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Over the past thirty years, plenty of journalists have called drummer Ginger Baker rude and blunt simply because he offers cocky, profanity-laden answers to questions he's been asked literally hundreds of times before. In responding to these charges, Baker--who's 55 and lives on a ranch in Elbert County, near Parker--gives an answer that's sweet but candid. "Well, I don't suffer fools gladly, I'm afraid," he says. "I can be very difficult if people ask me silly questions, like `What was it like being with Cream?' They usually get an answer like, `Well, I don't know. What was it like?'
"Idiot journalists," he mutters. "I give them idiot answers if they ask me silly questions."
Of course, there is no shortage of intriguing anecdotes associated with Cream, the power trio featuring Baker, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton that made a big noise during the late Sixties. Baker, whose Technicolor kit featured two bass drums (just like those played by percussionists in Duke Ellington's early lineups), became legendary for his dexterity and stamina--skills that were especially unexpected when you consider that he was a heroin junkie from 1960 to 1981. According to one popular tale, Cream's performance at the 1966 Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival was highlighted by Baker's throwing up into a bucket without missing a beat.
Baker, however, would rather you pick up a book on Sixties rock than ask him to wax nostalgic about Cream or Blind Faith, the 1969 supergroup made up of him, Clapton, Steve Winwood and Rick Grech. Nor is he particularly game to discuss other past projects--even 1971's Celluloid LP Live With Ginger Baker, a collaboration with Nigerian performer Fela Anikupalo Kuti that represented one of the first, and finest, excursions into what became known as Afrobeat. During that period he founded a studio in Nigeria, but even though the music he produced there became an inspiration for the Bill Laswell crowd, he can't work up much sentiment for the scheme. "Building a recording studio is the best way I know of throwing a lot of money away," he notes. "That is the best way. Once you get it, especially with equipment, it's obsolete before you're even finished."
When he's talking about his current or future projects, though, Baker makes charming company. Not that he's anything like Oscar Wilde: His answers to queries generally consist of aloof one-liners. "I'm a very sort of antisocial person," he concedes. "I don't go out very much and I don't get to meet people."
That's been changing to some degree thanks to the Mile High Polo Club, an organization founded by Baker and his wife, Karen. The organization, whose board of directors includes avid polo fan/gonzo laureate Hunter Thompson and Denver trumpeter Ron Miles, is planning affairs that combine polo and jazz--a strange brew of a concept that Baker, himself an intense polo player, debuted this past January at the National Western Stock Show. On that day, Baker and his teammates got their collective butts kicked during a spirited match with the Colorado State University Polo Club. Then, in an especially surreal twist, a flatbed truck occupied by Baker's drums and several of Denver's most brilliant jazz cats pulled into the arena. The music the band played for the Stock Show crowd was spectacular, but Baker admits that the extravaganza was not without its difficulties.
"We had terrible problems with people not being able to get in or being sent to the wrong car parks," he complains. "It was absolutely unbelievable. Hunter Thompson was sort of really messed around outside. He was there to throw the ball in--he flew down especially to do that and was very excited about it. And then he didn't get to do it, which upset him...I was so angry at one point that I think I got very close to having a heart attack."
Nevertheless, Baker rejects press reports that dubbed the event a catastrophe. "Ron playing the National Anthem was wonderful," he insists. "I mean, from the public point of view, we put on a fantastic show despite all the problems that were going on. It was one of those kind of the-show-must-go-on things. And the show did go on--and I think we did a very good show.
"We're trying to bring polo back as a spectator sport," he continues. "That's the main thing we're working on now. We're really quite stoked at the reaction to it all. We're playing the new polo rules, which have made the game much faster. I think jazz and polo are two art forms that people should see more of and we're going to try and do more of those things." He reveals that two jazz-and-polo functions will be staged later this year.
In the meantime Baker hasn't let his recording career wane. Last year he joined forces with bassist Bruce and guitarist Gary Moore to form BBM, whose album Around the Next Dream consisted of a large helping of heavy Cream. Much more impressive--one of the best releases of 1994, in fact--was Going Back Home, an Atlantic offering credited to the Ginger Baker Trio: Baker, guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Charlie Haden. As for 1995, he's got an album with ex-Police guitarist Andy Summers on the drawing board--and there may also be a recording of a so-called drum summit in which Baker is participating this summer in Italy. The drummer is thrilled by the prospect of playing alongside jazz superstars Tony Williams and Max Roach during the concert. "I've listened to Max since I was a kid," he notes. "Max heard the Going Back Home album and loved it. Which is really nice. It was really great when someone like Max actually enjoyed it, you know?"
Roach's kind words don't seem that incongruous after you study Baker's playing. In reality his long, improvised solos and experimental work never fit into the rock pigeonhole. Still, Baker is resigned to his R&R legacy. "It's one thing I've had to live with, unfortunately," he says. "But it really annoys me. I was always a jazz player. Long before I ever played rock and roll, I was a jazz player." He laughs before adding, "Jazz is my first love."
Many jazz musicians recognize his skills, Baker asserts. "I've known Louie Bellson for years. But when he heard me play for the first time about two years ago, he rushed up and put his arms around me and gave me a kiss. I thought that was really sort of cool, you know. Because when he actually heard me play he realized that there was something there.
"I think the thing about jazz playing is that most jazz players are musicians," he goes on. "You've got to be a musician to play jazz. I studied basic harmony and I can write and read and I used to do a lot of big band scoring when I was younger, which I think is very important. That's the problem with most of the rock-and-roll people. You get Paul McCartney boasting in the press recently that he's such a good writer because he doesn't understand music, which is a load of absolute crap. It isn't an asset--but this is the sort of attitude you come across from a lot of guys in the rock-and-roll world. They can't read. They can't write. They have not a clue. They're musical morons, most of them. And they become quite successful and make lots of money. It's really quite surprising."
Now, does that sound rude and blunt to you?