2/1/71: Ginger Baker vs. Elvin Jones
Nothing happenin…Cat’s got delusions of grandeur with no grounds. They should make him an astronaut and lose his ass! – Jazz great Elvin Jones on Ginger Baker
In an industry teeming with characters, Ginger Baker stood out. Whether it was his trademark red lion’s mane back in the day or his pissed off at the world countenance as seen in the fantastic 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, one could never rightly suggest he lacked self-confidence or balls or however you want to put it. Baker always considered himself to be a jazz drummer who played in rock bands – although he did consider Cream to be a jazz group – and he aimed to prove that as fact with his post-Blind Faith project Ginger Baker’s Air Force, which combined rock, western jazz, and Afro-jazz influences. Word of Baker’s jazz bravado seeped into the jazz scene.
When a journalist played the lengthy Blind Faith track Do What You Like for jazz great Elvin Jones, a veteran drummer who spent a career as side man for the likes of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, and perhaps most notably John Coltrane, Jones was not impressed and he made it known. As chatter between the two increased and a “battle” was on the horizon, Jones is alleged to have told an audience at one of his shows that “Baker had better put his drums where his mouth is.”
The great drum-off took place at London’s Lyceum Theatre during the Air Force tour on this day 50 years ago, when Jones joined the ensemble on Aiko Biaye and a thirty-two minute Do What You Like (YouTube link above), trading drum licks with Baker. On the latter track, the soloing begins at roughly the nine-minute mark. When the drums ceased to pound, there were smiles and an embrace. Jazz journalists called it a Jones victory while rock scribes felt Baker more than held his own. Perhaps as much as anything, the “challenge” further cemented the legend of the jazz drummer in the wrong genre where, by the way, Baker was also the greatest – at least in his own mind.
Baker would later challenge another jazz great, Art Blakey, but late in life would scoff at the notion of the events being anything other than duets which took place in the spirit of mutual respect and admiration. Either way, the colliding of two worlds certainly spiced up the music scene.
Ginger Baker and Art Blakey in 1973: