David Baker riffs on risk 

click to enlarge David Baker, distinguished professor of jazz studies and chair of the Jazz Studies Department at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, says a performer can take risks, but must understand the myriad ways a performance can be destroyed. - COURTESY OF INDIANA UNIVERSITY
  • David Baker, distinguished professor of jazz studies and chair of the Jazz Studies Department at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, says a performer can take risks, but must understand the myriad ways a performance can be destroyed.
  • Courtesy of Indiana University

In anticipation of his appearance on the Nov. 10 closing panel of the 2013 Spirit & Place Festival, which is dedicated to exploring risk, legendary musician, composer and education David Baker, distinguished professor of jazz studies and chair of the Jazz Studies Department at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, took some time to explore the theme with Rebecca Townsend, NUVO's news editor. Excerpts of that conversation, edited for clarity and length, follow:

NUVO: In Monika Herzig's book, David Baker: A Legacy in Music, she talk about some changes you introduced to some traditional blues forms. Is that risky, altering the forms of something so sacred?

David Baker: All the blues musicians I know like the elasticity of the blues ... What they do to personalize. What makes the blues attractive to many people is: What can I do that will attach what I'm doing without destroying what they love about the blues?

Gunther Schuller's "third stream" — the first stream is classical, the second is jazz or more rhythmic music — offers an understanding that something is going to happen that isn't normally going to happen. It gives it an elasticity simply because now it's been named. For instance, somebody walking in to play at Bear's in Bloomington – they can't play Liszt, Mozart or Hayden unless they dress it up and say, "I'm doing this on purpose." Then they play it because it gives them cred... because they're saying, "I don't care what you think about it, what I'm playing is really jazz."

NUVO: What does the blues teach us about risk?

Baker: I think that's the strength of music, period. It can invoke words or feeling that you wouldn't say in the course of just talking, but when you hear it in the course of the blues you know it's already been bastardized.

NUVO: What risks do you take when you play?

Baker: The ways to ruin a piece... I made a list: a wrong harmony, a wrong form, a wrong note or chord, a wrong rhythm or misread the composition's volume... or the use of a microphone that is not usually used. In a jam session, there are rules that are unspoken. If you violate them, you run the risk of losing your job. It's easy to make a mistake if you don't have the background. Sometimes breaking a rule can cost you your gig. Sometimes it is an effective mechanism to jar them.

NUVO: Have you ever lost a gig because you violated a rule?

Baker: More gigs than you can imagine. Until I knew how to play jazz — bebop in particular — they didn't have to tell me more than once to get off the stage. That's what the jam session is about, it gives you a wider portal of getting in and out alive.

If I were talking about civil rights ... I'm not going to be singing about somebody dancing or going on a carousel at the carnival because it's inappropriate. ... If I'm playing Beethoven's Fifth in a place where they serve whiskey, it becomes immediately clear to the people that know the place that it is inappropriate.

In a jazz band what happens is great: When it's your solo, you're the leader. Then the next person steps forward and they're the leader. People know when to go in the background and when not to go in the background: That is the secret of a good jazz person. I don't want someone, while I'm soloing, deciding to take over: That would be war.

NUVO: With regard to the risks we take in daily life, in 1953 you risked a car ride from a gig in northern Indiana and you were in an accident that ultimately robbed you of your ability to play your chosen instrument, the trombone. What did you learn from that experience?

Baker: The more you know, generally, the more likely you are to adapt and be functional in the environment ... You have the growth of options. The more options, the more likely you are to be successful.

NUVO: In shifting your focus from performance to education, you helped formalize the academic study of jazz, which involved informing your students of the risks they face.

Baker: It is a never-ending path and you have to be aware of it. I think I've written 60-70 books that deal with the narrow path that you are walking: A wrong reading, a wrong harmony can wreck a performance. But if you are smart enough to know what's missing, it can be fixed.

If I go into the club and I walk in and find, "Oh, I'm in the ladies room!" That's easy enough to fix by leaving. But if you didn't leave, people would know something was amiss or awry. That's overdoing it, but we are governed by rules all the time.

Otherwise I wouldn't be teaching the years I've taught. Because, basically, people ask me: "What should I do here?" I said, "I can't tell you what to do; I can give you all the options I know and then it's up to you to decide." I can also them grade because I said, "You broke all the rules here."

It's a narrow road, but it's one that if the rules are followed, and you know those rules, they give you a kind of strength that you never could do if you were just by yourself, even though if you were by yourself you'd have more things you could do — but you also have more rules you can break.

The more you stick to that given thing where everyone knows what happens next, the safer one is, but also boring. The element of surprise is forever one of the guiding lights of poems, of songs, of whatever. Basically, it means now you have a way to put it in a different atmosphere. But if you don't know any of the rules, you might luck up on a great solo or performance, but you can't repeat that performance. You have to go back and say, 'What was it that caused the applause?'

As a writer, I'm probably more adaptable than anyone I can think of because I was trained to write classical. I love classical music, so I do it. But my living conditions determined that I was a blues player or a religious player playing psalms and spirituals. If I have all those things available to me, now I'm free. But if I have all the rules and if I choose to violate none of them it's boring. If I choose to violate all of them it's boring.

Nature abhors a vacuum, I'm the person, as an artist, who is always looking for where the vacuum is because at that place, that's where I belong because that's where I can do something that's me. If I avoid the vacuum even when I know it's there, then I misused my powers of observation.

click to enlarge Could David Baker be smiling because the audience is responding well to the unexpected — or the unplanned? - COURTESY OF INDIANA UNIVERSITY
  • Could David Baker be smiling because the audience is responding well to the unexpected — or the unplanned?
  • Courtesy of Indiana University

NUVO: What risks do musicians take when they release something new?

Baker: Familiarity can breed contempt, but could also breed success. It would never occur to me to write a piece where I didn't introduce anything that was new, anything that was off that beaten path where I would normally tread.

I was one of first people in academia who was conversant with both classical and jazz. I look at which group is going to play it and that can govern what I write. If it's the New York Philharmonic, I'll write it one way. And, even though I might use some of the same material, I wouldn't write it that way for a group of jazz players.

Again, the more you know, the more you are being held accountable for. And the more know, it can be your means to success and a healthy relationship between you and your audience.

But all new is boring. All old is boring. I'm hoping I'm a creature of habit, but not so much that I ignore the signs that say detour ahead. The years I've got left are governed by God, which helps me avoid the faux pas you face when you just take the easy route.

NUVO: I like how you demand discipline, but offer the opportunity for improvisation.

Baker: Variety is, of course, is the spice of life. But unguided and undisciplined is bad. I write, but I want to make sure I'm communicating. A lot of it has been experimentation. In the beginning, I made a lot of mistakes ... I still make mistakes, but not the ones I used to make. Sometimes that mistake sounds like I did it on purpose ... if I see that they really like it, I smile a lot.

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Rebecca Townsend

Rebecca Townsend

Rebecca Townsend served as NUVO news editor from May 2011 to August 2014. During a 20-plus year career, her bylines have appeared in publications ranging from Indiana AgriNews to the Wall Street Journal. Her undergraduate degree is in sociology and anthropology from Earlham College, and her master's is in journalism... more

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