By Dee Dee McNeil May 1, 2021
The Los Angeles area is stuffed like a giant pinata with talent galore. After all, Southern California is a hub for the film and television industry, has a thriving theatrical community and also boasts a bodacious jazz scene. It’s easy to overlook some of the outstanding players who sparkle in our very midst. Leslie Baker is one such musician, whose diamond talent and positive energy brightens any bandstand where she plants her big, bad bass.
As a female in the music business, she is proficient in playing both upright and electric basses. Consequently, Leslie Baker has made an indelible imprint on the Los Angeles music community, whether it’s performing in the string section of the Dave Matthews band at the famed Hollywood Bowl or pumping her bass at Colombo’s club in Eagle Rock for the past seventeen and a half years. She’s a dynamo! Another plus, Leslie can easily cross genres of music. She’s got one foot solidly planted in jazz and the other, knee-deep in the blues. In other words, Leslie Baker plays a bass for all seasons.
As a native of Los Angeles, Leslie grew up listening to her father, Dick Baker, playing piano. He was a professional pianist and vocal coach, who encouraged his talented little girl to begin playing piano at age six. Once she mastered the rudiments of music, Mr. Baker suggested Leslie learn to play the bass. She started off playing the upright bass. By the time she was twelve, the young lady was proudly performing as the bassist on her dad’s gigs. At twenty-years-old, Leslie Baker was a self-supporting, very busy musician.
Always striving to be better, she studied with some legendary bass icons. One of her main influences and greatest mentor was the amazing Red Callender. She told me a little bit about that time in her life.
“Well, first of all, Red was so generous and open with me that he pretty much made me feel like a family member. I met Red at a benefit for Willie Bobo at the old Musician’s Union on Vine Street in Hollywood. When I first met him, I walked up to him and said, you’re Red Callender. I LOVE your tuba playing on the James Taylor record, “Everybody’s Got the Blues.”
The legendary bassist, Red Callender, must have been surprised by this excited young woman standing before him and complimenting him on his tuba playing.
“I told him that tuba line just touched my soul. It had me dancing around my apartment,” Leslie told him.
“Then I explained to him a problem I was having. I played only electric bass from age sixteen to age twenty-six. When I discovered the electric bass I said, well why bother with this big cumbersome instrument? I had to go to the gym to keep my strength up and I had to carry the thing home on weekends and to practice. It was a big, awkward deal. For ten years I played nothing but electric, and then, I started yearning for the sound of a string bass where I could bow it. It was the sound I could not get from my electric bass. So, I purchase this double bass. I get it home, play it for five minutes and I feel like my arm’s going to fall off. Then I start reading music on it. I’m reading an Etude and playing it on my new bass. The Etude starts in the key of F and by the time I got done with it, I’m in the key of G Flat. I go, Uh Uh! I need some help. Amazingly, Charles Owens had just corralled Red into teaching. Red had never been a teacher before. He was a career musician. Charles said to him, let’s start our own school. We’ll call it the Wind College. This is what’s so beautiful! His emphasis was on how to play the upright bass in tune. Incredible! He was a great person and I’m glad I got to make that connection. I used to pass by Richard Simon, Karl Vincent and Tomas Gargano when I came and went from lessons with Red Callender. They were studying with him too.”
Baker has been on the bandstand with numerous music masters and learned from each one of them. One such legend, often referred to as the inventor of Rock and Roll, was drummer Earl Palmer. He was not only a great jazz drummer, but also a sought-after studio musician who played on a number of big hit pop songs and rock and roll records. Earl Palmer played on every single Little Richard hit record, on the Righteous Brother’s classic, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and all the Fats Domino hits. That landed him in the Rock & Roll Hall of fame. What a blessing for Leslie Baker to be the bassist who locked into a groove with this master musician! She has learned from the best in the business. For example, she was part of the Al Aarons L.A. Jazz Caravan that was packed with legendary players.
(L to R: Terry Evans, Thurman Green, Gildo Mahones, Count Basie trumpeter, Al Aarons, receiving award for their band, the L.A. Jazz Caravan, Leslie Baker, Carl Randall and the most incredible drummer Earl Palmer! What a band!)
Leslie Baker on bass with Earl Palmer on drums.
Another jazz legend Leslie Baker worked with, was the unforgettable hard-bop drummer, Billy Higgins. As Leslie grew musically, she recognized that one of the best educations you can get is actually performing and playing music with others. Each time you have an opportunity to work with musicians of high caliber, you learn more than any academic situation could teach you.
It wasn’t long before Leslie’s bass talents and her ability to dig down deep and play healthy doses of the blues, attracted famous artists like the legendary blues singer and composer, Willie Dixon. She recorded with Dixon and also performed with the famous, Harmonica Fats. Leslie recalled her session with award winning composer and blues man, Willie Dixon.
“It was some production he was working on at his home in Glendale. Willie Dixon was not in good enough health to play the bass himself. I got referred to him by bass man, Henry Franklin. He was used to using the Skipper and the Skipper told him to use me this time. Maybe Henry had something else to do. I remember Cash McCall was on that session, but I don’t really recall what we were playing. I can’t say if it ever came out on an album,” Leslie told me.
One day, Floyd Dixon scooped her up and took her on the road. Leslie Baker spent sixteen years backing up this Rhythm and Blues man who wrote such hit records as “Hey Bartender” and “Operator 210.” Their music garnered a John Handy Award for their “Wake Up and Live” collaboration. Another highlight of her affiliation with Floyd Dixon was when they performed at the famed Monterey Jazz Festival. That resulted in a recording “Live at Monterey.” Leslie Baker also performed with the legendary bluesman, Lowell Fulson, and Bill Doggett of “Honky Tonk” fame.
Baker’s love of jazz continued to lead her back to playing with master jazz musicians like pianist, Marty Harris. She and Marty recorded several songs together and Leslie features them on her website as a tribute to the late, great musician. www.LeslieBakerWebsite.com
“He was a character, as we all know,” Leslie laughs warmly. “He once told me that when he was called to do a gig, all he wanted to know was who was the bass player. He didn’t care much who the drummer was. To Marty, the drummer was the flavor of the day. But he really wanted to know who was playing bass, because it was about the changes.”
You can hear how beautifully Baker and Marty Harris blended on this sample of their recording.
She also enjoyed the challenge of working with a bass choir that was founded and established by the late James Leary.
“Oh James, he was so beautiful! And the way he wrote those five bass parts, the bottom part was the typical bass line; the top part was the melody or what was up in the higher range, and in the middle, he took the three basses that were left and we were the big chord makers in the middle. We were making the harmony. It was me, Richard Simon and James Leary. That’s where I always wanted to be, either 3rd or 4th chair. I found it extremely fascinating to be in that middle section. In other circumstances I would always be playing something else. But playing in the middle and making those harmonies was very interesting. It really made me work at what Red had taught me; that intonation is so critical. Leary’s love was for that bass choir and also for the vocal choir he wrote for. He was a dear friend for many years.”
When the legendary Buddy Collette was alive, he began an after-school program for middle school and high school music students, ‘JazzAmerica.’ Leslie became one of his educators at the inception of that program, along with bassist Richard Simon and many other talented Los Angeles jazz musicians. Her love of music and her desire to pass on the jazz legacy to a younger generation has her waving her magic bow across the strings of her double bass and inspiring young players. She is also part of a program sponsored by Los Angeles Jazz Society called, “Jazz in Schools” along with trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez and various other L. A. jazz cats.
When she’s not performing or teaching privately, Leslie Baker is rushing out for studio work. She’s added her bass excellence to various movies and television shows. Leslie’s been part of the backing band at “The Voice” television show featuring Kelly Clarkson, Josh Grobin & Craig Wayne Boyd. She’s also made on-screen appearances in a variety of show biz jobs like, “Star Trek TNG,” on the “Frasier” TV series, “The Addams Family Values,” “Bones,” and the film “Red Dragon,” to list just a few. Leslie’s ability to play various genres of music and to read charts quickly and proficiently have opened many doors for her talent. She’s also produced her own album projects. Forming a group called, “Askew” in 1997, she released an album of the same title. It was a sweet memorial for her father. This project featured Phil Wright on piano, (who has also been a mentor to the talented bassist); Steve Fowler on flute, Terry Evans on guitar and Billy Paul on drums. Earl Alexander contributed guitar and vocals. In
1998, She released “Askew Too” with a larger ensemble. Sadly, Steve Fowler had gotten sick with Lou Gehrig’s disease. So, this time she added Robert Kyle on saxophone, Ron Muldrew on guitar, Suzanne Spinoza sang on Baker’s original composition, “Rain Dance” and Robertito Melendez played percussion. In 2002, she released “Askew Blew.” It was an experiment for Leslie and the final piece of an Askew Trilogy.
“We were at Nolan Shaheed’s studio. I was beginning to have fun singing, instead of just playing bass. I challenged my vocal abilities on this project. It’s a blues album. This time it featured players from our live gig at Colombo’s; Eric Ekstrand on piano, Doug MacDonald on guitar and Frank Wilson manning the drums. We were well rehearsed, ‘cause we’d been doing this gig for about a year at the time of the recording. The gig lasted 17- ½ years, right up to stay at home orders on March 15, 2020. It’s the longest gig of my life,” her laugh resonates like an exclamation point.
In 2017 she released the album “Good Vibes” with Tyler Combs on vibraphone and Ken Park on drums. Somehow, Leslie Baker also finds time to manage and run her own studio in Silverlake, California. It’s called ‘Ranch Cabin Records.’
“Because of the pandemic lockdown, for over a year, it’s given me time to study and improve my skills with the software that I use for writing, recording and to coordinate with musicians remotely. I have a YouTube channel. You can search LeslieBakerDuo and you’ll be on your way to finding out more about what we do,” Leslie shares.