Composer  David  Baker

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


David Nathaniel Baker, Jr. (December 21, 1931 – March 26, 2016) was an accomplished composer, author, conductor, and teacher. He was among the most influential voices in contemporary American music in a career that spanned over five decades. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Baker grew up in the rich musical tradition of the black community, in the world of church and gospel music, blues and rhythm & blues, and jazz. He trained as a classical musician and composer at Indiana University, where he later became Distinguished Professor of Music and Chairman of the Jazz Department.

Baker also served as conductor and artistic director of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. A virtuoso performer on multiple instruments and top in his field in several disciplines, Mr. Baker taught and performed throughout the USA, Canada, Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Over the course of his multifaceted career, Baker received numerous awards, including the The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Living Jazz Legend Award, National Association of Jazz Educators Hall of Fame Award, the James Smithson Medal from the Smithsonian Institution, and an Emmy Award for his musical score for the documentary For Gold and Glory. He served a number of times on the Pulitzer Prize Music Jury, and was Chair of the Jazz Faculty of the Steans Institute for Young Artists at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, IL.

His compositions total more than 2,000 in number, including jazz and symphonic works, chamber music, and ballet and film scores.




I had the pleasure of speaking with David Baker when he was in Chicago in the fall of 2006, for performances with the Chicago Sinfonietta of a most unusual work.  Portions of the conversation were used on the radio and on the internet several times, and now the entire encounter is presented on this webpage.  As usual, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

Bruce Duffie:   Thank you very much for coming back to Chicago.

David Baker:   I really appreciate you taking the time to do this.

BD:   It’s my pleasure.  You work in jazz and you work in so-called classical.  Do you compartmentalize these two, or is it just one big mass of music?

Baker:   In a way, it’s compartmentalized.  It depends on the particular request.  For instance, I’m working on a piece for the Indianapolis Symphony, and they specifically asked for something with a jazz influence.  Even when the people don’t say that, I don’t think you can divest all the things of who you are.  So inevitably things will creep in.  I went through a period for about five years where I was writing twelve-tone music, and at that time it wasn’t there.  I did a piece I wrote for Janos Starker with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and then a big piece for the New York Philharmonic called Kosbro [later CD recording shown at left].  There were several pieces from that period [1973], but ultimately I decided that if Bartók, and Kodaly, and Villa-Lobos can write and use their background, then I don’t need to apologize for using the things that are part of who I am.

BD:   Does every piece have a part of you, or a lot of you?

Baker:   Every piece has a lot of me now.  At that time, when I was writing in the style of the Second Viennese School, I had no choice because the music itself defines what it is.

BD:   When someone asks you for a piece of music, would you rather they just say,
“Give me a piece of music, or do you want them to ask for a jazz influence, or a classical influence?

Baker:   I would want it to be the highest degree of specificity.  It’s easier to write.  [Laughs]  It’s almost like filling in the blanks.  When a person calls me and says they want a piece, if they tell me it’s a concerto, then I’m going to assume that it’s three movements, and if they verify that or not, it’ll probably be fast, slow, fast.  In fact, I am writing a piece for a girl in Indiana.  She told me the keys she likes, and that she really likes slow melodies.  So, the more they fill in, the easier it is to write.

BD:   [With mock horror]  You’re not writing music-to-order, are you???

Baker:   [Both laugh]  It’s not to-order because if I did, I would want one of those patrons like Haydn had at Esterhazy, and I don’t have one of them.  It does leave me a certain amount of freedom to do what I do, and I assume when somebody asks me to write a piece, they’re really asking me because they know how I write.  Very often that is the case, but once in a while, somebody really won’t have any idea.  Then I tell them they have to give me many more details about what it is they want.

BD:   The piece you’re doing here in Chicago uses cell phones???  [Article from Time magazine about the work can be seen HERE.]
Baker:   Yes, cell phones.  I have no precedent for this kind of thing.  When Maestro Paul Freeman called me, he asked me if I had been smoking something.  [Much laughter]  This was a great challenge, but generally speaking, I like to have a lot of information as I get ready to write.
BD:   With all of these restrictions that everyone else puts on you to narrow the field, do you get enough opportunity to explore yourself?

Baker:   Yes, and I really do because within those parameters, I begin to push the limits so that I can put my own personality on it.  Even though it might have the same amount of minutes and the same tempo, you can bet your life it will have some signature things in it.  The other thing is that even though most of what I write is on commission, I still have time to write when I just write.  When there’s not a performance in mind, of course I write.  As quiet as it’s kept, every composer who writes and uses the piano to get the melody down, the finger slips, and you say,
Wow, that’s great!  [Much laughter]  So there’s always the element of chance.  Once that’s all in place, then you rely on craft and skill to do it.

BD:   A momentary finger-slip might send you off in a little different direction?

Baker:   That happens frequently.

BD:   Are there times that something sends you off in a completely different direction?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with William Neil.  Also of interest is my interview with the husband of the violinist, composer Jon Polifrone, who wrote several works for her.]

Baker:   Yes, there have been.  With commissions you have to try to toe the line a little bit, but so many times when I’m writing of my own volition, I let the music take me where it wants to go.  Many times when I’m writing, I’ll start with an idea in mind, and when I reach a certain point, it veers, and I realize that the music wants to go to a different place.

BD:   So, you don’t try to pull it back?  You go with it?

Baker:   I go with it, yes.  Then the music is vital, and it’s alive.  When I’m laboring, I don’t want to doggedly go stale.  I have a friend who used to say,
It’s only a fool who goes on a straight line when the road curves!  So, when the road curves, I’ll go with it.  I don’t abandon the material, or discard what I intended to write, but it will go someplace else, and maybe come back.  Sometimes, when something comes to me, and it’s extraneous to what I’m writing, I’ll write it down because there’ll be some other place to use it.

BD:   If you decide it doesn’t belong in this piece, do you save it for another piece?

Baker:   You bet your life!  Economize!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you come back to it right away, or will it still be sitting in the drawer years later?

Baker:   No, it probably will be cannibalized.  There’ll only be a section that would be applicable to something else that I’m writing.  The really funny part is that I went through a long period before I learned that you have to prime the pump when you don’t write.  I was talking to a good friend of mine, a guy named Howie Smith who teaches at the Cleveland Institute.  [Note that Smith is a performer on the CD shown below-left.]  He’s a composer, and I was lamenting the fact that when I haven’t written for a while
because I’m also a player and a teacherthat I have to prime the pump.  I told him, “When I’ve not been writing, virtually everything I write for the first week is probably going to be thrown away.  It’s just getting ready to write.  He asked me what I wrote that’s easy to write, and I said that I write a jazz piece or a pop piece, because I don’t have to develop it.  He said, “Then why think about throwing something away?  Why don’t you write some jazz pieces to warm up?  All of a sudden, I went, Duh!!!  [Laughs]  It seems so logical, but it’s not something that had occurred to me!

BD:   [Somewhat concerned]  You’re not cheating the jazz public by giving them mere sketches, are you?

Baker:   No, no, no.  This is something that is hard to explain, but the difference is that so many parameters are prescribed when you write a jazz piece.  For instance, the tempo is going to stay the same because, even though it’s not used for the dance, its genesis is there.  The key is going to stay the same because that’s traditional.  The form is going to stay the same because that’s the way it is.  You’re probably going to be limited in terms of dynamic extremes because you’ve got a drum set, and I don’t care how you mike the other people, that’s going to demand it.  So by the time I end up with five or six parameters prescribed in the jazz piece, it’s virtually written for me.  Whereas in a classical piece, I can go anywhere I want to.  I decide what the form is going to be.  If everything was a ‘sonata allegro’, they would all sound alike!  So, the label becomes something that you put on after the fact.  I start with a certain thing in mind, but you must go through this because by the same token, I want to make sure that my craft and skill will allow me to shape it in a way that makes sense.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’ve talked about getting started.  Then you work with the material, and get everything down on the page.  How do you know when it’s done?

Baker:   I’m not sure that instinct doesn’t say that.  Sometimes it’s dictated by the fact that the person says they want a fifteen-minute piece, or an eighteen-minute piece, and then I have to try to make sure that I handle the material so that it happens that way.  But I work very diligently not to stop a piece, but to finish a piece.  There’s a subtle difference there.  I’ve heard pieces, [laughs] and I suspect I’m guilty of some of them, where all of a sudden you notice you got one more minute of music to write, but it stops.  I try to write to a conclusion, even if it means a piece is going to be shorter or longer than it was originally intended to be.

BD:   I assume you have a little latitude.

Baker:   You do, but I also write a lot made-for-TV movies, and then there really isn’t an leeway.  I won an Emmy two years ago for a piece called For Gold and Glory.  It’s about one of the first black people to drive in the major auto races like the Indianapolis 500.  There, I didn’t have the option because they say they need this much music, and that’s how much music you have to write.  So, I’m thankful that it’s not the only outlet I have.
BD:   You don’t want to just give them a pile of music and say, Fade in and fade out wherever you need?

Baker:   [Laughs]  Inevitably, they will take every liberty they want to once they have commissioned the piece.  They fade out at times when I wonder why they did that.  They hadn’t even gotten to the good part yet!  But that’s part of what you get when you write that kind of music.

BD:   Is this part of the difference between crafting music, such as for film and television, as opposed to classical
that you have more control, and you don’t expect it to be faded out?

Baker:   That’s part of it.  I don’t remember which composer wrote it, but they said that the difference between a classical piece and a jazz piece is the difference between a tune and a theme.  A tune is what the French call an aperçu, something that runs its course in sixteen measures or so, and a theme is a hypothesis that has to be proved.  That
s a wonderful distinction.  I’ll test any thematic material that I’m going to use in a big piece by seeing if it’s pregnant.  Will it bear fruit?  I will write on the back-side of a page, because I want to be able to see at a glance all of the music that’s there.  Then I can know how long has it been since I used this theme, and how long has it been since I was in this key.  Brahms used to talk about ‘a constant theme transformation’, so that the piece is forever organic and forever growing.  I try not to freeze it if it doesn’t want to be frozen.  That’s where your training comes in, and it’ll just simply be my experience and knowledge.  The more you write, the more likely you are to be able to find out what works and what doesn’t work.  I’m not fool enough to keep working and trying to do something which is wrong.  I like the saying that if you first you don’t succeed, change your approach!  [Both laugh]  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  So not everything you write down will work???

Baker:   No!  I miss very frequently.  I don’t think anybody is omnipotent or omniscient, and I learn every time I write.  For instance, the piece that I just finished, the cell phone piece, I had already written two movements.  But in the five or six weeks it took me to conceptualize and write this piece, my whole attitude changed about how I was looking at the material.  It demanded that I find a completely different way of writing, because I have no control over a cell phone except how to turn it on, or turn it off, or where I place it in an auditorium.  It made me really re-think what an audience hears according to where they’re sitting in the auditorium.  Also, what do they hear according to what they have just heard before or after?  When people ask me for pieces, it made me think a little bit about what they are putting them with.  I even developed a thought that they would promise me certain companion pieces.  Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale has a special instrumentation, so I wrote a piece to go with it.  When they play the piece, people are always looking for something to program with it.  Now they have it.  The same thing happens with Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.  Nobody could find companion things, so now I piggy-back on a lot of those things.  But that’s the practical side of composing.

BD:   Some groups are becoming standard, like the Pierrot Ensemble [flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, used in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire].

Baker:   Yes.  You learn from those things, and I’m sure other people have done this.  But there is something exciting about discovering it on your own.  So, you come up with ideas, but for me, it’s constantly changing.  Like I said earlier, I went through the period when I was trying to write in a way that wasn’t me, and it bothered me.  I had an epiphany when I really studied Bartók and Kodaly, and was looking at what they were doing.  I wondered why I was excluding rhythm and blues, and gospel music, and the things that I grew up with, just because somebody said that wasn’t classical music!  In the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, I realized those folk melodies are what gives it its charm, and maybe it’s a way to awaken something in somebody that they may not have thought about.

BD:   I don’t want to get too much into the social history of all this, but is it better now, as we’re in this new Millennium, than it would have been twenty or thirty or forty years ago, in terms of getting not just the black audience, but a white audience, and a mixed audience?

Baker:   I suspect it is probably different, but I didn’t let that be a decision-maker.  The decision was when I realized that I could, and then it really didn’t make a lot of difference, because if they didn’t want to play what I wrote, they wouldn’t ask.  The very first piece I wrote after this realization was a piece for a wonderful violinist named Josef Gingold.  He came to me, after he’d heard a piece for violin and jazz band by Bill Russo, the jazz composer, with the Stan Kenton Orchestra.  He heard a piece for violin and jazz band, and asked if we could we play it.  When I said yes, he asked if I could write a similar piece.  He didn’t say to write it as though it was the Mendelssohn or Berg Violin Concerto.  He just said to write a piece.  So I wrote a piece, and it’s very comical.  When we rehearsed the piece the first time with my jazz band at the university, Joe was dipping and dotting, and slurring notes, while the jazz band was playing it as stiff as it could play. 

BD:   Everyone was trying to over-compensate the other way?

Baker:   Exactly!  When you look back at the piece that Stravinsky wrote for the Woody Herman Band...

BD:   The Ebony Concerto?  [More about this work is included on the page with my interview with Paul Freeman.]

Baker:   Yes, and then the Bernstein Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, the thing that makes them beautiful is that they could go together.  But inevitably, when people play them, they begin to protect the turf that is theirs.  I’m not sure it’s a protective measure, but it’s one that comes very naturally because you want to speak the language you’re used to speaking.

BD:   Is it intimidation at all?

Baker:   I suspect it’s some of that.  But when I heard the very first recording of the Woody Herman piece and the contrasting piece, I was alarmed because I thought maybe this stuff doesn’t work.  But then, having studied with Gunther Schuller, and the fact that he’s the one who coined the term ‘Third Stream’, you can’t know how liberating it was!  My first thought
and this was before the famous speech!was free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last!

BD:   You were free to be yourself.

Baker:   Right, free to be myself.
BD:   Can I assume this is the advice you have for younger composers coming alongto just write and be true to yourself?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Robert Lombardo, and Hale Smith (which also includes an interview with T.J. Anderson.]

Baker:   Yes, either with playing or writing.  I remember they asked Miles something about why he wasn’t playing the music from the past, and he said,
It took a long time for me to learn how to be Miles Davis.  I thought that makes so much sense, because we’re not born full-blown.  I had to learn to write, and decide what to leave out and, like you said, being able to find that my ethnicity could be connected to what I was doing without sacrificing anything.

BD:   You had to learn how to write, but not what to write.

Baker:   [With a big smile]  You put it so beautifully!  I’ll remember how to say that next time I’m asked, because, yes, I didn’t want anyone to tell me what to write.  You go a stage when you imitate a piece by Bach, or a piece by Brahms, and that’s so valuable, but you’re doing that on route to finding out what your voice is.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’re dancing around it, so let me ask the real easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Baker:   I’ve thought about that a long time, and I’m not so sure that I must go back to the idea that it must be pleasant to be satisfying.  Maybe it must be satisfying, but not pleasant.  I listen to the music of Webern, and I find it attractive.  Even the little brief pieces that might be just nine measures long, and are over-analyzed.  There’s an introduction, exposition, development, and recapitulation, and then a coda all in those nine measures!  [Both laugh]  This is all without putting a value judgment on whether it’s a really beautifully singable melody.  One of my favorite pieces is the Berg Violin Concerto because it does not rigidly use the twelve-tone row.  It opens up with twelve notes in which they are in sets of four.  One is a G minor triad with major seventh, and the last part is a whole tone scale, all of which violate the row.  The tone row is G-Bb-D-F#-A-C-E-G#-B-C#-Eb-F, and that’s when it begins to make sense.  You use the materials that you have in a way that’s creative and consistent with who you are and what you believe.

BD:   Would the answer be different if it was for you as a jazz composer, as opposed to a classical composer, or is music always music?

Baker:   I’m not sure that I agree totally with Duke Ellington, but he said once that there are only two kinds of music
good music and bad music.  Then the problem is in the definitions, and I would be totally impoverished if they took either one of the two types of music away from me.  I’m not as versed in world music, because there’s a limited amount of time that you have to do things other than listen to music.

BD:   [With another gentle nudge]  Ohhhh, we should expect you to do everything!  [Both laugh]

Baker:   There are people who do, but it is just wonderful to be able to sit down and listen to the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, or his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (which is the Twenty-fourth Caprice) as it manifests itself in the variations and not have to feel ashamed.  For a while, people in the universities told me that I should not be listening to all this Romantic music of Rachmaninoff, and Chopin, and Tchaikovsky because it didn’t have the same sinew and muscle.  So, for a long time I would be embarrassed when they would get to the end of [sings part of the variation].  I’d say,
I’m not going to do this!  But as soon as the piece was over, I was virtually on my feet clapping and screaming.  I would look guiltily at academicians who had said it was too Romantic.  But I’m glad I listened to these composers, and to Bruckner and Wagner, and to all those people who began to expand the forty-five-minute, and hour-and-a half pieces.  Some of it was too much for me, but I don’t stop it because of its genre.  I only stop if what I hear is not something I enjoy.


:   Is some of that just the performance, or it is intrinsic in the piece?

Baker:   I suspect sometimes it is intrinsic in the piece, but more often it would be the performance, even though I would like to think that after I’ve heard these pieces so many times, it’s impossible not to be affected by the performance.  After all, I’ve heard them played by the best people in the world.  Then all of a sudden, to hear a group that butchers the piece, [both laugh] then I am sure I’m biased.

BD:   Nevertheless, have you been basically pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music over the years?

Baker:   Yes, by and large.  I found through experience that when I’ve gone to a performance of a work of mine, and it’s been played very badly, I can’t do anything about it.  You can’t start changing things when the concert is going to be at seven in the evening, and it’s three o’clock when you hear it the first time.  What I’ve done is affect the look of a man with an acrylic brace that keeps his face in the shape of a smile, and I say very little.  I’m not going to make a commitment and lie about it.  I find that the damage has already been done, and I would rather not make it worse.
BD:   [Being optimistic]  I hope those occurrences are few and far between.

Baker:   Yes, they are few and far between.  Now it is such a joy, but it’s a two-edged sword.  I told Starker and I told Menahem Pressler that it’s really unfair, because I really don’t know if I have a good piece until other people play it, because when you play it, it’s going to sound great whatever I have done.  [Much laughter]  Gary Karr was going around promoting a bass which you put together, so you could carry it on a plane.  He played it, and it was gorgeous, and I told him in a lot of ways that’s dishonest, because if he put some strings on a cigar box, it would sound really great!  [More laughter]  People think they’re going to sound like that just because the instrument is that way.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Is that not what you, as a composer, aspire to
a great performance by a great artist?
Baker:   I’ve been very fortunate.  I owe my musical life to people who were encouraging to me, like Gingold with that first piece.  That is not a polished piece.  It’s a piece that’s got vitality because of my jazz background, but he was so kind.  He would try this and that, and then he played the cadenza.  He took us through it in double-stops, and he didn’t have to tell me it made it better.  I knew it made it better, and I didn’t question him.  In the same way I learned as much about composing from Janos Starker as I’ve learned from any teacher that I’ve studied with.  The first version of the Cello Concerto had a long introduction, and Starker asked me what he was supposed to do while this is going on.  I told him that I didn’t know, but he played the Dvořák Concerto, and that’s got a long introduction at the beginning.  He said, David, you’re not Dvořák!  [Both laugh]  Talk about a sobering influence!  It was back to reality!  But people have encouraged me.  I wrote a piece called Roots II for the Beaux Arts Trio [CD shown at right].  I was not overly impressed with my first version of it because I didn’t think it was consistent.  Two or three years later, Pressler came up to me and he said they were going to record the piece for Philips.  I said, Oh, my God, let me rewrite it.  He said OK, but he wanted me to keep those three movements intact.  So I rewrote the piece, but in my zeal I wrote some stuff that was really cross-handed.  He said he was not sure that it could even be played, and I said that I just assumed when it’s the Beaux Arts Trio there’s nothing that’s impossible.  He said he would take it back to his room for a while, and of course he played it.  [Laughs]  These are the people who have been so kind to somebody who was really a neophyte, and it’s been encouraging.

BD:   When you have a piece that has been played and performed several times, if you get a new idea, or an idea to make it better, do you go back and edit the piece and put in corrections?  [Vis-à-vis the CD shown at right, see my interviews with Ned Rorem, and George Rochberg.]

Baker:   I’m inconsistent in this.  It’s hard for me to go back and revisit the things that have already been done and published.  If the piece has never been published, it’s likely that I might change something, but usually by the time it gets to the final stage, I’ve really weighed the options, and I’ve spent days sometimes on four measures.  I won’t know what it is that’s missing, but I know something is missing.  Then all of a sudden, it’ll be there, and then I wonder why I didn’t think of this to begin with.  So, it varies from piece to piece.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You mentioned recordings.  I assume that you’re pleased with the recordings that are out?

Baker:   Most of them, but a lot of times I don’t have input.  For instance, because Paul Freeman and I have been working together since I wrote the piece Kosbro, after it was played in Houston he made some changes before it got to the New York Philharmonic.  When he makes changes, usually there’s rational and make sense.  Very often I’ve had performers tell me they don’t want to listen to a recording of the piece because they don’t want to be influenced by it.  But many times, that also means they’re doing things that are not what I intended, and there are things which can change the meaning of the piece of music.  So, I’ll vacillate, but once it
s been recorded I leave it alone.  I’ve been very, very fortunate that usually the recordings are good, and they’re very, very different.  I’ve heard half a dozen recordings of a piece I wrote for Starker called Singers of Songs and Weavers of Dreams.  It’s a piece for cello and multiple percussion, and every one of them has been appreciably different, but every one has been valid.  [The world premiere recording is shown below, along with a photo of the session.]

BD:   I assume you build in a little bit of room for interpretation?

Baker:   A lot of it!  I wrote a sonata for Starker, and I doubled one of the lines.  He asked me why I was doing that, and I said that everybody does it.  He said,
When you double the line, you make it impossible for me to be interpretive.  I’ve got to play it the way that it works together.  When it’s something like a big piano concerto, you have to do some of this, and that’s completely different.  But when I’m writing a solo piece for piano and an instrument, I stay as far away from it as I can, because it really does minimize the opportunity for the performer to make the piece come to life.  Starker has told me that he eschewed commissioning works, but he has asked me for seven different pieces.  Starker is a born composer, and I was the only one with whom he could change things.  I would bring in a piece, and he would say some spot won’t work, and sure enough, it wouldn’t work.  He wouldn’t tell me why, but then I would see why it didn’t work.  I had to figure it out myself, and I thanked him later for it.  Those are eye-opening things for me.

BD:   Do you ever tailor a piece exactly for a performer?  Perhaps if they’re not on the level of Starker, or Pressler, or Gingold, or somebody like that, do you make it a little technically easier?

Baker:   [Chuckles knowingly]  Yes, but so far I
ve been lucky that the pieces I write have been for top people.  So I haven’t had to do much of that.  But I have written some student pieces.  What’s ironic is that some of those, where I’ve trimmed it down so it was much more playable, inevitably the teacher has liked it so much that they play the piece, and I found out it was better than I thought it was to begin with.  That has happened a lot of times.  The flutist Carol Wincenc came to Indiana University, and it turned out that the first concert she was going to play was the day they inaugurated the new president of the University, Thomas Erlich.  She came to me on a Friday and said it’d sure be nice for her Monday night recital if she had a piece that she could play and dedicate to Ehrlich.  She called me the ‘Court Composer’!  [Both laugh]  So I wrote a piece, and it has turned out to be one of the most accessible pieces.  Its only two and a half minutes long, but it gets played a lot because people need something to finish up a concert, or a recital, or they find they have some time left and it’s an encore.  So, you never know how it’s going to come out.  I just feel wonderfully blessed that people have the confidence to take a chance with the pieces that I’ve written.

BD:   Do you write the pieces for the performers and then the audience, or do you write it with the audience in mind at the very beginning?

Baker:   First it has to satisfy me, and then it has to satisfy the performer.  Then it almost follows, as night follows day, that some portion of the audience will relate to it.  One of the things I have discovered in my own writing is I’ve developed a technique I call ‘reminiscence’.  I will take something that struck me, and use just enough of it
the first five or six notesto bring a person into my piece because they’re now remembering the other piece.  [Sings a few notes]  I remember starting a piece with the first five notes of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess, and every time people play my piece, I watch their reaction.  The imprimatur of Ravel is there, and then it goes somewhere else.  They say they can’t remember what that reminded them of, but it was really a sweet kind of piece!

BD:   Are you trying to sucker the public???


:   Yes!  [Roars of laughter from both]  I find there are pieces I come to because they have something that strikes a note with me, even with my jazz writing.  I have a chamber orchestra in the Smithsonian, and I would invariably select pieces that people liked.  These are pieces they fell in love with, or pieces they got married to, or pieces that were favorites of their children.  I try to capture those kinds of memories.  I’ll give you an example.  When I was writing this piece that I just finished for cell phones, I remembered a line and the tune Laura [from the film of the same name, with music by David Raksin].  The line says,
The love that floats on a summer night that you can never quite recall.  Many times that’s what I do in a piece of music.  I go back to my grade school, and I walk in and smell the paste, and I’m immediately transported back to that time.  I’ll smell a whisp of perfume, and I’m back twenty years ago.  I try to find those kinds of tid-bits that are familiar but not imitative, and I’ll put them in a piece.  Something like Till Eulenspiegel, or Don Quixote are things which only invoke images because of the title.  I’ve named pieces after they had been written, and people will come up and say they heard those ideas in the piece!  [Laughs]  That’s exactly what it feels like.  I always suspect there’s an element of truth in what they say, but a part of it is that they are trying to find something to say that indicates they like the piece.
BD:   We seem to be losing the audiences that grew up on Ravel and Rachmaninoff, and we’re getting audiences that have grown up on Jimmy Hendrix...

Baker:   Steve Reich...

BD:   ...and the Grateful Dead, and the Beatles.  How are we, in the classical field, going to tap into that market?

Baker:   It’s very, very difficult.  In this piece, I thought a little of Led Zeppelin when I was writing it.  When you start pandering to people on that level, it does more of a disservice than service.  If you can find things which are commonality, there will always be common ground between the two.  I don’t find it any less satisfying when I hear an ostinato that has a jazz inclination in a piece by Copland, or a piece by John Alden Carpenter.  I find things in there that I find captivating, and people tend to close their minds because their expectation is unrealistic.  This is why I like pairing.  You come to hear a big work that is already acknowledged as a masterpiece, and then there’s also a new piece on the program.  Sometimes somebody is disappointed, but a lot of times, from that time on, those pieces are connected somewhere in the back of your mind.  Maybe that means opening a door that you didn’t notice before.  The only reason I really considered it when Paul called me to write the piece was expansion.  I work for the National Education Association, and was on the Board for seven years during the time of the Mapplethorpe trial.  I found that there were many of those kinds of things that we had to overcome, because we were prejudiced against them, and just assumed they were wrong.  It’s the reason why I eschew labels whenever I can.  I have to deal with
third-stream simply because some of my dramatic pieces are crossover music.  But even there, they’re purely third-stream pieces.  I almost never start out to write that.  I start to write a piece, and then whatever influences come in are the influences that I use.  In one of the big stores in New York where they carry all my CDs, I went into the store, and couldn’t find them.  So I asked a clerk, and he told me where they were.  I went over and found them, and I asked why they didn’t just leave them where they were, and he said, “Because they don’t fit with what’s supposed to be there!  It hadn’t occurred to him to simply file them under my name.  [Both laugh]  In our Western civilization, it is our tendency to label things because it makes it easy to deal with them.

BD:   We have a jazz audience, and we have a classical audience.  Should we try to bring them all together?  Is there any way to get the jazz people into symphony concerts, and the symphonic audience into jazz clubs?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Olly Wilson, and Marcus Thompson.]

Baker:   I think so.  Sometimes it’s on a very rudimentary level.  For instance, when Wynton Marsalis was at his peak playing classical music, he played and recorded works including the Hummel Concerto as well as anybody.  [Baker mentions conductor Gerard Schwarz, and there are also recordings conducted by Raymond Leppard].  So, jazz people came because it was him, and they found they liked the piece.  If you can find works that somehow or other can bridge this gap, it doesn’t have to be as rudimentary as [sings Rhapsody in Blue].

BD:   Ahhh... Gershwin!

Baker:   It doesn’t have to be that.  It can be as broad as [Scott Joplin’s opera] Treemonisha , but you can find some common ground.  It’s like when people find somebody in a different racial group, they begin to make an exception. 
They say things such as, “I don’t like those kinds of people, but I really like you!  [Both laugh]  If they can begin to expand that, they see what it is they like about the person.  Then they find out it isn’t just that one person.  So many times, those barriers begin to break down.  I have a lot of friends who say they don’t like classical music.  I lived in Australia for a while, and there was a guy there named Peter Sculthorpe, who was one of their best composers.  His favorite trick was when he saw me coming into a party, he would loudly say, “I hate jazz!”  He was kidding, of course, so one day I called him on it.  I said, “Which jazz do you hate?  You hate Miles Davis?  You hate Louis Armstrong?  You hate Frank Sinatra?  You hate Ella Fitzgerald?”  He just started cracking up and laughing.  I said, “Truce?” and he said, “Yes!”  [Much laughter]  Sometimes labels can be detrimental, although they’re handy.  I teach a jazz history class, and it’s got 200 people, so I have to bring it down to the smallest common denominator to reach them.  It’s Boogie-woogie, it’s Bebop, it’s Third-stream, it’s Cool Jazz, but then I define these terms and styles, and tell them that none of them can be mutually exclusive from all the other styles, because basically it would be incomprehensible.

BD:   You’re teaching jazz to a large group.  Is it harder to teach jazz to someone who’s only come up on Rock and Roll, as opposed to someone who’s only come up on Chopin, or is it the same kind of difficulty?

Baker:   It’s the same kind of difficulty.  I only have seventy or eighty people who are jazz majors in the class.  The rest of the 200 are athletes who think it’s going to be an easy A, which they’re always wrong about.  But it’s people from different walks.  Sometimes it’s classical people, sometimes it’s jazz people, and sometimes it’s people who are in mathematics.

BD:   I would think for that kind of course it would be better to separate them.  Have one session for the music majors and jazz majors, and another for the non-majors.

Baker:   That would be perfect if we were in a perfect world, where we had the economic resources to do that.  But I find by having them together, they bleed onto each other.  The questions they ask are ones they wouldn’t normally ask.  It’s amazing how much there is in common, and I try to tell them that what they really are looking for are discreet differences.  I say that we have more things in common than we have different.  I point out that 98.6º is normal temperature, and 20/20 is the sign of good vision.  My blood type is the same type as many of you, so how can we hate each other based on one facet, which is skin color?  All these things we have in common completely outweigh the other single factor.

BD:   Do you mind people not accepting you because they hate jazz, or they hate classical?

Baker:   I try to find a middle ground, and then I work for the conversion.  [Both roar laughing]

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BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of concert music?

Baker:   I’m absolutely for it.  Another reason why this outreach is so important to me is that in Indianapolis, somebody asked me to write for them.  I’d had pieces played by them before, and it was at a place in my schedule that I could do it.  But the only reason I accepted this commission was that they asked me because I’m a composer, not because I happen to be black.  They said it had never occurred to them, and I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt because maybe they didn’t.  This is a very learnèd audience, and those barriers are being broken down, but I wouldn’t have taken this commission if they had offered it to me in my busy season.  I wanted it to be the very best piece I’d ever written for them.
BD:   When I was with WNIB for so many years, I had a pile of interviews with composers, and I wound up using their birthdays because those are completely arbitrary.

Baker:   I like that!  That’s very fine!

BD:   It was an easy sorting measure for me, and it was very interesting to see who would come together just because they had the same birthday in different years.

Baker:   That’s amazing!  It’s very inventive!  I like the way your mind works.

BD:   It was an easy sorting measure for me.

Baker:   I try to keep track of some birthdays.  For instance, 1999 would have been unthinkable not to have played Ellington.  When I traveled Europe with six dancers and the Smithsonian Band, I knew that October 21st was Dizzy Gillespie, and October 10th was Thelonious Monk.  Inevitably you get an audience that you wouldn’t normally get because it happened to be on that day.  I like the way you’re thinking, and I may be able to use that with the history class.

BD:   Your birthday is December 21, 1931.  Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Baker:   Yes.  I could not have asked for better.  When people ask me if there’s anybody I would rather be, I’d rather be me.  Something I found fascinating was at a dinner with several major figures of the University.  They asked if we could have a conversation with anybody in the entire history of time, who would we choose?  I might have said I would love to talk to Jesus Christ, but Starker said Paganini.  His reason was that we have no evidence, except for what was written, that this man had been the greatest virtuoso of all time.  So he (Starker) would love to talk to him, and hear him play the things that he wrote.  When you look at that music, I can understand why he would say this.

BD:   Rachmaninoff had huge hands, with a span of a twelfth, and we have recordings of him playing the things he wrote.

Baker:   Erroll Garner could reach a fifteenth!  He could play a C and a G together.  I mean, just play.  He didn’t roll them!  It’s an accident of birth that Maynard Ferguson could play such high notes.  The same with Cat Anderson.  [We then had a bit of chit-chat about my work at the radio station, and I mentioned my interview with George Walker, whose Lyric for Strings I had chosen to be the piece which signed off WNIB for the final time in 2001.]  
I was on the Pulitzer Prize Committee that awarded George Walker the prize for his string music (1996).

BD:   Thank you so much for being a composer.  I
m glad this worked out for the interview.

Baker:   [Laughs]  Well, thank you!  This has been the most pleasurable because the questions you ask are probing, and are ones that are not easily answered. 

BD:   [With a big grin]  I don’t ask typical questions.

Baker:   [Laughs]  You sure don’t!

[Allow me to call attention to the other black classical musicians whom I have had the privilege of interviewing.  The list is HERE, and it has links to those which have been transcribed and posted.]




See my interviews with Morton Gould, Robert Muczynski, and Malcolm Williamson

© 2006 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on September 29, 2006.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR the following February, and again in 2014; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2007, and 2014.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.