Eddie Baker began his musical life with classical studies, but wound up going on a crusade for jazz. He became interested in the syncopated genre after hearing both swing and early bebop, and maintained a fanatic involvement ever since. In the decade before his death in 2001, he was an intense advocate for establishing a jazz hall of fame in Kansas City, an idea that was eventually accepted in a somewhat different form with the opening of the American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine streets. He began studying music at the age of ten in the American Conservatory. The dedicated Baker also returned to formal studies in 1948, spending eight years in private lessons with composer and trombonist Bill Russo. In 1950, Baker accompanied Miles Davis at a Chicago gig, and got to play even harder the following year when tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet came through the Windy City. Other gigs followed with Sonny Stitt, Paul Bascomb, and one of Baker's steady rhythm section partners, the fine bassist Wilbur Ware. In the mid-'50s, mentor Russo took the pianist on his first European tour, but a much better-sounding gig is listed for summer 1956. The location was Honolulu and the job was backing up singer Billie Holiday, but the best part was that it lasted an entire month. From this career oasis, Baker continued in good company, including more collaboration with Russo and playing in the comboof trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Composing became a main focus at this stage of his career, allowing the possibility to express a mastery of music that wasn't always obvious when backing singers or tenor saxophone soloists who like to take 50 choruses. Russo immediately saw the value of Baker's writing, showcasing the magnificent "L'Affaire Bugs" composition on the Atlantic album entitled World of Alcina. Max Roach recorded Baker's tune entitled "Memo: To Maurice." Baker's later years in Kansas City saw him emerge more fully as a bandleader, activity that had begun in the '60s with his New Breed Jazz Orchestra. This 18-piece big band gave a 12-year-old singer named Kevin Mahogany his first professional gig. Baker received scant attention on the jazz scene during his life, but is an interesting figure, combining the pure swing of pianists such as Horace Silver and Thelonious Monk with an interest in classically influenced jazz composers such as John Lewis and George Russell — which seems in keeping with his own background.
-By Eugene Chadbourne
All Music Group