Originally published in Czech for H.I.S. Voice – October 22 2019
by Darrell Jónsson
After practicing on a cheap modified toy drum kit for only 2 weeks in 1955 the 16 year old Ginger Baker, muscled up the courage to answer a newspaper advert for ‘Drummer Wanted’. Baker luckily got the gig.
As fate would have it this would be the first gig in a string of gigs that stretched across genres and 7 decades. All that ended earlier this month soon after Baker’s 80th birthday when the hard living musician’s often falsely prophesied death finally occurred.
Over 60 years ago Baker’s work as paid musician began with a string of jazz gigs that morphed to British Blues with pioneer Alexis Korner. What followed was a continuous life of work that included GBO [aka Graham Bond Organization], Cream, Blind Faith, Fela Kuti, Ginger Baker’s Airforce, P.I.L., No Material and a long list of other pioneering Jazz, Rock and Afrobeat ensembles.
By 1963 when the Beatles were singing ‘She Loves You’ Baker was already cooking edgy R&B, post-bop jazz inflected blues with his fellow founding members of GBO Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, John McLaughlin and Dick Heckstall-Smith.
After leaving GBO in 1966 Baker set out to form a unit to compete (if not intimidate) the combined musical prowess of any band on the charts. Towards this goal he enlisted the Crème de Crème talents of bassist Jack Bruce, the Yardbirds/Mayall veteran guitar god Eric Clapton, and the U.K. jazz lyricist/poet Pete Brown. The aptly named band Cream hit the Album charts with the LP Fresh Cream in 1966. Fresh Cream was a breath of fresh air for those who craved musical finesse on the rock radio airwaves.
By 1967 with the help of multi-instrumentalist/arranger/producer Felix Pappalardi, Cream had a string of 3 albums that competed consistently and often held top positions in the international charts. As a live act Baker’s precision drumming drove Clapton and Bruce to high volume virtuosity. As Bruce told the U.K. Independent in 1992 — Cream was secretly a Jazz band “with Eric not knowing he was Ornette Coleman.” While some critics, and even Clapton and Baker in retrospect, considered the extended soloing sometimes over indulgent, Baker’s live drumming with Cream remains famous for having set a high water mark for rock drumming — seldom matched then or now.
In less than 2 years Baker’s talented ensemble imploded as fast as it had exploded onto the scene. Personal and artistic differences fueled by touring burn-out soon saw the band members split paths onto better things.
Jack Bruce and Pete Brown continued their songwriting collaboration on a series of critically acclaimed LPs, while Pappalardi temporarily filled the vacuum Cream left on the charts and tour circuit with the progressive proto-metal band Mountain.
Clapton and Baker teamed up briefly with Traffic’s Stevie Winwood as the new super-group on the block. To Baker’s dismay in less than a year Clapton had jumped the Blind Faith ship to work as sideman with a tribe of ace musicians led by Memphis based/Stax label artists Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett.
Arguably in the 70s with the Bramletts, Duane Allman, Derek and the Dominos and in later collaborations with J.J. Cale & B.B. King — Clapton’s did his best work. Clapton’s move to collaborate with musicians from the American South was a smart one.
The word “South” to Baker though had a similar yet more adventurous meaning. In an overland trans-Saharan trip documented in Tony Palmer’s film Ginger Baker in Africa (1971) Baker relocated to Nigeria.
Africa wasn’t new to Baker. During his teenage Trad jazz period Baker was commissioned to emulate the historical jazz drummer Baby Dodds whose work was full of inherent New Orleans Africanisms. Baker had also been introduced earlier to African drum technique by his jazz drumming instructor Phil Seaman. Around 1960 Bakers contact with Africa went real-time. Baker met the young Fela Kuti (the future chieftain of Afrobeat) playing at an all night jazz session. They immediately became life long friends. Baker and Kuti in the 70s would later successfully collaborate in the popularization of the Afrobeat sound.
Moving to Africa took Baker’s interest in African music to a new level. Baker’s sojourn in Nigeria resulted in successful recordings and touring with Fela Kuti, and Baker’s tightly rehearsed Afrobeat band Salt. Outside of Africa Live! by Fela Ransome-Kuti and The Africa ’70 with Ginger Baker was well received and becoming one of Rolling Stone’s 50 greatest live albums of all time. In Nigeria audiences lovingly renamed the tall red haired drummer Ja’Baka. Financially though Africa took its toll.
Baker’s business model was to record international artists as well as find/ produce/distribute work by West African artists in West Africa. Baker lost a fortune when his ARC-Batakota state-of-the-art recording studio derailed largely due to the monopolist multinational business practices of EMI & Decca.
Besides hijacking sessions planned with Paul McCartney & Wings EMI prohibited Baker from pressing LPs at the only record pressing plant in the region. This forced Baker to send his master tapes to the UK and ship them back to Africa.
A tribute to Baker’s stamina and love of Africa was giving Africa another chance with a venture he thought would enable him to stay in Lagos.
EMI and Decca’s banning Baker from printing LPs in Africa meant that Baker had to press LPs in the UK and then ship them back to his West African audience. These added shipping costs made selling records in Africa impossible. Baker began brainstorming about alternative transport methods. Unfortunately Baker’s well planned Trans-Sahara overland trucking/logistics company startup also didn’t fly.
Baker was to give up on doing business in Africa for years to come.
Returning to the northern hemisphere between music projects Baker tried his hand at various vocations including; olive farming in Italy, bricklaying in London, a quick regretted stint with drug dealing, music teaching, horse breeding in England, California and South Africa and managing a polo club.
The 80s saw Baker back on the scene daring anyone to top musical excellence in the emerging Worldbeat genre as he did with Cream and 60s Blues-rock. On the LP Horses & Trees (1986), Baker’s compositions included arrangements of harps, bowed instruments, rattles and drums played by an array of African musicians. Finishing touches were added by the Brazilian maestro percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. Adding currency to the intricate orchestration of traditional instruments was Baker’s empathetic drumming, the funk/contemporary jazz keyboards of Bernie Worrell, and the post-punk-prog bass of Bill Laswell.
Later the decade saw Baker, with with Albert Ayler acolyte Peter Brotzman and guitar distortion maestro Sonny Sharock in a face-melting jazz improv unit known as No Material. Baker latching up with a punk legend may seem like a very unlikely marriage. Yet under the production prowess of Bill Laswell during this period Baker’s drums propelled 4 of the 7 tracks on P.I.L’s progressive post-punk LP “Album”.
The 90s would see Baker and Bruce together again as a power trio with Gary Moore on guitars. Baker also worked with the Masters of Reality, and helped Andy Summers on his experimental album Synaesthesia. There was though a vast qualitative difference between Baker’s rock work during this time and his more exciting work in Jazz. The Ginger Baker trio which included Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell, revisited Jazz fusion with passion and skill.
Remember Baker as in Cream and elsewhere, had a knack (like Miles Davis) for listening to the young lions (both in conversation and in practice) and in the process catapulting/propelling them (and himself) musically.
‘Coward of the County’ (1999) by Baker and the Denver Jazz Quintet-to-Octet is an accessible, contemporary album full of urgency and beauty. As Jazz Times critic Bill Milkoski puts it Baker and his Quintet-to-Octet — is ‘a crack outfit’… working an… ‘egoless, team approach [that] always results in great music.’ Baker considered this contemporary album full of urgency and beauty as being his best work and he may be right.
Baker though didn’t stop there, he left 2 more contenders for his Swan Song.
First in line is Baker’s relatively straight ahead 2014 Jazz LP – Why. On Why Baker presents Afrobeat, Jazz, with touches of Brubeck coolness, Coltrane and Afro-American spirituals. Perhaps here, more than any other recording by Baker, his spiritual debt to New Orlean’s Baby Dodds shines through. Helping him in this endeavor are former James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth and Ghanian percussionist Abass Doodoo.
For fans of Cream a second contender of a swan song maybe an upcoming unplugged revisit of Cream material (due for release in 2020) that includes includes Baker, Pee Wee Ellis and Joe Bonamassa, co-produced by Pete Brown.
Many obits will mention or even place full emphasis on Baker’s lifestyle. Baker admittedly had a riotous life. All that and more though are well recorded in Ginger Baker’s 2010 autobiography “Hellraiser”.
Per Baker’s influence — critics, fans as well as historians are bound to wildly differ. Baker himself held strong opinions on the subject. As Baker once responded to the suggestion that Cream are the forefathers of Heavy Metal “Well, if that’s the case, there should be an immediate abortion.”
Whatever is said — Baker is not only survived by three children and his wife Kudzai Machokotohas but also by modern Jazz, Afrobeat, Worldbeat, Blues-rock, Heavy Metal and arguably every drum solo by a rock band – that’s been heard — or is yet to be heard.