Ginger Baker 1939-2019

The Cream founder and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer always considered himself a jazz drummer

Ginger Baker

Ginger Baker, a British drummer who, though steeped in jazz technique, became one of the most influential percussionists in rock music, died October 6 at a hospital in Canterbury, Kent, in the southeast of England. He was 80.

Baker’s death was announced by his family in a statement posted to his official Twitter account. A victim of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he had been critically ill for about two weeks prior to his passing, and had for several years experienced ill health.

Already known in Britain’s jazz and blues communities thanks to his early 1960s work in Alexis Korner’s and Graham Bond’s bands, Baker became a superstar when he founded the blues-rock power trio Cream in 1966. He created a sensation with a style that was highly technical and flashy (in sound if not in appearance), becoming the first drummer in the rock world to act as a major soloist.

Following Cream’s brief but momentous three-year existence, Baker worked in the even shorter-lived rock “supergroup” Blind Faith, then toured with a jazz fusion ensemble of his own before collaborating with the likes of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, experimental rock band Hawkwind, and an all-star jazz trio featuring bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Bill Frisell. His final project was a quartet, Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion.

Baker was notoriously prickly in temperament, perhaps especially when it came to press interviews. Asked in 2014 about his ambitions with the Jazz Confusion, he replied, “A happy feeling.”

Peter Edward Baker was born August 19, 1939 in Lewisham, South London. His father was a bricklayer who died in the Second World War in 1943. As a child, Baker was given the nickname “Ginger” by virtue of his bright red hair.

In his early childhood, Baker was primarily an athlete, but was drawn to music at the age of 15 when he heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s Jazz at Massey Hall. A year later, having begun to play the drums, he convinced a traditional jazz outfit in London to hire him, beginning his musical career. He quickly established himself in jazz circles, crossing over into rhythm and blues when in 1962 he joined Blues Incorporated, the archetypal British blues band led by Alexis Korner. Other members included vocalist and harmonica player Mick Jagger, guitarist Brian Jones, saxophonist Graham Bond, and bassist Jack Bruce. By that time Baker was already addicted to heroin, which he began using while working with jazz drummer (and fellow addict) Phil Seamen. He would struggle with the drug for the next 20 years.

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When Bond left Blues Incorporated in 1964 to form his own band, the Graham Bond Organisation, he brought Bruce and Baker with him. (The band also featured future jazz guitar legend John McLaughlin.) Two years later, tired of Bond’s unpredictable behavior, Bruce and Baker left the band and joined Clapton to form Cream—a “power trio” that would dig deeply into the intersection of blues with rock & roll.

Cream immediately had success and a strong influence in rock, and incorporated the new psychedelic sounds as well as blues. Baker employed a thunderous sound (amplified by his use of two bass drums), extraordinary technical proficiency, and an aggressive mien that fit well with the loud aesthetic the band generated.

Despite their complaints about Bond’s volatility, however, Bruce and Baker had been equally volatile while working in the Bond Organisation; they brought the same dynamic to Cream, with their relationship deteriorating to the point of implacable acrimony by 1968. This led directly to the band’s breakup at the end of that year. Baker’s relationship with Clapton was still favorable enough that they could work together the following year in the rock “supergroup” Blind Faith, and when that band broke up Baker formed his new jazz-fusion combo Air Force with other Blind Faith members, organist Steve Winwood and bassist/violinist Ric Grech. (That band lasted until 1971, although Winwood left in 1970.)

Late in 1971, Baker moved to Lagos, Nigeria, where he opened a recording studio, Batakota. (Paul McCartney and Wings would later record part of Band on the Run there.) He collaborated with Fela Anikulapo Kuti while living in Lagos, but primarily worked at Batakota until he closed it in 1980. He briefly co-led a band with Paul and Adrian Gurvitz in mid-decade.

After a short-lived membership in the progressive band Hawkwind in 1980-81, Baker retired from music to move to Italy and work as an olive farmer; this finally allowed him to kick heroin for good. Later in the decade he made an unsuccessful bid to become a film actor in Los Angeles.

In the 1990s, he lived in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, primarily living the life of a polo enthusiast. However, it was also during this period that he worked with Haden and Frisell, as well as a hard-rock ensemble called Masters of Reality.

After a limited reunion tour with Clapton and Bruce in 2005, Baker’s most visible projects were his 2009 memoir, Hellraiser, and his 2013-14 tour with Jazz Confusion (which also featured saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth, and percussionist Abass Dodoo).

A lifelong smoker, Baker was diagnosed in 2013 with both chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and degenerative osteoarthritis. He underwent open heart surgery in 2016. On September 25, his family announced that he had entered the hospital and was in critical condition; he remained hospitalized until his death.

Baker was married four times, most recently to his widow, the former Kudzai Machokoto, whom he married in 2010. He also survived by his three children, Ginette (“Nettie”), Leda, and Kofi—all by his first wife, artist Elizabeth Finch.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.