David Baker (1931-2016): Musical Polymath Succeeded Despite Racism

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David Baker. Photo courtesy Indiana University (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

David Baker was a true polymath: writer, educator, trombone and cello virtuoso, conductor, composer. When I read his recent obituary in the New York Times, I was also reminded of Nina Simone.

After earning both bachelor and master’s degrees, Baker auditioned for the trombone chair in the Indianapolis Symphony. He was told, “You’re probably the best one we’ve heard, but we can’t employ you because of color.” (This incident was related in his 2011 biography, David Baker: A Legacy in Music by Monika Herzig.) He was later seriously injured in an auto accident. Traveling from a gig as a passenger asleep on the front seat, he was thrown through the windshield in a head-on crash. His shoulder was broken, and his jaw too, but it was difficult to find a hospital that would admit a black man. When he finally was treated, doctors ignored his broken jaw, an injury that would affect his career as a trombonist.

Baker somehow continued to play trombone, but in the early 1960s a chronic facial tremor made it impossible to continue as an in-demand ‘bone player. Forced to give up the trombone, he switched to the cello. He then joined the faculty at Lincoln University in Jefferson County, Missouri, but was fired the next year for marrying a white woman. Anti-miscegenation laws still ruled there.

Baker’s experience reminded me of Nina Simone, who nursed a bitter wound all her life after being rejected by the Curtis Institute. Though popular belief – and Nina’s – attributed the rejection to institutional racism, recent evidence has surfaced to the contrary. Jeff Lieberman’s excellent film The Amazing Nina Simone, examines Curtis’ records and even interviews somebody on the panel who witnessed and judged her audition. The film explains how Curtis only admitted 3 out of 72 applicants in 1951. Curtis was far more competitive and admitted far fewer students than Juilliard; part of the reason for this is that Curtis offered full scholarships to the lucky few who got in. Lieberman was told that Nina simply didn’t make the cut, along with many white applicants that year.

In an article in Philly.com last year, music critic Peter Dobrin wrote, “Certainly, racism exists as a spectrum – overt, cloaked, unconscious, internalized – and no one can know what motivated the Curtis piano faculty to listen to what must have been an extremely compelling audition on April 7, 1951, and then turn away one of the 20th century’s major musical figures.”

“But the truth is more likely something far more common and less interesting: She wasn’t good enough. On piano, that day, at that point in her development, she simply did not make the cut.” Dobrin further cites the prior admittance and graduation of African American students from Curtis before 1951 as additional evidence that race was not a factor.

I also spoke with Nadine Cohodas, author of the biography, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, about the Curtis incident in a 2010 interview on Rhythm Planet.

David Baker’s story was different. He was actually told that his audition was the best but he would not be admitted because of his skin color. Baker was a prolific composer and widely recorded, and the author of many books over a long career. He overcame a rocky and disadvantaged start to become highly respected in both the jazz and classical arenas. Rather than harbor bitterness, he branched out and was able to overcome the sting of racism that eluded the far-better-known Nina Simone.

Here is Baker conducting a jazz orchestra April 4, 1976:

…and a more recent jazz concert in 2012 with the David Baker Indiana University Jazz Ensemble: