Yesterday, Ginger Baker died. He lived as only he could, as only a drummer could, following the rhythm to wherever it took him. And it took him to some pretty amazing places.
As a big fan of rock and roll and jazz, I always wanted to infuse the two and create my own sound. Well, Ginger did that before I was even born. It's really interesting, Kurt Cobain once wrote in his journal "Rock and Roll and jazz drumming do not mix". Well, I guess they forgot to tell Ginger Baker.
Much has been documented about Ginger in recent years and I'm glad the public at large got a chance to learn about him. I do have something personal to add that might be entertaining, so here's my Ginger Baker story...
I was loading my drums into a beautiful mansion just outside of Kansas City to play with a jazz group for a wedding. Not expecting anything eventful, I was pretty relaxed and just looking to make some good music and maybe eat some good wedding food.
As I walked in, the band was buzzing about something, or someone. They all looked at me and came running up with excitement. "Guess who's here!" they asked with grins on their faces.
"Ginger Baker!" They searched my face for a reaction.
"Oh!" I thought, Ginger Baker... wait a minute.. "THE Ginger Baker?"
"Yeah! His buddy is a bass player and that's who's getting married and Ginger is here for the wedding." (The bassist wasn't Jack Bruce, he was playing in a band with Ginger in LA, circa 1991 or 92)
As I set up my old vintage yellow, satin flame Gretsch drum kit, my mind started working on me. Part of me thought it was no big deal. The other part thought it was a very big deal. I thought back to listening to Ginger's drum solo on Cream's "Toad" and thought, oh man, this dude is a legend. And he's here. And I'm the one playing.
I looked out upon the wedding party and Ginger's red hair caught my eye. It WAS him. My nerves kicked in. Damn!
Trying to forget about it, I started playing and kept my mind on my work as best I could. Don't let anybody tell you that musicians don't get nervous or rattled when there's another musician in the house checking them out. The best of the best take notice when another player, especially if they play the same instrument, is in the house.
Somewhere during our first set, I looked up from the drums to see Ginger Baker standing across the room, looking directly at me over his glasses, his eyes were a bright blue and there was a kind of manic energy behind them. Keeping his stare, he looked at me hard, almost glaring, and would not look away. I was too young to decipher what this look was all about; intimidation? interest? Can't say.
He stood there for a long time, uninterested in the wedding and not really hanging around with anybody, he was just standing there alone, watching. The longer he watched, the more uncomfortable I got, I could feel his stare and his bright blue eyes felt like they were burning holes right through me.
On the break, all the guys in the band pushed me to go speak with Ginger. I honestly didn't know much about him or his career. I didn't want to approach him, but then something in me thought I'd never get the chance again, so I better go do it.
I popped the drum head off my bass drum, got a magic marker from the bartender and went to ask Ginger for his signature. It was the only way I could think of to go speak to him.
I walked up to the table he was at with the drum head and asked him if he would sign it. His reaction was one of disdain, as if he was gonna throw up. "Oh God!" he said and rolled his head away from me like he was really gonna puke. I mean, they guy was disgusted with me. I was ready to walk away in shame.
"It's ok" I said, "I didn't want to bother you." My shame turned into a little bit of anger and hurt. I mean, Buddy Rich had given me an autograph AND a photo and all he said was "Make it snappy!" Elvin Jones has shaken my hand and thanked me for being at his show. Tony Williams had thoughtfully answered my question at a drum clinic. Louis Bellson had been an absolute gentlemen towards me when we met. Roy Haynes had taken his whole break to talk to me about boxing with me once. But this, this was waaaaay different.
But then, the people at his table chimed in "Awww, go ahead Ging... you're a celebrity! You're famous!" They goaded him on. "Go ahead Ging!"
Then, he reluctantly toned down his disgust, took the drum head and marker from me and asked "What's your name?" His eyes bore straight through me once again.
And then, in that beautiful British accent, he asked "Two T's??" his voice lilted, almost in a mocking tone as if I were a little boy, which hey, I was only 20 or 21 at the time, so yeah, I was a boy to him.
"To Matt. Ginger Baker" he signed carefully and slow, not just scribbling it down. I thanked him and went back to my drums somewhat mortified and wondered if I'd just done the dumbest thing possible. The autograph was really cool looking and I dug it, even tho it was totally illegible, it looked awesome.
As years passed, I actually felt some embarrassment about having the autograph, I felt it was "un-hip" because I really didn't know Ginger's playing that well and I gave it to a friend to keep. He had it for about 20 years. Then, I saw the Ginger Baker documentary "Beware of Mr. Baker" and I learned a lot about him that I didn't know; Ginger's reverence for Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey, his love of African rhythm, his experience with Fela Kuti... and I now wanted that drum head back. My friend obliged and I got it back. Now, the head meant a lot more. I listened to all his recordings with a fresh ear and his playing and contribution to music took on another meaning.
Yesterday when I heard of Ginger's passing, I thought of that day, of his firey stare, his reaction to me and of what this guy must have lived though. I don't blame him for reacting that way, it's really in line with who he was. Autographs only mean as much as you ascribe to them, it's the playing that counts. But, I'm keeping the drum head, it's just a cool thing to have and it reminds me of a surly old drummer named Ginger Baker who lived full out, didn't pull punches and did his thing all the way.
Rest peacefully Ginger. And thank you for the autograph.