Tom Baker's Life and Times
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The Tom Baker story

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Tom Baker
14 Sept 1952. Oakdale, California (USA)
23 October 2001. Breda (Holland)

Born in California's San Joaquin Valley, Tom was a 1969 graduate of Escalon High School, and continued his education at Modesto Junior College and the University of the Pacific.

He played several instruments, starting with the piano in childhood and switching to the trumpet at Escalon High, also playing tuba in college. He was in the High School marching band and could still demonstrate the steps and instrument moves many years later to Australian musicians.

The Baker family moved to Australia when Tom was 19, and he decided to stay in Sydney when they moved back again to the Modesto area. As he'd already played music to a high standard in college it was natural that he'd start to work here as a musician.

In the early '70s he worked in various club bands backing artistes, and began visiting jazz gigs and sitting in around town. He played with Dave Banham's Northside Jazzmen then joined the Abbey Jazz Band in Sydney on trumpet, also playing trumpet with the Ray Price Qintet (that's the way Mr Price spelled it) - a band which toured Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea preaching the jazz gospel by playing school concerts in addition to regular jazz gigs and balls.

At the same time, Tom was a member of Nick Boston's Colonial Jazz Band, in which he played tuba - making two recordings with that fine band.

In 1975 he formed his first band: the widely acclaimed Tom Baker's San Francisco Jazz Band, which made its official debut in December that year at the 30th Australian Jazz Convention in Balmain, Sydney - which included a triumphant appearance at the Convention's public concert in the Sydney Opera House.

That group was said by many at the time to be one of the very best jazz bands ever to emerge in Australia, and possibly one of the greatest West Coast style jazz bands anywhere in the world. It was also the first Australian jazz band to be invited (in 1977) to the prestigious Sacramento Jubilee - the biggest jazz festival in the world.

In 1979 Tom returned to live and play in the US for a short time and handed leadership of the SFJB to Paul Furniss. It became a smaller 5 piece group and still enjoys a well-deserved popularity in Australia.

Returning to Sydney in 1981, Tom formed 'Groove City' which was his first professional flirtation with saxophone and bop. This band supported Australian tours by Oscar Peterson and Anita O'Day. At about this time Tom was also a member of the Morrison Brother's Big Bad Band playing baritone saxophone.

Although Tom was American born, his music career really began here and he took Australian citizenship in the mid-90s, so Australia can rightfully claim him as one of her very own jazz musicians.

Over the years Tom Baker mastered many instruments, and was equally adept on saxophones, clarinet or trumpet. In recent years he had been working on his string bass technique, and could do nice things on piano accordion too.

He often said that his interest in the saxophone was inspired by the alto solo on the Jabbo Smith Rhythm Aces recording of 'Decatur Street Tutti' (with Omer Simeon on alto), so, when hernia surgery necessitated him laying off trumpet for a while in the 70s he took up the alto.

The 'Decatur' item is a very hot solo in the somewhat difficult key of D-flat, but soon Tom had it 'under his fingers' and it was uncanny to have him stand between the two huge speakers and play along with the record with such accuracy and feeling.

To listen to this inspiring track click HERE

But it was the instrument that he took up last of all - the trombone - that became his favourite. He put in many hours of practice each day and would delve sight unseen into a pile of CDs to put one in the player before picking up the trombone to play along with it.

Whilst Tom's musical roots largely emanated from New Orleans and Chicago he mastered a wide cross section of jazz styles, doing so with great authenticity and originality, and becoming a jazz icon right around the world.

Beginning in 1980, he spent much of his time abroad, playing major jazz festivals in Japan and Europe with classic jazz players such as Bob Wilber, Doc Cheatham, Major Holley, Arnett Cobb and Ralph Sutton.

Since rising to prominence Tom spent several periods living in the USA, where he worked with Cab Calloway, Jay McShann, Dick Hyman, Helen Forrest and Scott Hamilton. New York Times jazz critic John S.Wilson described him as a 'young genius'.

Over the years, he performed with a number of jazz greats, recording numerous albums and CDs both under his own name and with other jazz stars around the world.

Tom received great reviews for his 1991 CD release, 'Absolutely Positively', with Arts West declaring it a 'treasure trove of timeless jazz'.

Regarding his CD, 'Tom Baker and Friends', Adrian Jackson wrote: 'Throughout, Baker plays with a finely controlled heat and a wonderful sense of swing.'

A regular at the Breda Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, Tom's increasingly busy schedule over recent years saw him working in such diverse locations as Norway, Germany, New York City, Greece, Florida and France.

Closer to home he performed regularly with James Morrison, Bob Barnard and Don Burrows; featured in festivals in Melbourne, Tasmania, Perth, Brisbane, and Canberra; and kept up a full schedule of regular jazz gigs at home in Sydney with his own Chicago Seven, Quartet and Swing Street Orchestra and with Geoff Bull's Olympia Jazz Band, the Cafe Society Orchestra and regular reunions of the original Tom Baker San Francisco Jazz Band.

In 2000 Tom performed and recorded with Anita O'Day, ex-Louis Armstrong All Stars' bassist Arvell Shaw, and clarinettist Joe Murayni, also playing the Ascona Festival in Switzerland with Sammy Rimington and Kenny Davern.

In October 2001 Tom was making a major tour of Germany and Holland with the 'Swingcats' when he died suddenly of congenital heart failure in hospital at Breda (Netherlands).

He was just 49.

Vale Tom

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