On July 10, 1996, two weeks after his fortieth birthday, drummer Joey Baron joined me on WKCR for a Musician’s Show, presenting tracks by drummers who, in the totality of their sounds, comprised his personal influence tree. They included Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, Grady Tate and Ed Thigpen, Max Roach and Paul Motian, Donald Bailey and Roy Haynes. A bit past the midway p0int, Baron—though he’d played consequentially with Carmen McRae, Stan Getz, and Jim Hall, and had subbed for Mel Lewis with the Monday night Village Vanguard Orchestra, he was by then best known for propelling the non-traditional units of Bill Frisell, Tim Berne, and John Zorn—started speaking about Billy Higgins (1936-2001), a universally beloved figure, and perhaps the hardest-swinging drummer who ever lived.
“He a supreme master of time,” Baron said. “He can make time live and breathe. He’s got a real patience in his playing. He’s got a very unique, identifiable sound and style. One main characteristic is that you’ll never hear Billy bash. That’s part of his sound. I’m sure he’s listened to people who crash and bash and all that stuff, but in his own playing he can extract what he likes about that stuff and channel it through his own style. Beautiful touch. It took me a while to appreciate what he did. When you come from being first wowed by somebody like Buddy Rich, all you focus on is what they’re playing in their solo, and you don’t think too much about the subtler things. But the longer I spent playing and listening to more music I was exposed to, I really got to appreciate just what it is that Billy does.”
Although Baron might object to my so characterizing him, I took this as self-description. Like Higgins, who swung with equal panache navigating the open spaces with Ornette Coleman and Charles Lloyd or a bebop date with Cedar Walton and Barry Harris, Baron is beyond category, a shamanistic musician who retains his sound in any context. He turns 56 today (1955 is a good jazz vintage, including Mulgrew Miller, David Murray, Gerry Hemingway, Santi Debriano, and, dare I say, this writer). To observe the occasion, I’ll share a feature piece that I wrote about him in 2001 for Jazziz.
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Sipping a blueberry yogurt shake, Joey Baron stands in the hallway of his West Side highrise taking in a Manhattan cityscape of diorama-like clarity. To his left, toy-sized ferries dart towards the dock at Weehawken through north-south Hudson River traffic. Northbound jets whiz toward LaGuardia Airport up above, while on the ground cars clog the immediately surrounding streets, which overhang the deserted Eleventh Avenue railroad tracks that a century ago were New York’s lifeblood.
The image is peculiarly apropos; Baron understands how the various epochs of jazz music dealt with motion and velocity, and navigates them along personal pathways that are idiomatic, functional and fresh. Over the past decade resolute futurists like John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Tim Berne and Dave Douglas have marched to his animating pulse. Brian Eno called him for guest appearances on mid-‘90s sessions by David Bowie and Laurie Anderson. In 1991, Baron organized the starkly-configured trio Baron Down (trombone-tenor sax-drums), a Punk-to-R&B unit which worked steadily for most of the decade. Hardcore jazz was the passion of Baron’s earlier career, and several recent projects — to wit, “Soul On Soul,” Douglas’ far-flung homage to Mary Lou Williams, and “Chasin’ The Gypsy,” James Carter’s idiomatic paean to Django Reinhardt — showcase his penchant for sustaining an ebullient, dancing beat while detailing ensemble flow with exquisitely calibrated trapset timbre.
We’ll Soon Find Out, the recent recording by Down Home, a Baron-led all-star quartet comprising Frisell, bass icon Ron Carter and big-sound alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, who in the normal course of events would not be sharing a stage, denotes the respect Baron commands throughout the jazz community. It follows an eponymous 1997 Rhythm-and-Blues-inflected session marked by clever melodies and propulsive, off-kilter beats performed with a by-the-numbers quality denoting first-time-out studio stiffness. Round two is another story altogether. Under Baron’s gentle conjuration, Down Home finds its pocket, coalescing as a fluid unit, playing Baron’s subtle originals with finesse and funk, oozing vernacular grit but never dumbing down.
“Joey had a very clear conception,” Frisell remarks. “He wanted to focus on aspects in each of our playing. He’s listened closely to Ron Carter all these years, and he centered a lot of the music around the feel of the grooves of Ron Carter’s basslines. He wanted to bring out a rhythmic quality in my playing. That’s cool, because people usually think of me as playing noise or atmospheric, floaty stuff.”
Transitioning to the small bedroom in Baron’s apartment that serves as his office-studio, the jockey-framed drummer sits legs akimbo in a chair placed between a barebones drumkit and an upright Yamaha piano. To his left, tacked to the wall, is a weathered sheet of paper with a list of drummers “to pay attention to,” among them Donald Bailey (“he really knows about being creative”), Han Bennink (“absolutely fearless, bordering on the absurd”), Billy Hart (“his expression and touch; he’s able to take everything he has and make music with it”), Ricky Wellman (“his groove is very profound”), Milford Graves (“just earth — the energy, the commitment”), Ikue Mori (“when I get down on myself for everything that I can’t do and don’t know, I think about what she does with what she does know; she brings me out of any tendency to not listen to different kinds of music”) and David Garibaldi and Ed Blackwell (“the conversation between the limbs”). Towards the door are two bookcases chock-a-block with tapes and LPs; two shelves contain books on magic, with an emphasis on coin and card tricks.
As I peruse the book spines, Baron mentions that as a kid in Richmond, Virginia, before he took up drumming, he aspired to be a magician, and retains an informed interest. I pounce, asking whether he connects the aesthetic of magic and music-making. “Only in the sense that you shouldn’t make your audience feel like idiots, which is very easy to do in magic,” he responds. “A great magician will make someone feel welcome and included. They know when to reveal the card that’s been selected or when to end the solo. They know how much is enough.”
Which describes the effect of his music for Down Home. “I wanted to contradict the misconception that I play out, and can’t establish a feeling from a groove,” Baron states. “I’m drawing on all kinds of music, including James Brown and even Messaien, the way his melodies can dart off and take a left turn. Some tunes might have one chord change, but I’ve worked out the rhythmic phrasing of the melody, and how the guitar and bass should comp to get the essence of this feel. I thought about this music, I heard it, I wrote it, then we all played it. It was not an accident.”
Baron’s connoisseurship of the nuances of groove stems from deep roots in the musical culture of the South. Born to a working-class Orthodox Jewish family, the teenage Buddy Rich devotee learned how to make rhythm speak on an array of artisanal gigs with older musicians in Richmond, soaking up information wherever he could find it, from the “Ed Sullivan Show” to unformatted late ‘60s radio — “you might hear Ray Charles, then Charlie Pride, then Buddy Rich, then Miles Davis with the Classic ‘50s Quintet, then a cut from Miles At the Fillmore and Tony Williams’ Emergency.”
“When you’re working class, you’re not analyzing anything from an art standpoint,” Baron states. “Any chance or reason I had to play, I took. I played at a country club that didn’t allow Blacks or Jews with Joe Kennedy [a black, Pittsburgh-born violinist who had recorded with Ahmad Jamal in the ‘50s] and a great guitarist. It was work; we were there to do a gig and play tunes. These guys were very supportive. They wouldn’t give me private lessons or tell me to listen to anyone in particular; all they’d say was, ‘Man, just give me that Eddy Arnold backbeat’ or ‘Just lay in the time,’ stuff like that, common things drummers need to hear so they know what their job is. I got my experience doing the work before me.”
Baron steps to the bookshelf to extract an LP. On the cover is a long shot photograph of some 60 teenage musicians assembled on an auditorium stage. Three black faces are visible, including Baron’s band director, Tuscan Jasper. “I was fortunate to be welcomed into the black community in Richmond,” the drummer continues. “Mr. Jasper took me under his wing, and was wonderful to me; he never put down anything I was excited about. This was the first year of bussing, and I was bussed to Maggie Walker High School, which had been all-black. I spent every day I could in that band room, and Mr. Jasper, who had been in the Army with Wynton Kelly, would play Clifford Brown records for me and say, ‘Did you like that drummer?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Do you know who that is?’ ‘No.’ ‘That’s a guy named Philly Joe Jones.’”
While earning a GED, Baron skipped senior year to earn a year’s tuition for Berklee, often working with a slightly older pianist named Bill Lohr, who helped further the young aspirant’s aesthetic education. “Bill had 33 Oscar Peterson Trio records; he was not impressed by drum solos and the Buddy Rich school of playing!” Baron jokes. “He pulled my head out of the drum and got me listening to music; he exposed me to people like Baby Dodds, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Ed Thigpen and Grady Tate, who could play with more finesse in intimate groups. I became aware that you don’t necessarily need to do a blindingly fast single stroke roll to make music with another musician. I began to use the time I’d normally spent practicing technique to sit and listen, without playing, and was able to get more balance between my creative ideas and the chops I’d need to execute them.”
Strapped for cash after 15 months at Berklee, Baron went on the road with Lohr in a lounge group; towards the end of 1975 he received a telegram that Carmen McRae was looking for a drummer and made a beeline for Los Angeles. His first L.A. gig was with Helen Merrill (“Leonard Feather wrote me up as ‘Young, spirited, 19-year-old Joey Baron’ — he was nice”); he joined McRae a few months later. “Not a lot of drummers can accompany a singer,” he stresses. “You have to be sensitive to the lyric and not resort to licks; you have to get intensity at a low volume. One reason I went after playing with Carmen is that it was a context where I could play with that kind of discipline. Carmen always kept things in balance. Her songs were concise, and she didn’t waste a lot of time or notes.”
L.A.’s superb swing-to-bop oriented talent pool welcomed the newcomer with open arms. Cosigned by first-call drummers Frank Severino and Donald Bailey, Baron landed frequent work with the likes of Teddy Edwards, Blue Mitchell, Harold Land, Plas Johnson, Hampton Hawes, Victor Feldman and Chet Baker. He went through the union book, “calling people I’d heard about, telling them I’d just moved to town, and if they ever needed a drummer to rehearse anything, I’d be willing to come and do it. Los Angeles was a looser, more laid-back social scene than New York. There’s something about being able to call Harold Land and say, ‘Hey, Harold, I got your number,’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, come on over today; we’re going to look at a few tunes.’ I called Hampton Hawes, and he called me back. I left my beans which I was cooking on my hot plate, put my drums in the car, drove to his house, and played until 6 in the morning. We worked a few gigs at Donte’s.”
Baron describes his ‘70s stance as “total jazz snob.” He studied voraciously. “I put myself on a regimen where for a month I would listen just to Wes Montgomery with Jimmy Cobb, or Philly Joe Jones or Art Blakey, not so much to copy the style, but to get it in my head and apply it directly — in some situations with people who were on the records. I went through my stages — and still do — of imitating drummers I love — like Buddy Rich or Tony Williams or Jack de Johnette — and memorizing what they played. But I kept listening until I understood WHY they did a particular thing. Why did Art Blakey hit that cymbal? It was the beginning of the chorus. He played his figure three times because he was signalling to bring the band in from a free-form solo. Once I understood that, I could make it my own.”
One day in Chicago, Carmen McRae presented her young drummer a small jewelry box containing a Star of David. “That fucked me up so bad,” Baron says urgently. “Carmen was so confident, commanded so much respect, was so proud of her culture, she had the total balance of elegance, soul and class, and she stepped forward and across a lot of shit to do that for me. When I was a kid, it was not cool to say you were Jewish. You’d get the living shit kicked out of you. I went to Hebrew School and hated it. I believed every bit of hate mail that the KKK shoved under our door. There would be something about Communists, and then ‘look at these people,’ and they’d have this picture of people with huge noses and ‘they could be in your neighborhood.’”
As long-buried aspects of Jewish identity stirred up Baron’s consciousness, he began to think about music in terms of personal identity. He was familiar with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and an Andrew Cyrille solo drum record, knew of Tony Oxley through his work with Stan Getz and John McLaughlin, and was particularly taken with Han Bennink’s solo recital Balls [FMP] “because it was so unafraid and un-timid; to this day, when I get lost for inspiration, or scared, I’ll put that on.” In time, he began participating in a workshop trio project with Carl Schroeder, Sarah Vaughan’s pianist of the ‘70s — Baron’s tapes of the band sound like a cross between Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions and Chick Corea at his most abstract. “Carl is responsible for my thinking of myself as an artist,” Baron affirms. “I needed to be in a community where people were doing something, and I did not want to be in Los Angeles. My wife was a painter; she was excited about the idea of going to New York. We packed up like the Beverly Hillbillies, put all of our shit in the van, all her paintings, all my drums, and came here in October 1983.”
After lean times, Baron began to establish himself in the New York sharkpit; by the mid-‘80s master improvisers like Red Rodney-Ira Sullivan, Jim Hall, Tom Harrell, Pat Martino and Toots Thielemans were hiring him regularly. During this time drummer Mel Lewis, facing hand surgery, asked his thirtyish colleague to be his sub in the Monday Night Orchestra at the Village Vanguard. “It was the most incredible drum lesson I’ve ever had in my life,” Baron affirms. “It gave me a lot of strength. It taught me to take charge when dealing with a large group, to be committed and confident, to set things up, to make a move even if it’s wrong. I loved the way Mel got inside of the band from the center, how he lifted the whole band from underneath.”
Baron became increasingly frustrated with the creative roadblocks he encountered in New York’s cliquish, balkanized ‘80s jazz culture. “I was shocked at how staid some of the situations were,” he remarks. “I wanted to be playing with Kenny Kirkland, that kind of post-Miles thing; it started to dawn on me that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. I was seeing myself as a victim. I lost confidence on how to fit in here, where everything is so fast and hard. I was trying to shed this image of a nice sideperson. I wanted to play where you could emotionally express yourself rather than accompany all the time; I decided to try things I wouldn’t normally do.”
Baron shaved his head, and began to shed the skin of a freelance musician, shifting to situations that involved long-term aesthetic commitments. He said no to singer gigs, played once a week with Mike Stern’s workshop big band, and joined Bill Frisell’s ensemble. “I first met Joey not long after we came to New York at a large session where there was a lot of confusion,” Frisell recalls. “There was this little space, and Joey played a backbeat, just one note that was the baddest note. Right at that moment I turned to him. We smiled at each other like we KNEW. There was this weird connection. I started going over to his apartment, and we would improvise for hours — just play. I set up sessions where we played with Arto Lindsay, who was unlike anyone Joey had played with. I remember the first time he came to Roulette and heard me with Ikue Mori, and it was like, ‘What are you trying to…’ But then he started to kind of get it.”
Baron began to make feelers to “a whole crowd of people who at that time I didn’t even think could play.” One was the alto saxophonist-composer Tim Berne, who came to Baron’s loft with cellist Hank Roberts for a session. “It was very strange for me,” Baron laughs. “Not unfriendly. But musically, I just went, ‘Man, what is this? Doesn’t he play any tunes?’ It was hard music, but communicative and conversational, and I liked doing it. Everybody was scuffling at that point, but they wanted to do their music; I’d rehearse with Tim’s band, or with Hank, or with Herb Robertson. All of a sudden, they got record deals with JMT, and I was the guy who knew the music, which was complicated, not music that you could call someone in to sight-read.”
Baron met John Zorn in 1987 when both were playing in Lindsay’s Ambitious Lovers; he joined Zorn’s surf-to-thrash all-star group Naked City a year later, beginning an intense, symbiotic relationship that remains close through Baron’s participation in Zorn’s popular Masada and Bar Kokhba ensembles. “I have one indelible image in my head,” Zorn relates. “I had just finished a set with my News For Lulu project at one of the European festivals, and Tim Berne and Mark Dresser happened to be around. The promoter cajoled us into getting on stage and doing a few pieces, and Joey played with us. We did a couple of Ornette pieces in a pretty out-of-control way. Though Joey had never seen the music, he had an incredible ability to follow wherever I went musically, even the most intense shit. All of a sudden, it was a full four-way conversation. It was an unbelievable rush, an incredible inspiration.”
As Baron recalls it, Zorn heard Frisell’s band play in Bremen. “He was fascinated about how we went so many different places in one song, how we were free to shape the tune, but it still remained a tune — it wasn’t just free improv. He arrived at that same place by composing, having things written out and pre-planned. He was thinking of it presentationally. He asked me and Bill and Wayne Horwitz and Fred Frith to be in this band with him, and that was how Naked City started — along with other projects, like different East Asian Bar Band pieces or pieces with spoken word.”
Baron recalls urging Zorn to acknowledge Jewish roots. “On my first gig with John we were sidemen for Arto Lindsay. We were in Italy, he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, and we were talking in his room. I mentioned being from Richmond, and that I’d had to go in the back door at gigs because I was Jewish. John said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Well, you’re Jewish, aren’t you?’ He said, ‘No.’ At that time he did not identify at all with Judaism. I would talk to him and say, ‘Whether or not you identify, you are Jewish.’ I think I lit the fire for him to look at this culture and embrace it.”
If Baron pushed Zorn to consider his Jewishness, Zorn prodded Baron to expand his aesthetic scope. Baron evolved and personalized his approach, attacking the drumset like a contraption, individualizing each component, learning to shape rhythm-timbre with the elastic precision of a sculptor, finding startling, humorous figures to prod improvisers from complacency.
“In our early years working together,” Zorn says, “I was presenting so many different styles of music, including some that had never existed before, and it was sometimes difficult trying to get Joey there. He’d never played Hardcore before; he’d never thought about that music seriously before. I can be very specific about what I’m looking for; I know what I need and I go out to get it. I gave Joey tapes, we talked about technique, whether to use a match-grip or the grip he’d been using, whether he’d use a double-pedal, to use mallets on one tune or play with his hands on another. Eventually it became part of his style; he uses it now in his solo stuff, in his own bands.
“I can’t imagine doing a project without Joey. I’ve been spoiled. I’ve never met a drummer who does so much and works so hard. As a matter of pride, he wants to be able to do absolutely everything on the drums, and he mixes it all up in an organic way that I’ve never heard anybody do. I feel he intuitively knows what I’m looking for. If he is confronted with something that he doesn’t think he can do, he will go home and WORK on it. What he did was a matter of will! It didn’t just happen. He made a conscious decision to put tape on his cymbals. He decided to cut down his set. I really respect that. It’s easy to fly around like a dry leaf in the wind going wherever it blows. It’s difficult in this world to make a stand and say, ‘THIS is what I’m going to do. This has not happened before. I am going to take a chance.’”
Baron made his stand in 1991, after three years of hearing his compositions played by Miniature, a collective trio with Berne and Roberts that recorded twice for JMT. “It was the first time I brought in tunes, had them played and wasn’t ridiculed about them,” Baron says. “These guys kicked my ass and supported me, I started writing more, and realized that I had to start my own band. I wrote a whole book for Baron Down. I had the harmony in my head, but didn’t have the technique or terminology to name the chord changes, so I’d only pick the two notes of the chord that depicted what I was hearing — the instrumentation of trombone and tenor sax gave them a sound of their own. I figured it out slowly, and through four or five tours and three records developed the confidence to flesh out the harmony to create the lush sounds I originally heard. The Down Home band is an extension of Baron Down. It’s still funky and swinging, but deals with textures more richly. Now I can’t wait to have a block of time to sit and write some more.
“The rhythms and shapes that musicians like Carmen McRae, Ray Charles, Aretha, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, Red Garland, and Erroll Garner put on record are so untapped by drummers as a basis for ideas. Drummers mostly stick to things that fall easily on the instrument, and they rarely deal with, for instance, phrasing eighth notes the way a great saxophone player can phrase them. I relate to the power of the drums and maintaining the rhythm as well. But I draw inspiration from the vocal aspect, the lyricism of the great musicians. I’ll go into my studio, think of a tune and a feeling, and play tempo for a half-hour, trying to keep the time going with a light touch. That’s an endless study.”
As we reprise the view while waiting for the downstairs elevator, Baron murmurs, “Believe me, I never take this for granted.” Outside, as we prepare to go our separate ways, the drummer gives me a taste of that light touch and flycatcher-quick sleight-of-hand. He displays two fuzzy, light-as-a-feather red balls, has me authenticate their feel. “Close your hands.” Dutifully, I make two fists. Baron presents the balls like a sommelier, then envelops them, executes a few criss-crosses and swirls, and unveils his empty palms. A few more moves culminate in a feathery touch. “Open your hands.” Inevitably, the balls are nestled in my closed left fist. “You did that very well, Joey.” “That’s what I say when people ask me how I did that trick,” Baron chortles. “‘Very well!’”