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Ginger Baker: A Jazz Drummer With a Rock Reputation

“Oh for god’s sake, I’ve never played rock. Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music. We never played the same thing two nights running… It was jazz.”

That was Ginger Baker’s appraisal of his status as arguably the greatest rock drummer of all time — that he wasn’t a rock drummer at all. Baker’s death at age 80 has drawn tributes and platitudes from some of the most acclaimed artists in rock, and his legacy as one of the most influential drummers of his generation has been echoed by legions of followers. But he always saw himself as something different, something that was, to him, a much more elevated standard.

“I have been playing jazz ever since I started playing,” he explained to Something Else! last year. “Improvisation also came very naturally to me. I found improvisation very enjoyable and easy.”

As a teen, he’d come under the tutelage of the great Phil Seamen — who would subsequently spend a brief stint with Baker’s Air Force in the 1970s. Baker’s early idols were names like Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey and Max Roach, and he made his name on the late '50s/early '60s London music scene playing with traditional jazz outfits, accompanying Acker Bilk and serving a stint with Terry Lightfoot’s Jazzmen. Rock music — both in sound and scene — was almost a side hustle for the copper-topped drummer. Even his widely-copied two bass drum-approach was inspired by Duke Ellington drummer Sam Woodyard.

"I made my first record in 1957 with Acker Bilk,” he would tell an interviewer in the late 1960s. “I played with Terry Lightfoot, Alexis Korner, Harold McNair, Diz Disley, the Graham Bond Organisation. I made my first real money through selling a composition to The Who for £1500. That bought me my first car.”

It was with Korner’s Blues Incorporated that Baker would meet virtuosic bassist Jack Bruce and that meeting would serve as the catalyst for rock supergroup Cream. Teaming with famed guitarist Eric Clapton, the trio would redefine '60s rock music, helping to shape the sound of hard rock and injecting an emphasis on instrumental acuity that upped the standard for generations to come.

His famously volatile relationship with Bruce short-circuited that band’s potent chemistry, and he would resurface in groups like Blind Faith (alongside Clapton and Steve Winwood) and Ginger Baker’s Air Force, which also featured Winwood and a revolving door of noteworthy musicians from the aforementioned Seamen to rock veterans like Denny Laine of the Moody Blues and Afro-jazz percussionist Remi Kabaka. Baker’s Air Force would release two albums before disbanding, but the project set the stage for Baker’s next act.

Baker would spend much of the early 1970s in Lagos, Nigeria, during which time he bonded with legendary Afrobeat star Fela Kuti. Baker’s gift for complex rhythms and improvisations made him a good fit for Kuti’s musical approach, and his jazzy drumming would be showcased on Kuti’s 1971 album Live! Baker would also tour with Kuti’s band as a temporary replacement for Afrobeat icon, drummer Tony Allen.

“There was nobody doing what Fela was doing,” Baker explained in 1999. “It was just… heh… you had to go to Fela’s club to see that. You didn’t see anybody that wasn’t moving. The whole place was jumping. He had several clubs — the Afro-Spot, the Shrine, various places. One stunt he used to do… when the Shrine was on the opposite side of the main Lagos road, they would close the road before the gig, and cause a traffic jam for miles in both directions.”

After hearing Baker’s drum solo on “Do What You Like?” by his short-lived late 60s supergroup Blind Faith, jazz drummer Elvin Jones slammed the brash Baker. “Nothing happenin,’” he told journalist Albert Goldman in a 1971 interview. “Cat’s got delusions of grandeur with no grounds. They should make him an astronaut and lose his ass!” Jones and Baker would square off at a live date later that year, with the classic jazz drummer battle becoming the stuff of legend.  The duo paired off for the Nigerian folk song (and Baker mainstay) "Aiko Biaye” before coursing through “Do What You Like.” Afterwards, in a show of congeniality, Baker and Jones embraced. It affirmed for Baker that he was of a specific lineage that had little to do with the bombast of hard rock stars like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and Keith Moon of the Who–drummers to whom he was so frequently compared.

"I battled Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Phil Seaman, Max Roach and Tony Williams," Baker said years later in a Facebook post about Jones, as he slammed any comparison between himself and John Bonham. "Bonham played in Led Zeppelin. If he was still alive today, ask him! How I am grouped with Bonham and Moonie is laughable."

Baker’s musical approach was indicative in his restlessness, running through various styles of jazz, rock, and African folk music. He never seemed all that comfortable operating within the confines of hard rock, even as his legend had been forged in it. His various musical incarnations — from his Air Force to his work with Fela to short-lived projects like the Baker-Gurvitz Army Band with guitarist Adrian Gurvitz in the mid-1970s, and solo projects like 1986s Horses & Trees with bassist Bill Laswell.

Baker wouldn’t form a full-on jazz band until the 1990s. In 1994, he was joined by legendary guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Charlie Haden as The Ginger Baker Trio, for the acclaimed jazz-centric album, the appropriately-titled Going Back Home. The well-received album saw the trio tearing through original compositions alongside standards by Thelonius Monk and Ornette Coleman, with the aging Baker in fine and distinct form — showcasing both his deft jazzy leanings and undeniably rock affectations. He would form Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion with bassist Alec Dankworth, fellow percussionist Abass Dodoo and former James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis.

For Ginger Baker, jazz wasn’t a sideline for his main career as a rock legend. It was the lifeblood of his musicianship and the hallmark of his musical identity. Rock could have his name — but it never owned his heart.

“I started off as a jazz player, and I don’t think I’ve played anything else,” the famously fiery drummer said in 1988 — before admitting in typical Ginger Baker fashion:

“Well, I did have some delvings into horrific music — for money.”

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