By WALLACE BAINE
It will likely a long time, perhaps years, before the shock of Jimmy Baum’s death gives way to reflections on his life and music. But a memorial event on Sunday at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center is, said its organizers, a first step in that direction.
On Sept. 24, the 61-year-old Baum, a well-known and accomplished jazz drummer, was shot and killed by his estranged wife Gayle Mozee-Baum, who then turned the gun on herself. The murder-suicide has shaken the tight-knit Santa Cruz musical community, which is expected to turn out Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. at Kuumbwa for what is being billed a celebration of his life.
“The loss is just incalculable,” said Santa Cruz bassist Stan Poplin, a bandmate and friend of Baum’s going back almost 40 years. “We’ll all miss him terribly. I lost two friends in this. I loved Gayle too. And in this celebration, we’re just not going to have any negativity.”
Poplin said that friends were aware that the couple had a troubled marriage. After 25 years together, they had in recent months separated and Baum had moved out of the family home. But, said Poplin, the seriousness of the Baums’ situation was not well-known.
“I don’t know how to understand how it came to this,” said Poplin. “Jimmy downplayed a lot of it. We could see there was trouble. But the most he would say was ‘Well, Gayle’s having problems.’”
The Kuumbwa is the natural place to gather in Baum’s memory. Baum played a role in the famed jazz club’s early days as the drummer in the unofficial Kuumbwa house band. Baum, in fact, is a significant part of Santa Cruz’s jazz history.
He came to Santa Cruz 40 years ago from his original home town of Atascadero in San Luis Obispo County. At Atascadero High, Baum’s father was the head of the music department and young Jimmy, along with his two younger brothers, excelled in academics, music and athletics. Besides playing trumpet in the school band, Jimmy was also the quarterback of the school football team.
“He was kind of a god,” said Bill Bosch of Boulder Creek, a bass player who was a freshman at Atascadero High when Jim Baum was a senior. The two later became bandmates with the popular 1980s Santa Cruz soul band the Cool Jerks.
When Baum first moved to Santa Cruz, he hooked with Poplin, pianist Paul Nagel and a young guitarist named Robben Ford in a blues band that showcased Ford’s preternatural talents. The band caught the ear of the legendary blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon who soon hired the whole line-up to be his backing band on the road. In his early twenties, Jimmy Baum found himself playing on big stages all over the world including at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1973.
When the wild ride with Witherspoon came to its inevitable end, Baum bounced around throughout the 1970s, moving to New York where he worked as a cab driver while studying jazz drumming. When he arrived back in Santa Cruz in late 1970s, he instantly became part of the downtown Santa Cruz scene centered around the Cooper House where he sat in with Don McCaslin’s Warmth. He re-upped with Poplin and began playing serious jazz gigs with the Hy-Tones with Poplin, Nagel and saxophonist Paul Contos.
Though he was playing in a number of styles and taking just about every gig he could find, Baum, said friends, nursed a fierce devotion to jazz, particularly upbeat, swinging jazz.
“Jimmy was not a competitive guy. He had no ego,” said Bosch, who had played three separate gigs with Baum in the two weeks preceding his death. “Throughout his life, he would take lessons from all sorts of people, just to learn. It was all about getting better (at playing drums).”
“Jimmy loved to talk shop,” said friend and veteran jazz drummer Charles Levin. “He swung hard. He had a great groove. Swinging is not something you can really teach. It really transcends technique in a lot of ways and he had it.”
Baum had one son by a previous marriage and three sons with Gayle. In the 1990s, Baum surprised friends and music colleagues by announcing he was done with playing music. “He decided to be a stay-at-home dad,” said Poplin. “It was a big sacrifice for him.”
In the last couple of years, however, Baum jumped back into regular gigging and was in fact playing drums on stage the night before he was killed.
“It’s beyond processing,” said former bandmate Paul Nagel of Baum’s violent death. “He was so personable and self-deprecating. And he was really well-liked.”
Nagel, who now lives in Massachusetts, had lost touch with Baum until 2008 when Baum called shortly after he heard that Nagel had been diagnosed with leukemia. As a bandmate, Nagel particularly remembers Jimmy’s coolness under pressure. Years ago, the two were playing back-up to rock legend Chuck Berry. As the concert approached, Berry was nowhere to be found.
“So, Jim just jumps up and starts ad-libbing to the crowd, like a stand-up comedian. The crowd was getting restless to see Chuck Berry and Jimmy just took down the pressure. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that guy’s got guts.’”
Stan Poplin, who met his wife through his association with Jimmy Baum, points to Baum’s self-awareness on stage as a mark of professionalism.
“Jimmy was always aware of people dancing. Most musicians don’t think too much about dancers. But for Jimmy, he kept an eye on them. Because, he said, ‘If they’re not groovin’, you’re not doing your job.’”