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David Baker: A Legacy in Music

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This article appears in Chapter 2 "A Star is Born" of David Baker: A Legacy in Music by Monika Herzig (Indiana Univ. Press, 2011).

The George Russell Sextet

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 23, 1923, George Russell
George Russell
George Russell
1923 - 2009
piano
started out as a drummer and soon entered the New York jazz scene.32 Bouts of tuberculosis kept him for extended periods in hospitals, where he developed much of the framework for his Lydian Chromatic Concept. The 1953 pamphlet grew into the quintessential jazz theory approach and became the inspiration for Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
's foray into modal jazz, as well as codified the chord/scale relationships commonly used for jazz improvisation. After Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
drums
replaced him in Benny Carter
Benny Carter
Benny Carter
1907 - 2003
sax, alto
's band, Russell gave up drumming and focused solely on composition. After launching his career as a composer and bandleader with the 1956 album The Jazz Workshop, Russell was looking for a group willing to learn and perform his intricate compositions, as well as an opportunity to play piano. During the Lenox Summer Workshop, Russell noted Baker's curiosity and interest in composition as well as the high level of knowledge and skill of his Indianapolis colleagues Larry Ridley and Al Kiger. He asked them to be in his band, and they welcomed the opportunity:

That first year was a revelation for me, because I really did start to learn and understand what George was talking about. So when George—at the end of the six weeks, George called me and Kiger and Joe Hunt and David Young in and talked to us and said he was getting ready to form a sextet. Would we like to be a part of his sextet? But he had first said he was going to do a recording and said we could come up and do the recording with him. He did a recording called Jazz in the Space Age. That was with me and David Young and Al Kiger, because he was using the drummer who used to play with Milt Hinton
Milt Hinton
Milt Hinton
1910 - 2000
bass, acoustic
... Osie Johnson
Osie Johnson
1923 - 1966
drums
on drums. Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
and Paul Bley
Paul Bley
Paul Bley
b.1932
piano
were the two piano players, even though neither one of them had big reputations at the time.


Baker's group had a nightly gig at the Topper in Indianapolis, and Russell decided to come out and rehearse with them daily as well as join them on piano for their gigs. The group slowly but surely adapted to Russell's new concept and ideas, and Baker describes the process as an expansion of using colors, meaning different types of scales that have distinctive sounds:

It's hard to verbalize a concept that's so vague as playing freedom, so at first George had to use artificial methods to show us. He would say, "Here are the changes, but instead of playing in this key, move it around to another key, even while the changes are going on at the same level." Then, instead of using chords or some kind of pre-existent idea that we might have had about what we were going to play, he had us use the tune itself-thematic development-what Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
and Monk have been doing a long time. Then, it grew into taking any idea to its logical conclusion, irrespective of what's going on in the tune, chords, key or anything.... But though there would be a general chord scheme, we would use the Lydian concept, which would have, say, nine scales. So we could color using this or that scale, each of which has its own implied dictatorial way of playing. But even at that, with nine choices you have considerably more freedom than if you ran the four or five notes in a chord.


The group then went on to record several albums for Riverside and Decca (see discography) as well as appearing at major venues around the country, most notably an extended engagement at New York's Five Spot:

I remember opening night in the Five Spot. George [Russell] had written all of this music and we hadn't perfected it, but we had it under control. I remember looking out and there was J.J. Johnson
J.J. Johnson
J.J. Johnson
1924 - 2001
trombone
sitting at one table, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
with one leg against the wall was eating a box of Sunkist raisins, Miles Davis was there, you name it, not because of us but because of George Russell. We were so busy trying to play this difficult music that we couldn't really think about who was watching us, but we also had the advantage of them not knowing exactly what we were trying to do!


Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
was playing with his group around the corner from the Five Spot at the Jazz Gallery. Baker and his colleagues often went around the corner after their gigs to hear them, but Monk's group hadn't come over to the Five Spot yet. Baker recalls this humorous encounter with Thelonious Monk:

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