazz?

DB: I think first of all it got diffused, because it went from that to having a support system. To be truthful, I didn’t know and I think a lot of these cats didn’t know what a service organization did, what had it done in other areas. We were still floundering trying to figure out how do we cover something that covers America as a whole and [the many styles of jazz] in general rather than specific things. It’s a little easier when you concentrate on a particular area, which means inevitably you have people who have like goals. I think it would have been easier to focus had our goals not been so lofty.

So you think it was a matter of NJSO never really developing a true focus?

DB: I think it was partly that, but I also think it was a matter of not being able to devote the [board] time. I think maybe we were naïve, we just didn’t have all the business sense; I think you brought a certain business sense to it, but again somewhere there should have been – even if it was a silent or distant partner who said ‘hey look, you got such a good idea here’s what Eli Lilly, here’s what Ford… can do to help you. I think they might have done that if it had been something about new music – and I’m not talking about jazz music – but new American music that the symphony orchestras were going to play. Now we see that happening because composers get commissions and it’s unbelievable because that commission is committed to be played by an orchestra in every one of the states. We didn’t have anything like that; I don’t think there was even a [board/organizational] consensus as to which is the most I important music to be concentrating on; and I think without that there is a focus missing, because
people have different ideas about what [jazz] is supposed to be and if those ideas don’t somehow or another coalesce, then you’re left struggling. It’s easy, because we didn’t have like an angel.

Was it during or after your tenure at NJSO that you were appointed to a seat on the National Council on the Arts?

DB: I was on the Council before NJSO. That again was Antoinette; by this time I had been on many NEA panels, and they had also called me about educational things because I was the one probably who was the busiest [jazz rep panelist] in strictly education because I was not trying to divide my time [between playing and teaching], except in a very kind of loose way. She never told me this but I believe [Antoinette Handy] came up with the notion that there ought to be jazz representation on the National Council on the Arts.

At that time, as far as jazz is concerned [on the National Council], there was Duke Ellington, then Gunther Schuller, then Billy Taylor, then me. Since that time there have been a couple of [jazz reps] who’ve stepped down. Chico Hamilton only stayed there a year. This guy there now – Irvin Mayfield – I was surprised because of his youth. I don’t think anybody who takes that job, takes that job knowing how it becomes your only job. By the time you read all those [panel-approved grant proposals} – and we had to approve everything, all the grants in whatever area of the arts… You did have people like [choreographer] Arthur Mitchell, who were still very active in what they were doing, so that helped a lot. But I don’t think we ever got full cooperation [from the National Council] as far as jazz goes. That’s why I’m so glad we did get that book “New Perspectives in Jazz” published, because first of all it showed that NJSO was not a monolithic organization; anytime you’ve got Muhal [representing the avant garde side of jazz] and the other people who were very strong-minded, it can be a lot of different things.

Any more I’m so glad that whenever something [a new jazz org.] comes up we start out by setting realistic goals, and I think sometimes the goals can be so extravagant – even though they are so attractive – that they almost carry the seeds of their demise.

When an organization’s goals are too broad, demise is almost a foregone conclusion?

DB: It certainly seems to have been borne out in a lot of situations in the jazz area. I can see now with [the new jazz education organization] Jazz Education Network – and I think they’re starting out the right way – I’m just hoping they can get the numbers, because the numbers are what attract other people. Somebody once said that beyond some point every quantitative change will produce a qualitative change. Until they see the numbers – like when you go to a jazz club and people go where there are people, and I remember when we were playing if the place was packed by Friday night people would be standing around the block trying to get in. But if there were just 10 people in there, nobody went in.

During your tenure on the National Council on the Arts there were a lot of questions about funding for the arts and even the very existence of the NEA. How would you characterize those times on the National Council on the Arts?

DB: Turbulent. I ended up being on there longer than the four-year term. We had a good group but we were being attacked consistently. The Mapplethorpe exhibition was the last straw. People came and picketed us, they stood outside the Old Post Office and picketed us; we had a police escort just in case. Because basically, I felt at that time that Americans weren’t really ready to be respectful of the diversity in the arts. Then you had people who maybe didn’t have the background [on the National Council on the Arts; like if you were talking about black American dance you had one representative, Arthur Mitchell.

One of the things I was surprised they were able to do, which helped [remove some of the anti-Endowment fervor] was to stop giving individual [artist] grants; because with the individual grants I think they had less control.

That was the major upshot of that whole period of controversy, the elimination of Endowment support for individual artists.

DB: I felt that too.

You felt that was a prudent move, to eliminate support for individual artists?

DB: I think, unless they were able to establish some way of tracking the grants, making sure the grants were spent properly, and there was a consistency… but for instance, Clark [Terry] said he went out with one of his groups and one of the groups that had won a grant to travel with him, and he didn’t realize until after a year that he wasn’t supposed to pay for their travel, that the grant was supposed to do that. We made a lot of decisions that were not the most informed decisions, in terms of individual grants.

I just think that we are maybe now finally entering a time when there is enough experience in the jazz field – and maybe enough experience in the American music field – that there are ways of determining [between styles and approaches]. Because to compare an Ellington piece with something which is so far afield that its got nothing to do with African American music, it’s like a lost cause. I don’t care how good the outcome is, it still does not give you solid ground to stand on [as far as making those value judgments between different styles of the music.]

What were some of the other issues of the day that you and your fellow National Council on the Arts members faced in those days?

DB: During that tenure we had cats who were arguing about basically things that came out of the Civil Rights movement. It was never couched in racial language, but it was things that had to do with race. [People who argued against what they viewed as “set asides” on the grounds that this is a democracy.] The same things that were happening with Dr. King when he was trying to deal with some of the most dramatic Civil Rights changes that we’ve seen.

Were people talking in terms of perceived “quotas”?

DB: It was never put that blatantly, but in my mind was what it was about.

So let’s say you or someone else might argue about the fact that jazz should be supported at certain levels, arguments in response to that would be to say ‘we can’t have quotas’?

DB: I don’t think it was ever put that blatantly. They would find a psychological or a political reason, or whatever to not go that direction. Remember, with the Council we didn’t make the initial decisions [to fund or not to fund], we had to adjudicate those decisions. So, for example, if an opera company was granted funding what we did was then argue for however long it took whether that was the way. What was good about [the Council] was you had somebody representing almost every discipline of the arts.

You were there specifically to represent the jazz art form?

DB: They didn’t say that, but maybe [he was there to represent] American music.

Did you ever feel like the proverbial Spook Who Sat By The Door?

DB: What I did feel like sometimes was a voice screaming into the wind. There would be people on the Council like a Gregory Peck or Robert Stack who rarely spoke , but when they spoke it would be a sentence or a paragraph that really had impact. A lot of people told me when I first came on the council, they said ‘look, you don’t have to talk all the time you don’t have to talk just because somebody else is talking. Wait until you have something specific that you have in mind, something you really want to fight for, then bring it up – and look for allies.

It was an exciting experience, except when they came over there because somebody had gotten a grant because they played the cello nude, or somebody else was bathed in chocolate. There were people who vociferously argued that was frivolous. Sometimes we’d reach consensus, sometimes we didn’t. It was a learning experience for me because it also taught me how to deal with people where there is an unequal background – people who had a legal background, people who were millionaires, different backgrounds.

It continued the notion that there needed to be somebody – hopefully from academia or who was academia plus performance – that needed to be there to represent American music. I wasn’t the only one or the most prominent voice [for American music] on there because they’d had this lineage of four or five people spread across the years. I would assume Billy Taylor was very active when he was on the Council; I would doubt that Ellington ever even went to a meeting. I know Gunther Schuller would have been very active when he was on there, I don’t know what happened with Chico Hamilton, he didn’t stay on a full term.

What were some of your other learning experiences from that National Council tenure?

DB: I learned first of all – again quoting Quincy Jones – I learned that I needed to listen more than I needed to talk if I was going to make a decision.. Quincy says the reason we should do that is because we have two ears and one mouth. In retrospect that makes good sense to me. I learned a lot about listening and I learned a lot about reaching compromises, compromises that did not destroy an idea but meant you had to make concessions so you can get along, assuming that maybe you’ll need that vote when YOU bring up something. So if I took anything away from the experience at all it would be consensus-building, because that is something that you do on such a minor scale when you’re dealing with a university.

When we are in a position like that, where we are seen as representing a particular artform, we have a tendency to wear our advocacy on our sleeves, to be zealots on behalf of the music, sometimes you have to temper that zealotry in order to make your points.

DB: That is one of the lessons. I did a lot of listening, and I think that out of that I’m able to better function in the world I live in now.

When certain things would come before the Council relative to jazz, did your fellow Council members look for you to take a lead role or did they look to you for your expertise in jazz?

DB: Very often they would ask about the validity of something; it usually wouldn’t be about jazz, because that was too obvious, but it would be about something that affected the jazz field. Asking what kind of music is good music, how do we give one orchestra $4M and another just $2M, what are the criteria we’re gonna use. Then I was able to contribute in a way that I felt conviction for, and I was also aware that they could go another direction. I tried to always throw off anything I felt was dismissed – justifiably dismissed in a way that seemed to be logical, even to somebody that was a neophyte at that moment. There’d be questions about why we needed to support something because it was a “popular” music, or why you need to have support for this because it has never had support before. I was vociferous in dealing with that.

What other service efforts have you been involved in since IAJE, NJSO, and the National Council on the Arts?

DB: One of the things is trying to get our kids – meaning all jazz kids – into this music much earlier than has been. What I’ve been trying to do is reconcile the youth with the older people. For instance, what is it that I learned in the street as a player very young that comes back to me and makes my life rich and makes other people who are retiring from jobs from RCA or wherever, that if they go back again they’re helping these kids find what their life is about. I really feel strongly about that; that we live in a world that you cannot look at with blinders on.

My life’s lesson to kids now is go to sources whenever you can, take advantage of these people that we’re going to be losing at some point; there’s no way we’ll ever be able to do that again. So we’re trying to expose people to as much truth as we can by going back to these sources and seeing that [for example] clog dancing is not so different than tap dancing so maybe there is a common source. If we can succeed in that, when people start to see the commonalities, it is a whole lot easier to reach consensus when they understand that that cat in ancient Africa singing those tones and that we find a cat in Alabama now [doing similar work], to make a case that maybe there’s a relationship there.

For me right now its bringing together the knowledge that I’ve accrued teaching for 50 years and be able to disseminate that knowledge to kids where they’re able to change. When I buy a book now and it says the first thing you have to do if you want to live to be 100 is make sure your parents did, I can’t change that. But if you tell me a kid needs such and such, I can change that. So there’s no point in me worrying about what’s been done and I can’t do, but to profit from the mistakes I’ve made.

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