David Baker: Celebrating a Jazz Legend

David Baker 80th Birthday Celebration
Musical Arts Center
IU Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana
January 21, 2012


In January of 1993 (almost exactly 19 years ago to the date), the former Tonight Show Orchestra leader, Doc Severinsen, brought his big band to the stage of the Indiana University Auditorium.

At one point during the show, Severinsen stepped to the microphone, and as the band vamped, he led the more than 3,000 audience members in an impromptu call-and-response with the phrase: “Dave Baker is a mighty cool cat.”

Tonight, as his friends, colleagues, and fans gather to celebrate his 80th birthday, Dave Baker is still “a mighty cool cat.”

He is also an innovative and virtuosic performer, a prolific composer, a dedicated jazz educator, and an Indiana University treasure.

A Virtuoso Performer

David Baker, as many of you know, grew up in Indianapolis, where, as a young man, he spent time playing with and learning from many of the great local and visiting musicians.

He came to Indiana University to study music in the early 1950s and trained as a classical trombonist as there was no jazz program here at the time.

David Baker would, himself, later change that in a big way.

In the meantime, he embarked on an extraordinary career as a musician.

A dynamic trombonist, David played with many of the greats in the world of jazz, including Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Quincy Jones, Stan Kenton, and, of course, he was an important part of the seminal George Russell Sextet.

Down Beat magazine honored him as the top jazz trombonist of 1962. Twenty-five years later, he received the magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

When an injury left him unable to play the trombone, David took up the cello, becoming a virtuoso on a second instrument—which is quite a remarkable feat.

And on the cello, David was truly a pioneer and an innovator. He was one of the first to use the cello in jazz.

As a conservatory-trained musician, David has also demonstrated a remarkable ability to deftly bridge the worlds of classical and jazz music—and he continues to build upon his reputation as an innovator at the convergence of jazz and classical music. 

A Prolific Composer

But, of course, David Baker is far more than a virtuosic performer.

He is also an incredibly prolific composer, whose work is incredibly varied.

He has written just about every kind of musical composition imaginable in the worlds of classical and jazz, from big-band jazz pieces, to symphonies, chamber works, and choral arrangements.

In all, he has composed more than 2,000 works.

Defining Jazz Education

When he joined the faculty of Indiana University in 1966, David became one of the first significant figures in the world of jazz to become a jazz educator.

The current academic year marks his 45th year teaching at IU. That alone is a remarkable achievement and one that few can match.

But as Chair of Jazz Studies since 1966, David may very well be the longest-serving head of a program at Indiana University.

With his colleagues, he built, at Indiana University, one of the best jazz programs in the country—one that is known and admired around the globe.

His work as a teacher has defined jazz education, not only at Indiana University, but also around the world.

He has shaped the lives and careers of so many professional musicians—many of whom have returned for this special evening.

And David is known for bringing scholarly rigor to the classroom. Many of his former students will tell you that their classes with David were among the most challenging of their academic careers.

But David’s reach as an educator extends far beyond the Bloomington campus.

He has conducted master classes, residencies, and workshops around the world.

He has published more than 400 articles and 70 books—definitive texts used by musicians around the globe. In the 1970s, David’s influential books on jazz improvisation were among the few of their kind available. Today, while the market is flooded with educational jazz materials, David’s publications remain among the very best.

As David’s longtime friend, Quincy Jones, writes in the forward to Monika Herzig’s excellent new book, David Baker: A Legacy in Music, David “always chose his teaching and his students as his principal calling. In a society that most commonly rewards glamorous careers with a focus on highly visible personalities, the choice to dedicate one’s life to helping others achieve their aspirations is a mark of a truly selfless and kind person.”1

In 1981, the National Association of Jazz Educators recognized David’s vital contributions to jazz education by inducting him into its Hall of Fame.

David also, of course, has dedicated himself to the preservation of jazz, through his extraordinary work with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.

David’s own incredible discography includes more than 140 discs on which he is either a performer, or the composer, conductor, or arranger—or some combination of these roles.

At one point, he was averaging about an album a month.

Throughout much of this extraordinary career—and extraordinary life—David’s wife, Lida, who is an accomplished flautist in her own right, has been by his side to offer invaluable support and strength. She has acted as David’s editor and advisor and in just about every capacity imaginable.

In fact, David recently told the Indiana Alumni magazine that Lida has been by his side for so long that “it’s like having another side of your brain.”2

David told the Indiana Daily Student in 1980 that there are three types of major figures in jazz: “those who transcend their instruments and era to influence all who follow, those who are important on their instruments, and those who transform composition and improvisation.”3

While David would likely demur, and insist that only Davis, Coltrane, Coleman, Russell, Armstrong, Young, Parker, Rollins, Gillespie and perhaps one or two others meet those criteria, I think all of us gathered here tonight would agree that David Baker himself is a major figure in jazz, one who is important on his instrument, one who has transcended his era, one who has transformed improvisation and composition, and one who influences all who follow.

The many honors David has received during his distinguished career are an indication that the rest of the world agrees.

And before we all settle in to hear some splendid music, I want to take just a moment to add to those honors.

Professor Tom Walsh will assist in this presentation.

Bestowing the President’s Medal

David, in recognition of all that you have done for Indiana University, for jazz education and preservation, and for your many vital contributions to the arts as a performer, composer, arranger, bandleader, conductor, and teacher, it is my great pleasure to present you with the highest honor an Indiana University president can bestow: the President’s Medal for Excellence.

This medal itself is a reproduction in silver of the symbolic jewel of office worn by Indiana University’s president at ceremonial occasions. The precious stones represent the university’s cultivation of reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as the arts, sciences, and humanities.

This medal is given to recognize exceptional distinction in public service, service to Indiana University, achievement in a profession, or extraordinary merit and achievement in the arts, humanities, sciences, education, and industry.

David, in every one of these categories, your distinction has been extraordinary during your remarkable career and the Indiana University and Bloomington communities are profoundly grateful that you have shared so much of yourself with us.

So, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the trustees of Indiana University, and in gratitude for your extraordinary contributions to the arts, to this community, to Indiana University and its students, I am privileged and honored to present you with the President’s Medal for Excellence.

Congratulations, David.

The David N. Baker Scholarship Fund

I have one more announcement. As some of you may know, the Jacobs School of Music has established the David N. Baker Jazz Scholarship Fund in celebration of David’s extraordinary career and his devotion to his students. The Jacobs School will be actively soliciting donations for this fund.

As a way of assisting in this effort, and as a way of further honoring David’s dedication to Indiana University, I am delighted to announce that the university will match all donations to the scholarship fund up to $100,000.

David, let me once again express my enduring gratitude for all that you have done for Indiana University.

Your legacy will be felt on this campus and throughout the world as long as there is music.

Happy birthday to you and many happy returns.

Source Notes

  1. Quincy Jones in the forward to Monika Herzig (ed.), David Baker: A Legacy in Jazz, (Indiana University Press, 2011), xiii-xiv.
  2. Mike Leonard, “Jazz Man David Baker: IU’s Legendary Educator Still Setting an Example,” Indiana Alumni Magazine, Nov/Dec 2010, p. 32.
  3. Colin Cartwright, “Jazz is Alive and Living in its Creators,” Indiana Daily Student, Nov. 21, 1980, p. 28.