Don Wilcock’s Interview Archive: Ginger Baker, 6/11/2015

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Ginger Baker: I wasn’t Cream’s drummer. I was the founder of Cream.

Don Wilcock: So, Eric Clapton wasn’t the guy who brought rock’s first power trio together?

Ginger: My idea

Don: Really?

Ginger: Oh, you didn’t know that?

Don: No, so you went to Clapton?

Ginger: Yes!

Don: And Clapton brought in (bass player Jack) Bruce, right?

Ginger: No, he suggested him.

Don: Uh-huh.

Ginger: I brought in Bruce.

It’s no secret that Ginger Baker is the most contentious interview in rock. He’s also credited with being the most influential and renowned drummer who set the standard for power trios with a 13-minute drum solo on “Toad” with Cream in the middle of the British Invasion. I asked him how he feels about being credited with having invented the extended drum solo.

Ginger: I don’t.

Don: He doesn’t what?

Ginger: I don’t feel about it.

The bottom line is Baker is one of the most innovative improvisational jazz drummers in history, and when I asked him if it pisses him off that 99% of the world thinks of him as Cream’s drummer as opposed to all the other stuff he’s done, he said flatly yes and went into the didactic swordplay with me that’s at the top of this column. And when I asked him if he could change one thing about his life what would it be, he said, “Oh, God bless – everything!”

To understand the real Ginger Baker, you need to examine his earliest mentor Phil Seamen, generally considered the greatest jazz drummer Europe has ever produced. Baker met Seamen prior to the formation of Cream. “We went back to his place and listened to African records. We became very close friends. We lived together for three months. I never paid him for lessons. He took me under his wing voluntarily. He told me I was the first guy he met that could understand African time.

Ginger Baker
Photo by Bryan Lasky

“Out of all these European drummers, he was like streaks and streaks and streaks and streaks ahead of them all. I mean I was listening to Max (Roach) and Art Blakely, people like that as well. And they all became friends.”

Seamen ended up playing drums alongside Baker in a fusion band called Ginger Baker’s Air Force formed after Cream and Blind Faith in 1970. Baker replicates this double drumming in his current band he brings to The Egg called Jazz Confusion, this time with a drummer from Ghana, Abass DoDoo. Thirty-five years ago, Baker says he had Abass’s uncle in one of his bands. “They’re all fantastic drummers, the whole family, and Bass works exactly the same as (his uncle). People seem to think we have some sort of psychic – ha-ha-ha – thing going because we know where we’re going all the time. We just know what we’re doing. We work together better than anybody.”

Jazz Confusion sounds about as much like Cream as Robert Plant’s contemporary music sounds like Led Zeppelin. You can hear the threads, but “Stairway to Heaven,” it’s not. In the biography supplied by Baker’s publicist writer Chip Stern defines Jazz Confusion on their release “Why?” as “mastery of the kind of polyrhythmic vocabulary which connects the modern jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with the blues and parade rhythms of Congo Square in old New Orleans and the talking drums of West Africa.”

Listening to the crackling improvisation that this great band does on the album, you begin to understand the frustration Baker has over being defined by his work with Cream half a century ago. Catherine P. Lewis in the Washington Post called the new album’s title cut “a stunning culmination of all four instruments.” In addition to Baker and Abass on drums, Baker has Pee Wee Ellis on tenor sax. Ellis arranged and co-wrote “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” as a member of James Brown’s band from 1965 to ’69. He has also been Van Morrison’s arranger and musical director on and off from 1979 to 2006. Bass player Alec Dankworth is the son of John Dankworth and Cleo Laine and played in his parent’s quintet, toured with Dave Brubeck and studied at Berklee School of Music.

At 75 with multiple health issues, Baker shocked a lot of people with this album and this tour of the United States. I asked him why he’s doing it. “I needed to earn some money,” he said. But then he admitted it’s more than that. “I love playing. I’m just not too keen on (traveling) before and after.”

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