Interview: Ginger Baker

Ginger Baker is not a rock drummer. His words, not mine. In today’s Wall Street Journal (go here or please buy the paper), I profile Ginger, who as a founding member of Cream in 1966, revolutionized rock drumming with lengthy, poly-rhythmic solos. In two short years, Ginger put the drums on par with the electric guitar and bass, casting himself as a manic, wild-eyed beat-keeper. [Photo of Ginger Baker above by David Levene]

My interview with Ginger took place at his home outside Canterbury, England. Over the course of two hours, we talked about his health, his time in Cream and the British jazz scene in the late 1950s. As interviews go, it was a rather bumpy affair—though I made out better than the director of Beware of Mr. Baker, the documentary released last year. In the film, Ginger whacks the director on the nose with his cane.

The problem is Ginger is in pain. He suffers from degenerative arthritis of the spine and is on painkillers to minimize the anguish. He’s also hard of hearing, which only increases his frustration and belligerence. Chain-smoking packs of Rothmans with a large ashtray perched in his lap, Ginger is pushing his luck—something that seems to come naturally to him if you know his history. From the moment I walked in, I knew my time there was going to be a challenge. The TV was on, set to mute, and Ginger spent the entire interview watching English football.

Ginger doesn’t mince words. He also bellows virtually everything he has to say—to me and everyone who came into his orbit during the time I was there. It can be a bit shocking at first, since his abrupt outbursts can seem like madness or worse. But the more time I spent with him, the more I realized he was merely exhausted and probably a bit miserable that his life wasn’t the way it once was when he was flush.

His two years with Cream and sitting in front of loud speakers ruined his hearing, which, he says, is why the band broke up in 1968. He told me he couldn’t take it anymore. And yet Ginger remains a fascinating figure—but not for the reasons you’d think. Unlike many rock musicians who latch onto jazz when their rock careers founder, Ginger actually started on the British jazz scene in the late 1950s. He knew and played with a wide range of leading jazz musicians, including Bob Wallis, Les Wood, Hugh Rainey, Acker Bilk, Pete Crumpton, Terry Lightfoot, Tubby Hayes and Phil Seamen.

Ginger first came to jazz in the early 1950s when he first heard the album Quintet of the Year, which most Americans know as Jazz at Massey Hall, the live 1953 concert in Toronto featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach.

After spending a couple of years drumming with his hands on school desks, Ginger was egged into sitting behind a drum set at a party when he was 17. He did quite well and realized at that moment that he wanted to be a drummer.

Ginger played New Orleans-style jazz for a time with the Storyville Jazzmen in 1957—what the British called at the time “trad jazz.” One of the musicians gave him a stack of Baby Dodds records, which Ginger said taught him to play by listening to other musicians. He soon met Phil Seamen, who played him recordings of African rhythms. Ginger said he caught on fast. Seamen also hooked Ginger on heroin—an on-and-off addiction that would last 21 years.

For the balance of the 1950s, Ginger played in modern jazz groups of varying sizes and made a name for himself at London clubs like Ronnie Scott’s and the Flamingo. Other British rock musicians who started out as jazz players were Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood and Charlie Watts.

But by 1961, London was changing. The demographic for music was growing younger and many young trad jazz and skiffle players began to join R&B and blues bands. The work was more plentiful and the pay better. In 1961, Ginger took a job with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, and in 1965 the group’s alto saxophonist and organist Graham Bond left to form a band with Ginger and Bruce, adding John McLaughlin.

The Graham Bond Organization had a revolutionary sound—commingling jazz and R&B. The band lasted until early 1966, when running battles between Ginger and Bruce forced a split. Bruce left to play with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and then Manfred Mann while Ginger formed a band with Eric Clapton. They agreed that Bruce on bass would make for a superb trio, and the band was called Cream.

But Ginger today doesn’t view himself as a rock player or Cream as a rock band. “Oh for god’s sake, I’ve never played rock,” Mr. Baker snapped. “Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music. We never played the same thing two nights running. Jack and I had been in jazz bands for years. All that stuff I did on the drums in Cream didn’t come from drugs, either—it was from me. It was jazz.”

After the breakup of Cream, Ginger played in Blind Faith, another superband, followed by Ginger Baker’s Air Force, the Baker-Gurvitz Army as well as a range of other bands. He also led his own jazz trio with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden and led DJQ20. In short, none were straight-up rock but instead featured fusion and R&B-funk.

His current quartet—Jazz Confusion—is a fascinating band comprised of saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth and percussionist Abass Dodoo. I caught them in London the night before our interview. Wearing dark glasses and a dress shirt, Baker needed brief assistance stepping up to the stage and, except for a few fumbles of the stick with his right hand, he played strongly and with commanding force.

The next time you think that rock and jazz history have little or nothing to do with each other, think again. Young British jazz and blues artists couldn’t make a living in the Swinging Sixties and drifted into blues and skiffle-R&B hybrids, winding up in bands at the Fillmore in San Francisco, where they merged their sensibilities at a time when the album began to replace the single and longer solos were encouraged to fill the space.

At the end of our chat at Ginger’s home, I got up to leave to say goodbye. As I passed his brown leather easy chair, Ginger stuck out his hand for a shake and continued to watch football, leaving me with this parting thought: “If you had been interviewing Thelonious Monk, he would have given you a much harder time.” [Photo above: Charlie Watts and Ginger Baker]

JazzWax tracks: Ginger’s Baker’s work with the Graham Bond Organization can be found on The Sound of ’65 and There’s a Bond Between Us. Both are on one CD here.

Three of my favorite albums with Ginger:

  • Blind Faith (1969)
  • Live! by Fela Kuti and The Africa 70 (1971)
  • African Force (1987)

JazzWax clips: Here’s one of Ginger’s earliest drum solos, on the Graham Bond Organization’s Oh Baby…

Here’s Ginger with Fela Kuti…

Here’s the Ginger Baker Trio with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden…

Here’s Ginger Baker at Stratford Circus in East London, the night I saw him with Jazz Confusion…

And here’s the trailer for the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker.

Written by Marc Myers, copyright © by JazzWax (Marc Myers LLC