Ginger Baker is primarily known as a powerhouse drummer, but when he's playing jazz, the power transforms into dexterity and sensitive dynamics. Many listeners remember Baker from his days with Cream. His jazz recordings, though, get unanimous praise for their sweeping knowledge of various styles. He talks with about his playing and his bands. You're known more than anything as the drummer for Cream. But you have an extensive jazz past.

Ginger Baker: I've been playing jazz since the '50s. I was playing jazz in 1956. When I first turned professional, I was playing jazz. It was only in the early '60s, around 1962, when certain jazz players, prompted by myself, really, we decided to go commercial. The final conclusion of that was Cream. As someone who's played for huge, adoring crowds in Cream and then also for much smaller jazz crowds, do you feel like the jazz audience is unjustly small?

Baker: I've always thought that. That's why we decided to deliberately go commercial, if you like, and tried to get good music across to the public. It is very sad to me that America is the birthplace of jazz and you have to go out of America to get a good audience playing jazz. So do you think you've taken a path from jazz to rock and then back to jazz?

Baker: It never went to rock. I mean, I don't put labels on things. Other people put the labels on things. Cream's music, 80 percent of it was improvised. Was it not? Cream never played the same two nights running. Now, that's not rock & roll. Cream had a much heavier drum presence. How do you compare that with playing jazz?

Baker: My drums in Cream came about solely because of the volume the other two guys were playing at. You had to play heavy to hear yourself play. They were playing so loud! But, I mean, if you really listen to Cream, there's an awful lot of color involved in that. A lot of dynamics and stuff. You had enormous critical success with the trio recordings with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden. How did they come about?

Baker: An old friend of mine, Chip Stern, approached Atlantic Records and me. I said, "Chip, if you could get it together, I'd love to do it." Because I love Charlie Haden and I like Bill Frisell. So we got together, totally unrehearsed, and went into the studio and made Going Back Home. So that was a set-it-up-and-go session?

Baker: Yeah. And that's the difference between that band and the Denver Quintet to Octet [DJQ2O]. The DJQ2O has been going for four years. The lineups vary, from a quartet to a quintet, a sextet, a septet, or an octet. We have that range of color. And Ron Miles and I write stuff for the band. It's the best band that I've ever played with. You attract some great younger jazz stars like James Carter [on 1999's Coward of the County] and Bela Fleck [on Falling Off the Roof] and others. How does playing with those guys compare with your Denver-based band?

Baker: It's no different at all. We're jazz players. We play jazz. On Coward, Ron Miles writes some strenuous tunes.

Baker: When I saw the part for "Jesus Loves Me" I went, "Jesus Christ, Ron! This is never going to work!" However, on playing it, it did work, and that shows where Ron is coming from that he can write something with so many different time signatures in it--and yet it swings from top to bottom. If the Denver band were in New York, would it be working constantly, wowing crowds?

Baker: We played New York in 1998 and blew everybody away, which is how we got to do the record, because my record company, that's the first time they heard the band. I've been telling them for years I've got this band, and we finally came to New York, and our record company heard it. So we've already been in New York, and we blew New York totally away. This band live is frightening! Absolutely frightening. I mean, we did Coward of the County in two days! It's live on the record. It's straight onto two-track. No overdubs, no multitracks. You talk in the liner notes about your "drum family": Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and Phil Seaman. How did they influence you?

Baker: Phil Seaman was the greatest drummer ever to come out of Europe, and he was almost a godlike person to me. And I think it was in 1960, Tubby Hayes, the tenor sax player, heard me playing an all-nighter at the Flamingo and ran up the road to where Phil was at Ronnie Scott's club and told Phil to come down and hear the drummer. I was unaware that he was there till I got off the stage to be confronted by God! And I went back to his place, and we spent all night listening to African records. And when did you come across Blakey and Elvin and Max Roach?

Baker: I had heard the quintet with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus, and Max--the group on Jazz at Massey Hall. And it totally blew me away. But I didn't actually become friends with Max until a few years ago, and he still hadn't heard me play. Then we did a gig in Verona with Tony Williams, Max, his band M-Boom, and myself. And we've been great friends ever since. Did you record together?

Baker: We were actually booked into a studio in New York, but Tony died. So instead of being in the studio in New York, Max and I and all Tony's friends were in San Francisco burying him, which is very sad, which is a great shame. Tony was a great friend of mine and a wonderful player. Where does your African-music influence originate?

Baker: I lived in Nigeria for 6 years, and was into African music for 10 years before I went there. I think the best musical experience I had there was when Fela's drummer was sick and I did a five-week tour of Nigeria with his band. We caused an absolute riot! Did you study formally when you were younger?

Baker: I wish I had! I went to a good school where they taught music, and you know, we treated the music lessons at school as a time to mess about. And it was only after I left school and became a professional musician that a friend got me a job in a big band. Coward is certainly a wonderful follow-up to your two trio records.

Baker: The thing with the two trio records was that they really returned me to that sort of jazz we were playing in the early '60s. You know? You were playing Ornette Coleman tunes back then?

Baker: I was a huge fan of Ornette Coleman and Billy Higgins at the time. We weren't exactly playing Ornette Coleman tunes, but we were playing that kind of music, whereas what we're playing with the DJQ2O is, you know, "now" music. It's millennium jazz, if you like.
Ginger Baker Interview from
Return to The Bill Frisell Discograph 1997