Educator, NEA Jazz Master David Baker Dies at 84


David Baker (left) with Quincy Jones in May 2010

(Photo: Courtesy Indiana University Jacobs School of Music)

Dr. David Baker, a renowned jazz composer and educator, passed away on March 26 at his home in Bloomington, Indiana. He was 84.

Baker was a revered, influential figure in the world of jazz education who had a profound impact on the ways that jazz is taught.

Baker leaves behind an immense oeuvre that includes more than 2,000 compositions, 500 commissions, 65 recordings, 70 books and 400 articles.

Baker founded the Jazz Studies program at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. Additionally, he was the artistic and musical director of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra from 1990 to 2012.

Baker was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for his composition Levels, a concerto for bass, jazz band, woodwinds and strings. He received an Emmy Award for his musical score of the PBS documentary For Gold and Glory.

Baker, who was a frequent contributor to DownBeat, was inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Education Hall of Fame in 1994. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2000.

Indiana University issued the following statement:

The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music is deeply saddened to announce the death of David N. Baker, distinguished professor of music and Jazz Studies Department chair emeritus, at the age of 84. Baker died peacefully Saturday, March 26, at his home in Bloomington, Indiana. A member of the Jacobs School of Music faculty since 1966, he founded the Jazz Studies program and served as its chair from 1968 to 2013.

“David Baker was one of the truly great figures in the history of jazz,” said IU President Michael A. McRobbie. “He was deeply respected and extensively admired as a charismatic educator, innovative and virtuosic performer, prolific composer of depth and subtlety, and scholar of enormous range. While David would likely have demurred from these descriptions—being a gentle, generous, self-effacing and modest man—and would have insisted that only the likes of Davis, Coltrane, Coleman, Russell, Armstrong, Young, Parker, Rollins, Gillespie and perhaps one or two others meet the criteria as major figures in jazz, it was widely agreed that David himself was such a figure—one who was important on his instrument, one who had transcended his era, one who had transformed improvisation and composition, and one who influenced all who followed. Our heartfelt and sincere condolences go out to his wife, Lida, herself a distinguished musician, and other members of his family. He was truly an Indiana University treasure.”

“The Jacobs School and the profession will be eternally indebted to David for what he built, guided and codified,” said Gwyn Richards, dean of the Jacobs School of Music. “He was a distinguished and cherished professor who built our jazz program from the ground up and, through it, influenced generations of artist-teachers. David Baker was the ‘B’ in the ABC of international jazz education: Aebersold (Jamey), Baker and Coker (Jerry). Beloved by colleagues, students and the public, he brought people to his art and, once there, moved and inspired them though his composition, performance and teaching. He is, was and always will be a towering figure in our field.”

“It is almost impossible to comprehend the scope of David’s work and impact as a performer, teacher, composer, band leader and arts advocate,” said Tom Walsh, chair of the Jacobs Jazz Studies Department. “Over the last 50 years, David Baker inspired thousands of music students, educators and musicians. His influence permeates the teaching of jazz music around the globe. David was a brilliant person who was a joy to be around. His humor, his care for people and his great desire to share his knowledge and experience made him a magnet. The encouragement he gave his students gave them the feeling that they could go into the world and do great things. And they did!”

David Nathaniel Baker Jr. was born Dec. 21, 1931, in Indianapolis. He graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis before attending Indiana University, earning a Bachelor of Music Education degree in 1953 and a Master of Music Education degree in 1954.

He studied with a wide range of master teachers, performers and composers, including Thomas Beversdorf, Bobby Brookmeyer, Bernhard Heiden, J.J. Johnson, George Russell, William Russo, Gunther Schuller and Janos Starker. Originally a gifted trombonist, he switched to the cello after sustaining jaw injuries in a car accident.

He began his teaching career at Missouri’s Lincoln University in 1955.

Baker was a regular on the thriving Indianapolis jazz scene of the era—especially on its historic Indiana Avenue—with the likes of fellow jazz giants Jimmy Coe, Slide Hampton, Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, Wes Montgomery, Larry Ridley and David Young. They are all included in the Jazz Masters of Indiana Avenue mural on Capitol Avenue in Indianapolis.

He was a member of the Quincy Jones Big Band during its 1960 European tour, beginning a lifelong friendship with the music icon.

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