Ginger Baker is a man with a reputation. His drumming reputation stretches back to his early jazz days in 1960s London and later as drummer in Cream, where his drumming in the legendary trio and his ‘Toad’ solo brought him to even greater prominence. He also has a reputation for being difficult, short tempered and, if pushed sufficiently, violent – as demonstrated in the upcoming movie Beware of Mr. Baker.
Having spent several years in South Africa, Baker now resides back in the UK and his group, Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion – featuring percussionist Abass Dodoo, bassist Alec Dankworth and saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis is currently active. Drummer spoke to Ginger initially at a studio session and, later, at his home and found him to be initially brusque – largely due to the fact that he had important and timely business elsewhere – but more relaxed and candid on our second meeting, where he revealed his ability to arrange for big band, a sense of humour, why he hit Beware of Mr. Baker director Jay Bulger and the reason for his return to the UK.
What prompted your move back to England?
Everything went pear-shaped in South Africa; I ended up penniless and I had to sell my place. I was defrauded by a bank worker in South Africa and the bank treated me abominably. The bank believed the employee and not me, even though the employee had been working there for less than two years and I’d had an account there for nine years. I took them to the High Court to make them investigate this woman and I won.
I would have expected them to additionally compensate me, but they only paid me back the money that had been fraudulently obtained from me. I also won the legal costs, but they disputed them and I ended up losing a bloody fortune. I lost everything. It was an awful experience and it lasted for over three years as the judges kept postponing it. My legal fees exceeded what I got back. Also, there were no real musicians there to play with.
You were one of the first British drummers to play two bass drums…
Actually Moonie [Keith Moon] did it first. We were at a Duke Ellington concert where Sam Woodyard was playing. All of his drummers always played two bass drums and I was very impressed with Sam and some of the things he did with two bass drums. Moonie was there and I said, ‘I’m going to get two bass drums’ so I asked Ludwig to make me a kit whereas Moonie just went into the drum shop and bought two Premier kits and joined them together. So he actually did it before me, but we both got the idea at the same place and time.
Did you approach it like two hands?
No, not really. The left foot was always the one that was always on the beat, which was just a natural extension of what the left foot played on the hi-hat.
Aside from hanging out and playing some exercises with Phil Seamen, are you self-taught?
Very much self-taught. I never took a lesson in my life.
What about when you first went to Africa, did you study with any African drummers?
No, I could do it. It was natural.
No, no, no. I’ve never approached drums from that angle at all. What you play is influenced by what the other people play. A drummer listens to everybody and complements everybody’s playing. You don’t sit there playing exercises showing how clever you are or how fast you are. A lot of drummers do, but I’ve never done that. I just listen to the other guys.
Because you’ve always been able to work out what other players are doing?
No. I just do my own thing. Nobody plays like me and nobody plays like Elvin Jones or Max Roach or Art Blakey. You can hear something and you know straight away that it’s them and it’s the same with me. I have my own thing. I don’t get influenced by other drummers. In the early days I did with Phil Seamen, Max, Elvin and Art, but that was way, way back.
The documentary Beware of Mr. Baker is being released soon…
I don’t think I’ll like it. Apparently, it starts off with me breaking Jay Bulger’s [the director] nose and it finishes with me breaking his nose. He spent a month driving me totally crazy and I just couldn’t take it any more.
In the trailer you are shown hitting him with your walking stick. what happened?
He was just driving me crazy and coming up with all of these stupid ideas that he wanted me to do and I was not in agreement with them. He was forcing his way to do things upon me and I really wasn’t happy with it at all. He filmed me every day for a month and it was the most gruelling experience. I don’t like doing interviews at the best of times and to do it every day for 30 days was very annoying. He kept asking me silly questions. He’s one of these people that says, ‘It’s a wonderful film’ – he’s full of himself. I don’t trust people that say, ‘This is an award-winning film’. I’ve heard that before.
Do you dislike doing interviews because you always get asked similar or stupid questions?
Yes, and there is so much nonsense. In Rolling Stone, Jay Bulger referred to my inhaler as a morphine inhaler, but it’s not, it’s for my lungs; I have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from too much smoking. I do take a little bit of morphine for my back pain, which is constant and chronic; I’ve got degenerative osteoarthritis and the keyword is degenerative. It doesn’t get better, it gets worse. The pain never goes away, but morphine just deadens it a bit. The good thing is that despite my physical problems, I can still play and I’ll play for as long as I can. However, I reached a point with my favourite sport, polo, where it got too painful and I just had to bow to the inevitable as I couldn’t do it to the level that I wanted to any more.
Which of your own recordings are you most proud of?
Coward Of The County was a great record. We did it in two days, straight onto two-track. It was a regular working band based in Denver and featured Ron Miles, Fred Hess and Artie Moore; James Carter also came in just for the record. He came in the day before and did a fantastic job because some of the stuff was a reader’s nightmare. When I first saw ‘Jesus Loves Me’, I said to Ron, “You’ve got to be joking” and he said, “No, I wrote it especially for you”. It worked, but it starts off in 17/8 or something extraordinary and every bar was a change of time signature. It’s pretty far out stuff, but it flows despite all the time changes. Ron Miles is a genius and it was very rewarding and a lot of fun playing with that band.
On your CD Falling Off The Roof, you play Thelonious Monk’s ‘Bemsha Swing’ and you also played it at the Zildjian Drummers Achievement Awards event in 2009. That’s obviously a real favourite of yours.
Yeah, I love Monk. He was a total genius. I’ve always liked Monk and everything he did was always unusual and original. Monk was Monk. He avoided influences from outside.
Someone said that Monk could make a Steinway sound like a Barroom Upright…
Yeah, he has a very distinctive voice. You hear Monk and you know that it’s him immediately. It’s the same with musicians like Bird [Charlie Parker]. Those guys have their own thing and they stand out from the crowd because they’re not copying anybody. They question themselves as to what they are and who they are.
You have composed several tracks on your albums. What’s your compositional process?
Things come into my head and if they don’t go away and they stay there, then they turn up as a piece of music.
How do you present your music to the other musicians?
Now, I get the key and just sing it to them, but I used to write all the parts out. I can write for a big band.
Where did you learn to do that?
I got this gig with a big band at an Irish club in Cricklewood; I played there for nearly a year. A quarter of the music was Ceilidh music, which is how I got the job; they really liked how I played the snare drum on the Ceilidh music. At that point, I could only really read from exercise books so I had to learn to read the parts. I discovered after a week what a repeat sign was. Then I was going through the parts and finishing at the same time as the band, which was extraordinary. One of the horn players caught me reading the Ceilidh stuff, which was pretty complicated, over his shoulder. He said, ‘Your reading is fantastically good.’ He then recommended that I get two books from the library; one was about basic classical harmony with all of the rules and regulations, and the other one was Schillinger’s method, which was how to break all the rules and regulations. I studied those for about three months and then he gave me the top line of ‘Surrey With The Fringe On Top’ and said, ‘OK, do an arrangement for a big band’. I did it and the band used to play it two or three times a week. Then I did an arrangement of ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story in C sharp, and all the horn players went crazy with all of the sharps in it. There was a period where I did several great arrangements for an eight-piece band using Sibelius software on the computer, but unfortunately I lost them when the computer messed up. It’s a shame really because one in particular was really nice.
You’ve previously stated that Baby Dodds was an early influence on you.
He was in my early days. I’d only been playing three months, when I got a gig with the Storyville Jazzmen and the clarinet player gave me several Baby Dodds records including ‘Hear Me Talkin’ To You’. I’d been listening to Elvin and Max and people like that and, all of a sudden, here was where it all came from. Baby Dodds was the first real drummer and what he said still affects me now. He said, ‘The drummer’s job is to make the horn player sound good.’ That’s what a drummer’s job is, to make the other guys sound good.