Jazz educator and musician David Baker dies, aged 83

Musician, composer and educator David Baker passed away on March 26 at the age of 84.


A passionate scholar of jazz, he was educated at Indiana University, earning the Bachelor of Music degree in 1953 and the Master of Music in 1954. A year later, he landed his first teaching position in 1955, at the Lincoln University in Missouri, but resigned shortly after he received threats of violence following his marriage with white opera singer Eugenia Marie Jones due to Missouri’s anti-miscegenation laws of the time.


Throughout the 50s, he played the trombone in many big bands, including Stan Kenton’s and Maynard Ferguson’s, and even heading his own band back in Indianapolis towards the end of the decade. In 1962, he sustained an injury that led him to switch to the cello, and recorded with the likes of saxophonist Charles Tyler. He picked up the trombone again in the 70s, and played on the 1972 album Living Time with Bill Evans and George Russell conducting.


Baker has written over 2,000 compositions. His compositional works are often cited with the Third Stream Jazz movement, which describes a style mixing classical music and jazz improvisation. One of his most acclaimed compositions is “Levels”, a concerto for solo bass, jazz band, woodwinds and strings, which garnered a 1973 Pulitzer Prize nominations.


A passionate scholar of jazz, he has more than 70 books to his credit. He is regarded as one of the first and most important writers to analyze the then largely aural tradition of jazz.


Baker started teaching in Indiana University in 1966, and founded its Jazz Studies program. Some of his best known students include Chris Botti, Jeff Hamilton and Peter Erskine. Trombone player Brent Wallarab, who studied under Baker first in 1987 and continued a long professional relationship with him, said “from the very beginning, he seemed to see things in me as a young musician that I hadn’t even recognized. He was able to provide opportunities that were kind of designed to help me see my potential.”


At one time, he was president of the International Association for Jazz Education, and later president of the National jazz Service Organization and senior consultant for music programs for the Smithsonian Institution. Many honors were bestowed upon him throughout his life, in recognition of his contributions to the world of jazz. He became an Indiana Living Legend in 2001 and NEA Jazz Master in 2000.

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