By the time you read this, Ginger Baker will have moved closer to the centre of Canterbury. On the morning The Herald caught up with him earlier this month, however, the drummer who formed 1960s supergroup Cream with singer-bassist Jack Bruce and guitarist Eric Clapton was looking out a little ruefully over the seafront from his home in Whitstable on the Kent coast.
Having spent the past 40 years living mostly abroad, with spells in Nigeria, Colorado, Tuscany and South Africa, he has mixed feelings about being back in England.
"The country's changed so much," says Baker, who is 72, "but the worst thing for me is, for the first time in all these years, I don't have any horses. I know I couldn't really enjoy them the way I used to. I can't ride now due to my health. But I really miss having them and being around them."
More specifically, what Baker misses about not having his stables on hand is playing polo. The man who lived the classic sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock 'n' roll lifestyle – competing with Clapton to see who could bed every waitress in the Speakeasy first, ingesting industrial quantities of heroin and cocaine, and sorting out problems on the road with an axe to at least one head – became a perhaps unlikely member of a social set that included Major Ronald Ferguson, father of the Duchess of York. The polo bug bit hard, though, as well as eating through significant sums of money, and now that he can no longer play the sport, all he has left is the drums.
"I'm amazed that I can still physically play the drums after everything I've put my body through," he says. "I don't do a lot down here. I never listen to music at all but when the gigs come up, I'm ready and I still really enjoy it."
The band that brings Baker back to Scotland for the first time in years, to play at Glasgow Jazz Festival tomorrow, has been described as a return to his jazz roots. For Baker, though, he never left those roots. Cream being described as a rock band puzzles him as it was, he says, mostly about improvisation. He and Jack Bruce have had their spats, going back to the pre-Cream days with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organisation, and continuing during the Cream reunion in 2005, but they appear to be in agreement that Cream was a jazz group along the lines of the Ornette Coleman Trio, with Clapton unwittingly filling the saxophonist's role on guitar.
"It was never the same two nights in a row," says Baker. "And that's the way it's always been for me: I've never played the same two nights in a row with any band."
Baker's love of drumming first developed on the classroom desks at Shooters Hill Grammar School in Eltham, South London (an alma mater he shared with comedian Frankie Howerd). Having graduated from listening to the fashionable big bands of the day – Jack Parnell and Ted Heath – to the hipper sounds of the 1953 Jazz At Massey Hall album that featured Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach, Baker would entertain his classmates with detailed interpretations of the rhythm parts from the jazz records he and his gang had shoplifted.
One day, after he'd left school, he was invited to a party in an old school friend's house where there was a band playing.
A crowd from school was there, and seeing a vacant drum kit during the band break and remembering his classroom performances, they urged Baker to have a go. "I'd never sat on a kit in my life," he says. "But everyone seemed to think I could play."
Two of the band agreed, and Baker's days as a trainee layout artist were numbered.
He acquired a drum kit of sorts, which he would soon upgrade, and quickly became the new drumming kid on the London jazz block, playing early gigs with trad bands including popular trad boomers Terry Lightfoot And His Jazzmen, and Pete Townshend's dad, Cliff.
During a tour of Germany in the late 1950s, Baker also hooked up with a young John McLaughlin, who was then also playing trad jazz, and subsequently appeared with both gospel-blues force of nature Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Danny La Rue.
By the time Baker and another young jazz drummer, one Charlie Watts, had done each other a favour – Baker replaced the reluctant professional Watts in Blues Incorporated before recommending him to Brian Jones and Mick Jagger – Baker had befriended Phil Seamen, a brilliant drummer and fantastic character who was also fatally heroin-addicted.
"Phil was like a father to me," says Baker today. "I learned a hell of a lot from him."
Unfortunately, although Baker was already a drug user by now, Seamen's lessons and introductions had major extra-musical results as well as drumming benefits. Somehow, and with large quantities of rum to help him through the periods when he was "coming off" (or not, as it happened), Baker kept working and developing a reputation as a hard nut in the process.
At the Cambridge University May Ball in 1962, a "scruffy young Glaswegian" badgered Baker's then bandleader, trumpeter Bert Courtley, to let him sit in on bass. Eventually, Courtley and the band relented, played their most complicated number, hoping to embarrass the newcomer, and were astonished to find him keeping up. Changing tack to a 12-bar blues, they found themselves swinging along like mad on the basslines and wound up offering Jack Bruce a job.
Baker and Bruce formed a formidable partnership, when one wasn't accusing the other of playing too loud. But after an incident on a Graham Bond gig that involved words from Bruce, a right-hander from Baker that decked the bassist and an impromptu chorus of "He loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah" from the audience, Baker didn't want or expect to play with Bruce again. Eric Clapton had other ideas, and Cream was born.
With Clapton acting mediator, a Baker-Bruce truce allowed Cream to enjoy huge success – including 30-plus million album sales – and offbeat moments such as a photo shoot for their Disraeli Gears album on top of Ben Nevis.
Clapton's growing dissatisfaction with the volume Cream played at, fuelled by the arrival of The Band's Music From Big Pink album, and Baker's unhappiness both with the sound levels and Bruce's songwriting and royalties dominance, brought the venture to a close at the end of 1968.
Baker then briefly joined Clapton, Steve Winwood and bassist Rick Grech in Blind Faith, formed Ginger Baker's Air Force with Winwood, Phil Seamen and others including West Indian flautist/saxophonist Harold McNair, and continued a life of adventure that has included buying cocaine from one of the prime suspects in Sharon Tate's murder, smuggling a veritable harvest of marijuana into London in nine specially commissioned wood carvings, using his unerring eye to bounce a drum stick off a policeman's head to stop him beating up a fan at a gig in the American Midwest, setting up a recording studio in Nigeria, playing chukkas at Cowdray Park, driving in the Argungu Rally, and seemingly rivalling Warren Beatty in his sexual conquests. One of Baker's post-Cream bands, the Baker-Gurvitz Army, even appears to have folded due, not to the usual musical differences, but to the guitarist moving in on all the women Baker fancied.
There's less chance of such shenanigans recurring in Baker's latest band – there's no guitarist. Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion features former James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth and percussionist Abass Dodoo and follows in the tune-up-and-go footsteps of Baker's rather fine 1990s trio with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Charlie Haden.
"I enjoyed the trio with Bill and Charlie," says Baker. "It was quite straightforward; we just got together and played. This one's like that. It just kind of came together.
"I mean, I knew and liked Pee Wee's work but I didn't really know him, and of course I knew and admired Alec's dad, John, but didn't really know Alec.
"What I like about this line-up is there's no piano or guitar. Having no harmony instrument is something that's appealed to me for a long, long time. It gives you more freedom – and that makes it more enjoyable."
Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion play the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, tomorrow at 8pm. Visit www.jazzfest.co.uk.