To the three young men who attacked him in his wheelchair November 5 outside the St. Mary’s Gardens retirement home in West Oakland where he lived, he was an easy mark. They beat him and robbed him of $80. But Taswell “Little Joe” Baird Jr., who died November 22 of his injuries, was a lot more than just another homicide victim to jazz fans and the people he met while making the rounds of downtown Oakland in his motorized wheelchair.
The veteran trombonist, a St. Louis native, played recording dates and toured in the ’50s and ’60s with an amazing roster of jazz musicians and singers: Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Dexter Gordon, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne, and James Moody, among others. More importantly in recent times, the eighty-year-old former jazzman made himself a fixture in the Old Oakland neighborhood, where Alan Laird of the Expressions Art Gallery (512 8th St.) knew him as a regular. “He’d come by in his electric wheelchair to the gallery,” says Laird. “Everyone held him in high esteem.” Most likely because Baird always kept his hand in the music. He reportedly took up piano at age 79 when his lips could no longer play the trombone, and enjoyed his reputation as a raconteur with tales of life on the road as a touring musician.
Bird, Diz, Ella, and Little Joe might be gone, but their memory stays alive this Saturday night when Expressions Gallery presents a memorial performance for “Musician Extraordinaire” Taswell Baird, featuring some of Oakland’s best jazz musicians. Bassist Tarika Lewis, Melvin Butts and the Mellow Tones, and E.W. Wainwright are a few of the players taking part. “We always get comments that this is such a good place to play,” says Laird of his gallery. “We have a writers’ group, and an urban garden. It’s a home away from home. It’s a people’s place.” The evening of music, spoken word, and reflections begins at 7 p.m., Saturday, December 28. Call 510-451-6646 for details, or e-mail [email protected]