UIC’s top jazz man calls the tunes

Andy Baker directs the UIC Jazz Band at the Chicago Jazz Festival

Andy Baker directs the UIC Jazz Band at the Chicago Jazz Festival Sunday. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

Andy Baker is UIC’s jazz man numero uno. 

Baker, a trombonist, is director of jazz studies and the 17-member UIC Jazz Ensemble, which played the Chicago Jazz Festival Sunday.

The group performed to a full house in the Young Lions tent, giving a polished rendition of the eight-movement “Sweet Time Suite” by composer Kenny Wheeler. Shaun Johnson, a May 2014 grad, soloed on flugelhorn with vocalist Cheryl Wilson.

“This was a tremendous opportunity for the band and a great learning experience,” Baker said after the performance. “It seemed like it went over very well indeed.” The piece appears on the group’s second CD, titled “Walkin’ About,” available for sale in the UIC Bookstore.

This summer Baker led a two-week jazz camp on campus.

“It’s the offshoot of what used to be the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic/UIC Jazz Academy, which was here for five summers,” Baker said.

The main change is that the new program is for high school kids, while the old one also included elementary school students.

“It’s as if they’re spending a couple of weeks in college as jazz majors,” he said. “There’s about 20, with groups of five or six for small-group performances.”

As a performer, Baker was lead trombone in the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, which dissolved in 2012 owing to funding problems. He played in the Rob Parton Big Band, which came to an end when Parton moved to Ohio.

“Both were really fine bands, and those two bands ceasing to exist left a hole in the creative landscape,” Baker said.

So, with saxophonist Ken Partyka, he formed the New Standard Jazz Orchestra, which played its first gig in early June. The band, which Baker said is “great and going to continue to be great,” performs monthly at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago.

“It takes a lot of time to get 16 of the best guys in the city together,” he said. “It’s intentional that it not be called the Andy Baker Big Band because I wanted to headline all the great soloists, composers and arrangers. It’s not about me, although we perform some of my tunes. All the music in the band is written by people in the band.”

Setting up a band and keeping it going is “a time and money pit,” he said. “When I told my wife I was putting together a big band, it was the one time she ever rolled her eyes at me.”

Baker has been a sideman for Frank Sinatra Jr., Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin and Van Morrison. He played in the pit for the musical “Motown,” which ran at the Oriental Theater eight times a week from April 22 to Aug. 10. And he can be heard with the BakerzMillion Sextet, which he formed with pianist Steve Million.

“We used to live four blocks apart, and we kept running into each other,” Baker said. “We decided we should play together, then we formed the sextet.” That was in 2005. UIC faculty member and sax player Jim Gailloreto is also a band member.

The group released “Mood Point” in 2012, and this fall will release “Live at Andy’s,” recorded at the jazz club and restaurant at 11 E. Hubbard St.

Besides directing the student jazz group, Baker teaches jazz history.

“I start by talking about the conditions in place for jazz to come into being in the late part of the 19th century,” he said. “The blues and ragtime and other conditions around New Orleans enabled jazz to be born there.”

Baker says cornetist Buddy Bolden is generally recognized as the first jazz musician. Other jazz greats he talks about include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus.

He became a musician at age 11. “My dad plays the trombone, and I also studied the piano. My grandmother was a pianist and piano teacher.”

Baker, who keeps a keyboard in his office, added, “You’ve got to make friends with the piano to be a jazz artist, figure things out.”

He grew up in London and earned a bachelor’s degree in classical performance at the Guildhall School of Music there. After coming to the U.S. in 2001, he earned a master’s in jazz composition at DePaul University. He joined UIC in 2012; other teaching gigs include Elmhurst College and Northwestern University.

Baker lives in Oak Park with his wife, Krissy, a speech and language pathologist at a senior nursing facility on the West Side. They have two children, Charlie, 9, and Alida, 3.

He has music to thank for bringing him and his wife together. They met in 1999 when he was touring with an English band, the Ray Gelato Giants.

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