Tone Poem Tuesday

David Baker (1931-2016) was a Black composer who was a deeply skilled jazz musician and teacher whose career spanned decades, first as a jazz musician playing the trombone. An automobile accident left him unable to play the trombone, so he switched to the cello and ended up at Indiana University. His first teaching job, in the mid-1950s in Missouri, ended with his resignation when he married a white opera singer. Missouri still banned inter-racial marriage at that time. Baker would not return to the classroom for more than ten years, when he finally arrived at Indiana University. There he started the university’s Jazz Studies program, which he chaired for more than 40 years. All through this he composed influential works in jazz and in the interstitial area between jazz and classical music.

This work, his Fantasy on Themes from the Masque of the Red Death, is a short and interesting work of modernism. It opens with a long roll in the snare drums, and it is full of interesting sonic effects, including the use at one point of a wind machine. Several melodies are present, most recognizably the famous chant of the Dies Irae, a theme used to enormous effect previously by composers like Berlioz and Rachmaninov. I enjoyed this piece a great deal, but I’m also interested in listening to more of Baker’s music because there’s not a lot of jazz here, and jazz was apparently his guiding star, musically-speaking.

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