“Just about all my musical friends are long gone. I don’t know why I’m still alive.” Almost half a century after famously being voted ‘the musician least likely to survive the 1960s,’ Ginger Baker, now 74, is still stubbornly soldiering on. In conversation, he’s a dogged mix of pugnacious determination and bewildered fatalism, perfectly expressed in the rasping, sepulchral chuckle that punctuates his observations. “I’m still struggling to survive, really,” he laughs. But there’s a barbed irony behind all this: far from giving up the ghost, Baker is currently making some of the most stripped-back and direct music of his career, as evidenced by the release of Why? – his first studio album in 16 years.
At least part of the album’s strength comes from the obvious ease and inspiration he’s drawing from his latest band, Jazz Confusion, which successfully teams him with three disparate musical characters: US saxophonist and ex-member of James Brown’s most legendary 1960s groups, Pee Wee Ellis; English bassist and scion of Brit-jazz dynasty, Alec Dankworth; and Ghanaian master percussionist Abass Dodoo. It’s a melting pot that seems like the ideal vehicle for exploring the drummer’s two great musical passions, American jazz and African rhythms – but Baker bristles at the suggestion with characteristic prickliness: “No,” he snaps. “Look, people keep putting my music into little boxes. It doesn’t go into a box, OK? It’s just music. M-U-S-I-C.”
Even so, the proof is there on the new album. Deep interpretations of jazz classics such as Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints’, and the cheeky swing of Ellis’ ‘Twelve And More Blues’ serve as convincing reminders that, despite practically inventing heavy-rock drumming with Cream and Blind Faith in the late 1960s, Baker has always, in his heart, been a jazz drummer. In fact, he’s maintained a connection to that source throughout his career. In the early 1970s, he organised high-profile meetings with drumming heroes including Elvin Jones and Art Blakey that, to him, represent the apex of his achievements. “The highlights of my life were doing drum duets with Blakey,” he recalls. “That was just something amazing. People talk about drum battles. I don’t ever look at it like that. It’s a drum duet. It’s what I do with Abass all the time. We play together and we just know where we’re going.” On Why? Abass Dodoo’s rich hand-percussion adds an extra depth to African grooves like the traditional Nigerian tune ‘Aiko Biaye’ – an explicit echo of Baker’s experiences living in Nigeria from 1970 to 1976, during which time he played and recorded with Lagos’s legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. “That was a hundred years ago,” he chuckles. “It was a good period.”
The best musicians don’t get recognition. But people like the Rolling Stones go on to make millionsGinger Baker
But Baker’s love of African rhythms was first ignited even further back than that – thanks to another of his jazz heroes, British drummer Phil Seaman. “Phil introduced me to African music, yeah,” he says. “The first day I met him in 1960, he played me some records. He said to me, ‘if you knew the number of drummers I’ve tried to show it to, you’re the only one who ever got it.’ And I got it just like that.” That instinctive understanding of non-Western polyrhythms went on to inform everything Baker subsequently did, manifesting in an instantly recognisable tom-heavy style – an idea which, again, Baker shrugs off with curt pragmatism: “I don’t know this word ‘polyrhythm’,” he snaps. “Abass and I – and Alec as well – we’re time travellers. We understand time.” Baker’s first attempts at fusing jazz-rock and African grooves were in 1969 and 1970 with the short-lived supergroup Ginger Baker’s Air Force – a glowering, voodoo-infused ensemble that included Seaman and another pivotal figure from Baker’s early career, organist and alto saxophonist, Graham Bond. In the mid-1960s, Baker occupied the drum-stool in Bond’s aggressively amphetamised rhythm and blues outfit, the Graham Bond Organisation – and the two remained close until Bond, increasingly unstable and obsessed with the occult, met a tragic death in 1974 under the wheels of a London Underground train. The one thing that Seaman and Bond have in common – apart from their shared time in Air Force and their untimely demises (Seaman died in 1972, after a long history of heroin addiction) – is that they were both absolutely crucial figures in the British jazz and blues boom of the 1960s, who still don’t really get the kudos they deserve.
“Yeah, this is normal,” snarls Baker. “The best musicians don’t get recognition. But people like the Rolling Stones go on to make millions. The conditions that jazz musicians were subjected to were really quite awful. But they love playing, and they do it. They get taken advantage of. It’s very sad.” The title track on Why? – a Baker original – is a tribute to fallen comrades, which captures this sorrow, beginning with an African-American prison song from the 1920s, before quoting from ‘Wade In The Water’, a blues stomper recorded by the Graham Bond Organisation in 1965.
Given Baker’s scathing bitterness about the life of the musician – and his own past history of heavy drug use – his continued activities seem like a defiant two-fingered salute to the world in general. In fact, his profile was raised considerably in 2012 by the release of the documentary film Beware Of Mr Baker, a warts-and-all portrait that didn’t paint him in a particularly flattering light, but which, nevertheless rekindled a prurient public interest in tales of his hell-raising excess and notorious temper.
Not long after the release of the film, Baker returned to live in the UK for the first time in many years, following an extended period in South Africa, and formed Jazz Confusion last year. Since then the quartet has been enjoying enthusiastic reviews for its live shows – but it’s taken a considerable effort on Baker’s part. Today, he’s suffering from the lung disease COPD, and from degenerative arthritis of the spine, which causes him constant pain. “People seem to expect me to play for a long, long time,” he sighs. “I’m not a young man any more and I’m not terribly physically well. So, I play as much as I can but promoters try and say, ‘well, you’ve got to play a 70 minute set.’ Sometimes that’s not possible. It’s physically very demanding. I enjoy the music but I hate the travelling and all that stuff. If I could just press a button and be at a gig, and then press a button and be back home, that’d be ideal. Travelling is really painful. I end up in agony if I have a long car journey or a long flight. Anything like that is not good.”
Yet, despite all that, Baker keeps plugging away, with a major US tour and a two-night residency at Ronnie Scott’s planned for the summer. At this rate, maybe we won’t have to wait so long for the next album. “Yeah, well, we’ll see what happens,” he chuckles grimly. “It’s all in the hands of the Lord.”
Ginger Baker was born in Lewisham, London, in August 1939, he died in Canterbury in October 2019.
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