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Bill Frisell Remembers Ginger Baker

The guitarist pays tribute to an early musical hero who eventually became his bandmate (8/19/39 – 10/6/19)

Ginger Baker at the Bottom Line, New York, December 1989
Ginger Baker at the Bottom Line, New York, December 1989 (photo: Ebet Roberts)

Fifty years ago—fifty years—I graduated from high school, my grandfather died, we landed on the moon, my parents moved from Colorado to the East Coast, I went to the Village Vanguard for the first time, Woodstock happened, and I heard Cream. I was still in Denver—it was their last tour, late ’68—and that was just … wow. So I definitely was aware of Ginger. That music was in my blood. Then one day to find myself playing with him, it’s a trip.

Chip [Stern, producer of the Ginger Baker Trio’s 1994 album Going Back Home] had this dream to put Charlie [Haden] and Ginger and me together—he’d been talking about it for quite a while. It’s just amazing that he was able to, that someone at the record company at that time thought, “Well, let’s give it a go.” It was wild. Because I had met Ginger literally for one second, I shook his hand at a festival. Someone introduced me to him, but I don’t think he’d ever even heard of me. Of course I knew Charlie and had played with Charlie; luckily I had that going in there, an ally like that. And Charlie didn’t really know Ginger either. Basically it was like an arranged marriage.

I walked in the studio and I was pretty intimidated. He was setting up his drums and smoking cigarettes and I said, “Hi, Ginger, I’m Bill. I’m the guitar player.” He just kind of acknowledged me, he didn’t give me a hug or anything. “Yeah, okay.” That gruff exterior thing was evident. But then literally within seconds after we set up and started playing, there was a big smile on his face. We just played and it was so great.

We all brought in tunes; it really was a jam session. Just jazz, or whatever you call it. He was super-generous with the whole “You bring some tunes, I’ll bring some tunes, or we’ll play a Monk tune, or we’ll do this.” It was real natural. I don’t remember any stress or weird stuff. It wasn’t labored. It was like, “Wow, let’s try this.” “Oh, that’s cool. Let’s try this.” We just had a conversation. I mean, the music was the conversation. And I wish I could remember those limericks. Ginger knew thousands of limericks, and then Charlie’s always got some sort of crazy joke. There was a lot of laughing.

It’s incredible the way these things connect. The last time I saw Ginger was also the first time I played with Ron Miles and Rudy Royston. We played at the Ogden Theatre in Denver. Ginger came to the gig just to say hi, and he heard Ron and flipped out. Then he started calling Ron for gigs. So Ron ended up doing his next record, [1999’s] Coward of the County. And then even Rudy ended up playing in Ginger’s band, because Ginger would have his group play at the polo club there, but then he’d have to go do whatever he did—ride a horse and all that stuff—so he would have Rudy play drums.

I talked to him on the phone a couple of times after that but I kept missing him. I was hoping I could see him somewhere again but I never got to. He was still living in Colorado, and then he went to Africa and it just got hard to keep track of him.

It’s not like he was my best friend and we were hanging out all the time. But the time that I spent with him, what I saw—it disturbs me seeing certain things, because people always talk about his gruffness or he was difficult or he was this or that. And that’s not what my experience was. My experience was that it was more of a sensitive thing, because he was in love with the music and it was so important to him. I think some of the outward thing that people got from time to time was just him trying to protect that. After Ginger passed away, Stevie Winwood said something about that; the word “sensitive” came up. That’s not always the first thing that people say when they think about him and, for me, that’s way at the top of the list. To be able to play the way he played—he was playing music! He had a sound and a feel like nobody else. I just feel so lucky I got to experience that.

[as told to Mac Randall]

Read the JazzTimes obituary for Ginger Baker.