Former Cream drummer Ginger Baker's life has changed since he starred in the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker. He moved to England with his wife and teenage daughter after decades of living on a South African polo ranch with 38 horses. He also formed a new group, Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion, with saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth and percussionist Abbas Dodoo out of an impromptu jam session in England – and now they're in the middle of a run at New York's Iridium Jazz Club, ending October 13th.
Baker talked with Rolling Stone by phone about his new project, the weaknesses of his Sixties peers the Rolling Stones and why Cream will never play again after their 2005 reunion.
How are you doing?
I'm doing the same as ever.
I wanted to ask you about Jazz Confusion and how the recent gigs went.
Every gig we've done has gone extremely well.
Did anything surprise you about playing with them?
How did you put the group together?
It was a roadie friend of mine really, who got it together. Edgar, he's not really well at the moment. Abbas and I have been together for over five years now. But Edgar got Alec Dankworth, who's my favorite bass player of all time. He's the best bass player I think I've ever played with. He's just great. He's got a great sense of humor. It's really a joy to play with him and it's really good music.
Why is Alec your favorite bass player?
Because of the way he plays!
Did you have any expectations going into it?
I just wanted to play again.
How did that decision start?
I don't know!
Do you remember where you got the idea to do this?
No, not really.
Are you living in England now?
Yes. That's where I am right now. You just phoned me so you know that this is an English phone number.
I know, I just wanted to ask.
Well why ask me questions if you know the answer?
I thought you might be playing gigs or rehearsing or something. Anyway, why did you want to go back and live in England again?
Because that's where the musicians are.
Do you still have a home in South Africa?
When did you sell it?
A couple of years ago.
Do you miss it?
Yeah, I miss a lot of it, but that's the way life goes sometimes.
Has your life changed at all since Beware of Mr. Baker [Jay Bulger's 2012 award-winning documentary] in any way?
Did you get a lot of good feedback from the film?
I don't know! I have nothing to do with it.
Did you like it?
Some of it is very good and some of it is annoying.
Like some of the people he interviewed. One of them I specifically told him I didn't want the guy on the film. (mentions a former manager) He was a lazy bastard and cost me a fortune.
But at the same time you had people like Eric Clapton and Charlie Watts.
Yeah, that was very nice. That was very good.
You've played the Iridium before and you played for Max Roach there. Are you excited to play…
I played with who there?
You played for Max Roach there.
No I didn't.
Well he came to your show.
He came to two or three of the shows. Max is a great friend of mine.
Do you have good memories from playing in New York, specifically at this club?
Yeah, that was a great band. The DJQ was a really great band.
How long has it been since you played a show in the States [besides Cream's reunion]?
I don't know. A long time. Probably the last actual show I played was at the Iridium. I don't know when it was. 1997, I think.
What is it like coming back and playing again?
I don't know! What is it like – ?
Is it exciting?
I don't know. I don't get excited anymore.
Because I don't! I never have done.
How is your health nowadays?
Are you feeling okay though?
No. It's troubling. At the end of the gig I'm absolutely exhausted.
It's amazing that you still have the stamina to do this.
Well, I don't! (laughs)
Then why do it?
Because I enjoy the music.
Is that one place where you are happy? When you're playing with a group of people?
When we're actually playing, it's the good bit, and after is not so good.
Are there any health issues right now that you're concerned about?
Yes. I've got degenerative osteoarthritis, which is extremely painful and I'm on a regiment with a health service pain management control. Apart from that I've got COPD from smoking.
Are you still smoking?
You look good and you're playing well though.
I look good because of my wife. She makes sure I look good.
The film and some articles made a big deal about your financial situation. Is that one of the reasons you're touring again?
One of them, yeah. You have to earn money to live, don't you? I'm not a super rich person.
The Stones just wrapped up a tour. Have you heard them lately or what do you think of how they're playing nowadays?
(laughs) You're joking right?
I mean Charlie is a great friend of mine. I think the world of Charlie. When I was living in the States, Charlie came to see me at my house and he said, "I'd give you some tickets but I know you would never go!" I won't go within 10 miles of a Rolling Stones gig.
Why is that?
They're not good musicians, that's why. The best musician in the Stones is Charlie by a country mile.
I agree he is. But the way they play together, people argue, is greater than the parts.
People can argue what they like.
Do you agree they're great songwriters, though?
No, not really.
Is it crazy that they're still doing it?
They are earning lots of money.
Are you a fan of the Who?
No. I knew Pete Townshend's dad better than I knew Pete Townshend. I worked with Pete Townshend's dad in the early Sixties and late Fifties. Keith Moon was a friend of mine but I wouldn't say he was a great drummer.
Dylan is still on the road.
Yes. Were you a big Dylan fan?
I'm not a big anybody fan.
What was the last record that excited you?
God knows. I don't know. I don't listen to music.
Because I don't!
It's what you do, though.
Yeah. So when you're talking about a bus driver, his holiday is driving?
Something I watch fairly regularly is the Cream Royal Albert Hall film from 2005.
Yeah. That was really good.
I wanted to see what that was like for you and what it was like to go back to that place.
The question I find the most annoying is, "What was it like?"
"What was it like?" I played the drums, man!
But you were with people that you have a deep history with and recorded a lot of music that people really love.
Yeah. . .
So that meant a lot to a lot of people, so it's interesting to hear what it meant to you.
Well, it was very enjoyable.
I've read that you've gotten offers to do it again.
No, I didn't!
That [bassist] Jack Bruce contacted you about another reunion?
Well, he didn't.
Would you do it again?
We've done it.
But it was only six shows. You wouldn't want to do anymore?
Well, it was actually seven shows, but never mind. You guys always get everything wrong. This sort of rubbish that people publish about news is quite extraordinary.
We'll do our best to get it right. I guess it just comes with being a respected figure.
I don't know whether it's being respected or not. I get more bad press than I do good press. (laughs)
For a band that was only together for a couple years, you made such an impact on people that are still emulating that music. It's one of the most influential groups ever.
Yeah but that was it. Nobody's ever gonna do that again. The only people that can do that was us.
But I felt like in 2005 you found a new way to play together that wasn't exactly the same as the old way but you sounded like you – you guys had so much experience and it was kind of laid-back, which was cool.
We're older. That's why. (Laughs)
Do you keep in touch with any current music on the charts or any pop music?
No. (pause) I do like some of the girl singers though, like Kelly Rowland, Emeli Sandé.
Do you like any new rock bands?
No, I don't listen to them. Most of them are pretty bloody awful.
Well they can't really match what you guys did.
Nobody ever could.
Do you think that there's so many distractions today that most people don't really put in enough time to be great musicians?
(grumbles) Oh God. Musicians are born. You can't become a great musician if you haven't got the gift.
But a lot of practice helps though, right?
No, it doesn't.
I practiced for a couple of years, in 1958 and '59, and since I haven't practiced at all. The only time I bang my drums is when we're on a gig.
What do you mean, "Wow?"
To play the way you play, you would think you would have to keep up with it.
Keep up with what?
Being able to play the way you play.
I've always been able to play the way I play.
Do you keep a drum set in the house now?
Yeah. Just one.
Does that get harder as you get older to play without practicing a lot or no?
(laughs) We play the music. That's what I do. I'm the drummer. I play the drums. Enough.
Do you still try to get better though? Are you still trying to do new things?
No. You can play what you want to play. What's the point of trying to play things that are difficult just for the fact of doing it?
Do you still have your horses?
No, I don't. I lost them all.
There's a saying that "shit happens" and it happened. Alright?
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- Ginger Baker