Margie Baker’s storied career as a jazz and blues vocalist started late, when she was 39, but was long encouraged by her mentor Dizzy Gillespie and eventually took her to the world stage. Though the 80-year-old Baker came even later to recording, she’s on a roll now, affiliated with longtime Gillespie pianist Mike Longo’s Consolidated Artists Productions (CAP) label. Her 4th CD, and third for CAP, is Margie Baker Sings with So Many Stars, and is due for release on May 20.
So Many Stars is a two-disc set on which Baker surrounds herself with some of the most gifted instrumentalists in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Her relaxed and swinging phrasing, warm tone, and precise enunciation inform every number, including songs by Ellington (“Come Sunday,” “In a Mellow Tone,” “I’m Just a Lucky So and So”), Monk (“’Round Midnight”), and Horace Silver
(“Señor Blues”), as well as standards like “You’ve Changed,” “Deed I Do,” and “Lazy Afternoon.”
Among her accompanists, whom she calls “Margie’s musical galaxy,” are pianist Shota Osabe, guitarist Rodney Jones, saxophonists Jules Broussard and Melecio Magdaluyo, bassists Harley White and Chuck Bennett, and percussionist John Santos, a sixth-grade student of Baker’s when she taught in the San Francisco Unified School District.
“This is a tribute to them,” says Baker of the players on the CD. “These are not egocentric, big-time musicians, but they’re wonderful musicians. We work so much and so well together.”
Margie Baker was born October 11, 1933 “in a shack in the sticks” near Center, Texas, in Shelby County. “Black people were extremely deprived back there in those sticks,” she says. “That’s where I was born—from dirt-poor, beautiful, spiritual people.”
After her parents divorced, mother and daughter relocated to San Francisco at the onset of World War II. Her mother found work as a riveter at shipyards in San Francisco and Oakland, and the two lived at first in a cold-water flat in San Francisco’s overwhelmingly African-American Fillmore District.
Upon graduating with honors from Girls High School at age 15, Baker a received a scholarship to the University of California Berkeley, where she spent two years before transferring to San Francisco State College and earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Years later, she used earnings from her part-time singing career to enroll at the University of San Francisco, from which she received a Ph.D in Education. Baker moved from the classroom into school district headquarters as Director of Compensatory Education, where she oversaw the distribution of federal funds to help low-income children in reading and math.
When Dizzy Gillespie, her friend since she was a 17-year-old fashion model and a sophomore at UC Berkeley, finally heard her sing, he offered to take her on the road, but her responsibilities as a teacher, and eventually as an administrator, came first. She would, however, go on to sit in with his band when their paths crossed in Tokyo, New York City, Oakland, and San Francisco. She retired in 2004, after 48 years of service as an educator.
Baker had done very little singing in public before the guitarist at Henri’s Room at the Top on the 46th floor of the San Francisco Hilton Hotel coaxed her to sit in one night. She sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Hotel magnates Conrad and Barron Hilton were in attendance and offered her a job, which she accepted. She spent the next 18 years singing at Henri’s—two nights a week during the school year, five in the summer—as well as for special affairs at the Las Vegas Hilton, where such celebrities at Tony Bennett, Elvis Presley, and Elizabeth Taylor heard her sing. She also became a regular performer at the Monterey Jazz Festival and traveled the world with the festival’s touring shows that included such jazz greats as James Moody and Richie Cole. For the past decade, Baker has sung during brunch every Sunday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel near the San Francisco International Airport, as well as at other hotels, clubs, and churches.
As the 20 tracks on the new CD indicate, Margie Baker remains a song stylist of the first order. The only thing that has really changed is, she jokingly admits, “I don’t shake my booty as much.”
Baker will be appearing 6/1 at the Regency Ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Hotel/San Francisco Airport in Burlingame, 5:00-10:00 pm, with many of the musicians heard on So Many Stars; and 6/14 at the Mildred Owens Concert Hall in Pacifica, 7:30 pm, with Keith Williams, piano; Jim Nichols, guitar; Michael O’Neill, tenor saxophone; Chuck Bennett, bass; and Jerry Pannone, drums.