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preserving a piece of america
Story By Mike Overall Photo By Shaila Creekmore

Jonesboro jazz musician Craig Baker has become so enamored with the American popular song – the remarkable body of work created in the first half of the 20th century by such songwriting geniuses as George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and company – that he wants musicians and non-musicians alike to understand and appreciate why those composers’ greatest works stand as unassailable monuments to American music.

“It’s remarkable not only that Gershwin and others wrote some of the most melodically and harmonically sophisticated songs in American history,” Baker said, “but also a testament to their genius that so many of those songs are emininently adaptable by musicians the world over.”

Baker, an accomplished mainstream jazz trumpeter, composer, and keen student of the music business and its inherent vicissitudes, has spent the past several years listening to, reading about and analyzing from a theoretical perspective why the music of Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood movies and the Broadway stage still has such remarkable staying power.

The musician said contemporary pop music producers have suffused their music with electronically synthesized instrumental and vocal sounds, negating the use of authentic musical instruments and the human voice. “We sometimes lose sight of the fact there was a relatively brief but artistically brilliant period in our history when great songwriters, usually sitting alone at a piano, wrote beautiful melodies, an integral part of the nation’s musical lexicon as long as good music is appreciated.”

Baker, 59, has honed to perfection a presentation/demonstration of the American popular song that he is offering to give before such audiences as music clubs, civic groups, and public school and college-level jazz bands and other instrumental and vocal ensembles.

The idea to create such a presentation came late last year, Baker said, when he joined a group of the area’s finest jazz musicians for a special program on the American popular song at the Craighead County-Jonesboro Public Library. The audience included members of two of the library’s book clubs and the general public. The impetus for the program was writer Wilfred Sheed’s book, “The House That George (Gershwin) Built,” a brilliant narrative/anecdotal history of the era.

“My presentation, while it necessitated hours and hours of listening and a scholarly approach to the work of those songwriters and lyricists who, from 1900 to the early 1950s, penned compositions that still represent American popular music at it’s zenith, is for the layman and musician alike,” Baker said. “One doesn’t have to be a professional musician to ‘get’ what my presentation imparts.”

Baker holds a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from ASU and attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. He and two composer friends formed Counterpoint Music Publishers and currently have more than 150 instrumental compositions in circulation.

In addition to performing with a Jonesboro jazz group at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Baker has performed with such diverse groups and individuals as jazz guitarist Herb Ellis, the Jonesboro group Giant Steps, Guy Lombardo, Danny Thomas, drummer Louis Bellson, The Temptations, the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie, Nelson Riddle’s Orchestra, the Delta Symphony, The Four Tops, Anne Murray and The Arkansas Symphony.

A string orchestra composition he wrote was premiered at the prestigious Midwest Band and Orchestra Conference.

Of today’s electronically manufactured pop music, Baker offered this pithy comment: “Celebrate genius, but do not mistake celebrity for genius.”
Persons or groups interested in booking Baker for his presentation on the American popular song may call him at 870-972-6868 or e-mail him at cbaker012@gmail.com