Cream’s late drummer Ginger Baker may have been the only rock legend to despise rock. “Well, I did have some delvings in horrific music, for money,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1988. “I suffered onstage because of that [high amplifier] volume crap,” he told Forbes in 2015. And in a 2013 interview with JazzWax, he declared that he had “never played rock” in the first place.
“Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music,” he said. “[Bassist] Jack [Bruce] and I had been in jazz bands for years. We never played the same thing two nights running. All that stuff I did on the drums in Cream didn’t come from drugs, either. It was from me. It was jazz.”
To understand the drum legend who passed away Sunday, October 6, listeners should think beyond Cream’s bluesy classics like “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room” and “Badge” and consider his place in the jazz pantheon. Sure, Baker made his mark in the blues-rock mold, but he’s equally important for his work in jazz combos and Afrobeat ensembles.
The genesis of Cream was in the Graham Bond Organization, a 1960s group that mixed traditional jazz with R&B; both Baker and Bruce were among their ranks. When that band went bust, he and Bruce joined up with a rising Eric Clapton in 1966 to form Cream, considering themselves the “cream of the crop” of blues-rock.
The band burned bright and quick, releasing three inspired albums — 1966’s Fresh Cream, 1967’s Disraeli Gears and 1968’s Wheels of Fire — before calling it a day in 1969. (A fourth, 1969’s Goodbye, came out after the breakup.) “For the first 18 months it was great,” he told The Telegraph in 2013. “But things got too bloody big, and too bloody loud.”
From then on, Baker kept one foot in rock bands like Hawkwind and Public Image, Ltd. and the other in combos with guitarist Bill Frisell, saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and others. And to the end of his life, Baker considered himself first and foremost a swinging improviser.
“I have been playing jazz ever since I started playing,” he told the blog Something Else in 2018. “There is so much more freedom, thus more enjoyment, with each [player] encouraging others. It’s a very healthy situation.”
Read on for six cuts in which Baker let his jazz chops shine — with or without Cream.
The Graham Bond Organization, “Wade in the Water” (from Live at the BBC and Other Stories, 2015)
Baker cut his teeth playing with Graham Bond, a Hammond organist with a massive ego and personal struggles to match. “When Graham had a bee in his bonnet, nothing could stop him,” Baker wrote in 2007’s Hellraiser: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Drummer.
As he told it, Bond marched into the doors of EMI, Decca and Phonogram and walked out with a recording contract from each. When the three executives met later for a pint, they were aghast to find they’d all signed the band. “He was indeed a top-shelf salesman,” Baker wrote. “Only our chances of getting a contract had now gone from slim to zero.”
Despite the Graham Bond Organization giving the world both Cream and future Miles Davis guitarist John McLaughlin, the band broke up in 1968 due to Bond’s drug use and involvement in the occult. Their Live at the BBC and Other Stories release from 2015 contains livewire gems of British R&B, and Baker’s lively shuffle beat on “Wade in the Water” (found on disc 2, track 1) is an example of how he set out to be the next Elvin or Philly Joe Jones, not a rock god.
Ginger Baker’s Air Force, “Da Da Man” (from Ginger Baker’s Air Force, 1970)
After Cream disbanded, Baker briefly rebounded with Clapton in another blues supergroup, Blind Faith, which lasted for one album and tour before flaming out. “We didn’t even have to talk the end of the band through,” guitarist Steve Winwood told Mojo in 1996. “It was perfectly obvious to Eric and me … that it couldn’t last.”
Baker decided to soldier on, this time in a midsized ensemble. He recruited Graham Bond, Steve Winwood and seven others for Ginger Baker’s Air Force, a scorching jazz-rock band. The motley crew had a quick and debaucherous run in 1970; between gigs, Baker and Clapton had a waitress-bedding contest, Bond ate an entire block of hash in jail and Baker goaded Elvin Jones into a drum battle. (“It was a fantastic event and we became good friends,” Baker wrote.)
That year, the band recorded two cooking self-titled albums before Baker called it off. “Da Da Man,” the first track on their first album, rides a galumphing Afrobeat groove; singer Jeanette Jacobs vamps like she’s in Donald Byrd’s gospel choir while bassist Rick Grech plays like a rampaging monster.
Fela Kuti & The Africa ‘70, “Ye Ye De Smell” (from Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Africa ‘70 with Ginger Baker: Live!, 1971)
Jarred by the sudden 1970 death of his friend Jimi Hendrix, Baker broke up his Air Force, fled to Africa and eventually settled in Lagos, Nigeria, where he stayed for much of the following decade. While living in a hotel, he decided to look up Fela Kuti, a saxophonist, singer and bandleader he had met in the mid-1960s when Kuti played trumpet in all-night sessions at Flamingo Club in London.
Baker and Kuti decided to decamp to Abbey Road Studios and record a “live” album in front of an audience of 150, with colorful lights flickering about to give the studio a club ambience. In a few hours, Live! was tracked, and the highlight is Kuti’s “Ye Ye De Smell,” a heavy groover inspired by “chicks they had shared.”
The intro alone is worth the price of admission: Kuti roaring the name “Gingah Bakahhh!” and explaining the title, which combines Nigerian slang (ye ye, meaning “naughty”) with English. “When you’re somebody’s friend and he’s doing something a friend doesn’t do, then he smells,” he says. “I wrote this tune especially for Ginger.”
Ginger Baker, Sonny Sharrock, Peter Brötzmann, Nicky Skopelitis and Jan Kazda, “Dishy Billy” (from No Material, 1989)
Baker showed his lesser-known avant-garde side on this 1989 set with guitarists Sonny Sharrock and Nicky Skopelitis, bassist Jan Kazda and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann at the Mühle Hunziken nightclub in Rubigen, Switzerland. No Material was named after its lack of prepared tunes; rather, it was an improvised skronk-sesh in four parts.
Whereas Baker usually clobbers any group he plays with into submission, No Material is different. Here, he plays subtle, loping patterns, often as a steady foundation for Sharrock, Brötzmann and Skopelitis to stage their fireworks and meltdowns.
This level of racket was rare for Baker, who was intolerant of excessive volume and noise, but “Dishy Billy” shows he stayed fiery into his late career.
Ginger Baker, Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, “Ramblin’” (from Going Back Home, 1994)
Baker’s 1994 album Going Back Home, recorded in three days with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Charlie Haden and engineered by Baker’s friend Malcolm Cecil, is perhaps his finest hour in a pure jazz setting — few other Baker albums feature such delicacy, atmosphere and poise.
On the group’s airy reimagining of Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’,” Haden (who performed on the original) plays in throbbing octaves and Frisell sends out eerie, ringing harmonics, while Baker flutters through the mix with supple footwork and feather-light tom rolls.
Baker relocated to Denver, Colorado, and the trio recorded a follow-up, 1996’s Falling Off the Roof, named after a ladder accident Baker had while building a porch. Baker moved on to other pursuits, becoming a volunteer firefighter, founding a polo club with Hunter S. Thompson and battling the Department of Justice over his immigration status.
Cream, “Toad” (from Royal Albert Hall: London May 2-3-5-6 2005, 2005)
Cream closed out their debut Fresh Cream with “Toad,” a showcase for Baker’s virtuosity in which he pulled out every percussive trick he had. But he did it one better in 2005, when Cream reunited for a handful of shows at Royal Albert Hall, as captured on that year’s Royal Albert Hall: London May 2-3-5-6 2005.
By the time of the reunion gigs and a million health scares deep, Baker’s talents hadn’t faded, but deepened. Uninterested in merely clobbering the kit, he plays his lengthy solo like he’s sitting in on a Coltrane session, with a clockwork sense of timing on the hi-hat.
Cream’s reunion didn’t last; Baker and Bruce fought like wildcats onstage, and Bruce passed away in 2014. That year, Baker released his first solo album in 16 years. Why? A late-career triumph with saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth and percussionist Abass Dodoo. He attempted to reboot Air Force one last time in 2016 before calling it quits after a fall at his home.
But for 10 minutes onstage at the Royal Albert Hall, with socks falling down his legs and a mean-mugging expression, Baker was sitting on top of the world.