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Rough times, smooth jazz

Bob Baldwin digs a straight groove in a zig-zag biz

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In February 2008, jazz pianist and composer Bob Baldwin was driving through the countryside of Westchester County, N.Y., soaking in musical inspiration, when he got a depressing text message. New York’s WQCD was shutting off the smooth jazz spigot after 15 years.

He remembers that day the way other people remember the day their cat was euthanized.

“Sure enough, at 4 o’clock on Feb. 5, they started playing Led Zeppelin,” Baldwin said. “Shortly after that, about 24 stations around the country flipped in a year and a half.”

(Lansing’s own smooth jazz station, WJZL-FM, changed formats last December, becoming WLMI-FM, which features "classic hits" programming.) 

Smooth jazz — the plugged-in, groove-based, sexpot-who-never-went-to-college sister of mainstream jazz — has to fight for respect, and not without reason. It’s a healing bath in sweet funk at best, on-hold-with-the-insurance-company music at worst.

Baldwin has brought focus, craft and variety to the genre for almost 30 years. He brings his quartet to the Holt Performing Arts Center Friday to anchor an evening of smooth jazz.

Another trait — persistence — is crucial. As public taste and radio formats change like weather, Baldwin has stayed in the groove, putting 16 albums on the Billboard charts (on almost as many labels). Most of his recordings, and all the most recent ones, are self-produced and financed.

“At the end of the day, I can say I control my destiny at this point,” he said.

Baldwin is trying to lift the boats around him, too. When smooth jazz radio started to implode in 2008, he launched his own radio show, “NewUrbanJazz.Com,” now carried by 20 stations in 10 states.

It’s no accident that Baldwin turned 50 last December.

“Every eight seconds, somebody turns 50 in this country, and that’s going to happen for the next 20 years,” he said. “Radio has completely underserved and disregarded that market.”

His music took root long before anybody thought of labeling jazz “smooth.” He started learning the piano from his father, a jazz pianist, at 4 years old. Growing up in Great Plains, N.Y., he listened to greats like Ellington, Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. Even then, he gravitated to romantic tunes with a smooth factor, such as Ellington’s “Satin Doll” and “In a Sentimental Mood,” which he still plays at gigs.

Interesting people like photographer-director Gordon Parks lived in the neighborhood, and trumpeter Hugh Masekela had recently settled in White Plains after fleeing the apartheid regime in South Africa.

“Masekela’s ‘Grazing in the Grass’ was hot around the time I lived in White Plains,” Baldwin said. Another neighbor was obscure bassist Keeter Betts, who was married to Ella Fitzgerald.

“Ella lived in Yonkers, so I got to meet her when I was young,” Baldwin said. His father, Bob Baldwin, Sr., played with Art Davis, the last bassist to play with John Coltrane.

“So I had a nice palette of music at a very young age,” Baldwin said. 

At 7, Baldwin was hooked by pianist Herbie Hancock’s innovative work with trumpeter Miles Davis. When Davis, Hancock and a phalanx of fusion followers moved to electric instruments, Baldwin took note.

“I began to gravitate to the electric sound, the urban groove,” he said.

Baldwin can sit down and play a standard, but it’s not his niche.

“I’m not interested in sounding as great as Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, or Art Tatum,” Baldwin said.

“I haven’t heard a guy in the last 40 years who can match up with what they do.”

A clear pulse and go-down-easy feel mark his music as “smooth,” but it’s far from simplistic. Complicated Latin rhythms often add spice. Baldwin got attached to Latin jazz in his teens, hanging out in the Bronx.

“You’d see Tito Puente play a local club, and hear great percussionists like Marc Quiñones, Bobby Allende,” he said.

Later on, Baldwin gravitated to smoother, less frenetic Brazilian sound. “There’s less of a pulse, and more of a melodic percussion sound,” he said.

“Throw a little gospel in there, a touch of soulfulness, and there you have it — those are the sounds that are going through my music today.”

Baldwin got a big break in 1989, when he won the Sony Innovators award, chosen that year by singer Roberta Flack. The award helped him seal a deal with Atlantic Records, once the home of Coltrane and Ray Charles.

Atlantic wanted to rebuild its jazz cred, but Baldwin only made two CDs before the label imploded in the mid-1990s.

Baldwin thought seriously about giving up music, but his dad encouraged him to keep going. Chance — and his day job at Sprint Communications — pulled him in a new direction.

When Sprint transferred Baldwin to Atlanta, he wrote and produced a video piece on Atlanta jazz musicians for the 1996 Olympics. He discovered the “Dirty South” jazz scene, where drummers sync up with hip-hop drum machines and New York jazz snobbery is 750 miles away. 

Since then, he has divided his time among Atlanta, New York and far-flung gigs like Friday’s Lansing appearance. Along the way, he has done a lot of benefit work, from Local Aid, a 1986 benefit to raise consciousness about AIDS and the crack epidemic, to more recent fundraisers for Haiti earthquake relief in Westchester County and Newark, N.J.

“I hope I can do more of that,” Baldwin said. “At this point in my life, it’s about using the music to try to help somebody, basically.”

Baldwin said he’s happy if his music helps people to recharge and relax, but what relaxes him?

“I do a lot of walking,” he said. “Sitting on a beach every once in a while, looking at water and not thinking about much, definitely helps.

“I leave the phone in the car.”

Bob Baldwin
7:30 p.m. Friday, July 29
Holt Performing Arts Complex
Margaret Livensparger Theater
5885 W. Holt Road, Holt
$38
(517) 372-7246
www.bmrwpromotions.com

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