The soul of New Urban Jazz 

Keyboardist Bob Baldwin brings his funk-influenced grooves to Forsyth Park

BOB BALDWIN IS MORE THAN JUST a celebrated jazz composer. The Grammy nominee is also something of a music business visionary. A versatile and extremely talented keyboardist, over the past two decades, he’s enjoyed Top 20 (and even Top 10) chart success with many of his own albums, and collaborated with an impressive roster of jazz and R&B names, including Roy Ayers, Will Downing, Marion Meadows and Gerald Albright.

He was also one of the first musicians to grasp the awesome potential of the internet for marketing music directly to fans. In fact, he sold 7,000 albums online way back in 1994 — on an unsecured server, no less. (“That’s how fresh I was,” he says with a smile.)

Now, while continuing to write, record and release new music that falls squarely in the vein of funk and modern R&B-influenced jazz, he’s spearheading a new radio format he calls New Urban Jazz. As a Music Director, consultant and on-air talent, he’s taken this programming idea from one Jacksonville, Fl. station to a handful of others throughout the Southeast, and feels confident that as more listeners hear this new approach to contemporary jazz radio, more outlets will embrace his creation.

I spoke to Baldwin at length in advance of his upcoming set at the 2008 Savannah Jazz Fest, where his group will open for smooth jazz legend Bob James at a massive, free show in Forsyth Park.

You’ve been a professional jazz musician for decades now, and you’ve seen an awful lot of changes in both the cultural landscape as well as the music industry. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the very best, how does 2008 rate as far as being a good time to be a professional jazz artist in the USA, and why?

Bob Baldwin: From a scale of one to ten, I’d say it’s at four or five. The reason being is simple. The top of the decade delivered Napster, and with it, massive worldwide theft of music. Free music. No one was getting paid. Then iTunes dealt a blow to the labels and sent a message that much of that was self-induced. If I go to the store and buy a record for $18, that in itself is criminal-minded. Then when I spend that $18 and pull out two songs that I actually like, that means I just spent $18 for two songs. iTunes made it possible to buy those same two songs for $2, so the industry screwed themselves by lowering their standards and insulting their listeners.

click to enlarge Bob Baldwin
  • Bob Baldwin

You’re mostly known for smooth or contemporary jazz, and in fact you’ll be performing at the Savannah Jazz Fest for their “smooth jazz night”, opening for the legendary Bob James. What is it about modern jazz that attracts you the most? Have you ever been tempted to record or perform more traditional or so-called “purist” jazz?

Bob Baldwin: First of all, my dad was a pianist. Straight-ahead. I grew up on Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson Trio and Miles Davis records. Very incredible time. I learned “Satin Doll” and “Take the A Train” when I was about five years old, and I learned how to solo by reading jazz standards fake books, so I am raised on the right stuff. Cats that grow up playing smooth or contemporary and (then) go back to traditional actually miss something out of their repertoire. If I wanted to do a straight-ahead record, I could — and before I die, there will be one or two of them in the can that will round out my catalog. Traditional jazz is the best. It’s a shame that this country has a very low appreciation level for it. Traditional jazz was evolving at the same time that Jackie Robinson was breaking the color barrier, and that music became a platform to bring together all cultures of people on the same stage.

Have you ever shared a bill with Bob James, or perhaps met or worked with him?

Bob Baldwin: Funny Story — and he’ll get a kick when he reads this: When I was living in Westchester County, N.Y., Bob James was recording in White Plains at a studio called Minot Sound. It was there where I met Kirk Whalum, Luther Vandross, Lennie White, Marcus Miller and the aforementioned James. That was about 1984 or so. I’m well aware of Bob’s legacy and it is very well-respected in my circle. When he wrote “Westchester Lady”, he was talking about my home county, and he eventually settled there for many years. Anyway, every once in a while, I will sneak up on Bob James and whisper “Minot” and his eyes pop open. Not too many people know about that path. I met Whalum before he was signed to the label, when Bob was producing him. I have a lot of respect for Bob James’ career path. It is very rich. Maybe one day, we’ll get a chance to work together before he calls it quits. Nice guy.

What can folks who come see your set at the Savannah Jazz Fest expect to see and hear? How might your show compare or contrast with the type of jazz Bob James is known for?

Bob Baldwin: Well, normally, I bring several pieces to the gig. Bass, drums, percussion, guitar and sax. I’m coming with a smaller unit this time, but the groove is solid. It fuses contemporary with traditional. I think there will be a piano there, so I’ll play that for a while. It will be fun.

What will your lineup be like for this gig, and might our audience be familiar with any of the players who’ll be backing you in Savannah?

Bob Baldwin: Tony Clarke, who I understand is a man who wears many hats, will be playing percussion with me. Tony has been my right-hand man on the road since 1996, and he’s responsible for us being here this weekend. He’s producing an incredible show in Atlanta called the Atlanta Smooth Jazz Festival on September 27 and 28 (atlantasmoothjazzfestival.com). Now, the rest of the guys from Atlanta will bring their own soulful groove as well: Melvin Baldwin on drums and Tres Gilber on bass. Hopefully, next time, I’ll bring the full band and take it to even another level.

Will your set consist mainly of material from your most recent CD?

Bob Baldwin: No, I have a 20-year catalog, so we’ll be doing all kinds of music from across those records.


Here's a short clip of Bob Baldwin playing the keyboard:


After listening to samples from that record, I was struck with just how much of a funk and R&B influence can be heard in some of those tracks. When mixing in bold elements from related genres such as those, how does an artist know if they’ve gone too far and wound up with something that falls outside the general confines of one genre and into another one?

Bob Baldwin: One book doesn’t make an author, and one movie doesn’t make a director. So, one CD doesn’t make an artist. One must look at their body of work. This CD is only one of 12 — with many more in the can. So, it’s just a matter of perspective. I like funk and all forms of jazz. This record pushes the funk envelope, but doesn’t represent the body of work that’s Bob Baldwin.

You’re promoting the New Urban Jazz radio format, and I suppose that’s also an apt description of the music on your latest album. Explain to our readers just what that format includes, and how it might differ from existing radio formats.

Bob Baldwin: In brief, there’s tons of music that is not being heard. Period. New Urban Jazz brings us back to the radio concept of the ‘70s: “Just play good music.” It’s not based on one single off a record, or some formula. It’s music. People respond to buying records when they hear music, not the same song (or songs) repeated ad nauseam. Stations are responding. I have affiliates in Montgomery, Huntsville, Hampton and Birmingham, with others on board. Anybody in Savannah interested? Just reach out to me at newurbanjazz.com, and let’s get back to the basics.

Where do you see the New Urban Jazz format heading? Should I assume that once such a format has been designated that it will spur artists to compose and release music specifically geared toward stations and outlets that represent that new, hybrid genre?

Bob Baldwin: It will be successful because the focus is on the music. Smooth jazz radio has flipped abut eight stations this year from the format, and people are waiting for the next wave.

With the advent of satellite radio, we’ve seen so many musicians getting behind the board as DJs, and you’re no exception. Do you see that trend continuing?

Bob Baldwin: I think that’s a trend, but I’ve been dabbling with radio since 1978, so this is no new venture for me. I worked under the great Frankie Crocker at WBLS, when they had the #1 music station in NYC for ten years in a row. That’s where my skills were honed. I’ve programmed in Jacksonville (2004), Bermuda (2005), WCLK-Atlanta (2007), and so my track record speaks for itself.

What are some of the attributes you feel working musicians bring to that job that no announcer or even diehard music fan could?

Bob Baldwin: We don’t just play music or records. We make them. We live the art form. That brings credibility to the party. That’s what I bring. Credibility. People want to rely on content from someone who eats, drinks and sleeps the stuff. That’s what I bring to the table.

Several of your solo albums have charted in the Top 20 (and sometimes the Top 10) of the jazz charts. In the pop world, that would qualify someone to be viewed as a star or even a budding superstar. What does success like that equate to in the world of contemporary jazz? I know the sales figures are much smaller, but does a track record like that open a lot of doors as far as live touring and airplay goes?

Bob Baldwin: Well, again, it gives credibility to who I am. Those sales reports are based on modest market schemes, unlike the multi-million dollar pushes the pop artists get. Heck, if I had someone pump millions of dollars into my music, then I would be a “superstar”, but that kind of stuff doesn’t mean anything to me. Super-stardom is based at times on how much money is pumped into a product. That doesn’t always mean that product is any good! On a very extreme example, let’s take Milli Vanilli. I could name a dozen others but I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, and I’m sure you get my point. It took Herbie Hancock forty years to get a Grammy for Best Album of The Year, but he’s been making Grammy-quality records all his life. Sometimes it’s based on hard work or luck, but at times, pumping tons of money into a product makes someone a superstar. Rarely is it based on talent. That’s the MTV world we live in.


Here's a clip of Bob Baldwin and friends live in concert:


I notice that you have a background and education in business, which has allowed you to exercise a greater control over your own musical career, as well as branch out into other aspects of the music business. You were also ahead of the curve in marketing your own music online. As the rest of the industry struggles to come to grips with the power and anarchic nature of the internet, have folks such as yourself - who realized early on the potential of direct artist-to-fan marketing - been able to keep up with the constantly changing business model, or have smaller, more independent figures such as yourself struggled to keep up with those rapid changes?

Bob Baldwin: I sold 7,000 records on the internet on an unsecured server back in 1994. That’s how fresh it was. I saw the direction of the business and I reacted. Most of the time, I predicted movements in the business and forged a strategy so I could dodge the bullet, but never took the focus away from my love of the art. If I couldn’t play another note for the rest of my life, I have had a rich career and my family was supported comfortably by it. I still know how to earn a livelihood because of my business acumen. I play music because I love how it affects people, not because of money. Music inspires and motivates people. It’s about moving mountains and inspiring people in a big way, so that people can be better educated in their field and thus, have success, take care of family, etc... In the end, that will be my legacy.

If you had to make a list of the three things you love most about the life of a jazz musician and the three things you could most do without, what would those attributes be?

Bob Baldwin: Meeting all types of people, inspiring people through my music, being able to share the legacy with other younger kids by passing the torch.

Bob Baldwin

When: Friday, 8:15 pm

Where: Forsyth Park

Cost: Free to all

Info: citysketches.com/bio.htm, savannahjazzfestival.org


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