ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Ginger Baker says he sees no distinction between the music he made as drummer in seminal rock bands Cream and Blind Faith in the 1960s and the African-jazz hybrid music he plays these days with his new band, Ginger Baker and His Jazz Confusion.
“Um, you can’t put music in bags and boxes,” a reticent Baker says in a phone call from the United Kingdom. “I’ve never played rock ’n’ roll.”
That’s an amazing statement from someone largely credited with creating the role of rock drummer, with his groundbreaking use of two bass drums and thundering double-stick approach, someone who sold 15 million copies of the albums he created in two years with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce in Cream, someone whose style influenced generations of rock drummers.
Baker, 74, is famous for being contrary. In the 2012 film documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker” – the name comes from a sign at the South African compound where he then lived – Clapton called him “antisocial, seriously antisocial.”
But in the call, Baker’s statement about rock ’n’ roll seems sincere. “It was music,” he said.
Asked to describe His Jazz Confusion’s show, Baker said with a laugh, “Well, we just play music.”
Then he explained: “Well, it’s an unusual lineup, just headed by East African drums.” That role, of course, is Baker’s. Playing with him are another percussionist, Abass Dodoo, Alec Dankworth on bass and Pee Wee Ellis on sax. All songs are original instrumentals.
Asked what led him to that type of music, Baker scoffed, “Silly question. Because I’ve been playing music all my life. I’m a musician. I’ve been playing jazz all my life.”
As abrupt as the answer is, it’s also true. Baker started as a jazz drummer in his native South London and applied African rhythms in even his earliest music. When he started Cream in 1966, part of what made the band so distinctive was its fusion of jazz and rock.
The band is credited with not only giving birth to hard rock, but also progressive rock and jam rock, as Baker followed that jazz sensibility to play long drum solos in the band.
“It’s hard to find fault with the notion that he was the pioneer of a rock drummer,” said Neal Peart, drummer for the rock group Rush, in “Beware of Mr. Baker.” “There was no context for him, there was no archetype. He is the archetype.”
Stewart Copeland, drummer for The Police, said in the same film, “When he was listening to music as a kid, he wasn’t listening to the Jimi Hendrix and guitar-hero bands and so on. He invented all that stuff.”
Cream produced hits such as “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room” and “Strange Brew.” Despite being together just two years, the band had such an impact that it was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Baker also worked with Clapton and Steve Winwood in another “supergroup,” Blind Faith. That group was together just a year and released one album, the self-titled, chart-topping disc, before disintegrating.
The breakup of both has been blamed, in part, on Baker’s heroin addiction – something with which he reportedly has struggled through his life. “Beware of Mr. Baker,” which won best documentary at the 2012 South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, addressed his then-use of a morphine inhaler.
“Some of [the film] is good, and some of it’s a bit ridiculous,” Baker said, laughing.
After Blind Faith, Baker formed and played with several bands, including Ginger Baker’s Air Force, and recorded 17 solo albums.
Cream reunited in 2005 for a series of shows at Madison Square Garden and London’s Royal Albert Hall, and recorded a live disc that sold 5 million copies.
Baker said he has occasional contact with Clapton, but added Cream is behind him now. He said he wouldn’t consider playing with Clapton in any format or play Cream or Blind Faith songs in concert. “That was all over 40 years ago. I have moved forward. I don’t look backward.”