Giving jazz a new voice

Portland State jazz vocal instructor Jeff Baker gets results. His students regularly win awards from DownBeat Magazine and the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation competition.

Since arriving at PSU in the fall of 2012, Baker has greatly increased enrollment in the school’s burgeoning jazz vocal department.

“There are only three schools on the West Coast where a student can get a jazz performance degree with an emphasis on voice: Cornish, USC and now Portland State. The sky’s the limit on what we can accomplish; we really have a sleeping giant. I would love to get some graduate students in. Eventually, if there were 30 jazz vocal students at PSU, I think that would be extraordinary,” Baker said.

Baker is passionate about recruiting and expanding the program.

“I’ve emailed all the jazz choir directors in the state of Oregon and offered to workshop either for free or at a dramatic discount,” Baker said. “In just a year, our program has grown from two to 11 jazz vocal students.”

Baker, the former executive director of Idaho’s ArtsWest School for the Performing and Visual Arts, was brought to PSU by associate professor of jazz studies Darrell Grant, with whom he shares a record label. The two also co-lead PSU’s weekly jazz vocal combo class.

Originally from Boise, Baker has always harbored a fondness for Oregon; he honed his vocal skills at Willamette University in Salem. Since moving to Portland, he’s been involved in a variety of musical activities. Not only is he avidly recruiting students for PSU’s jazz program, but he is frequently asked to judge major jazz competitions. He also maintains a busy schedule of performances; he recently led a group as part of the PDX Jazz Festival.

Baker, who has four albums to his credit, including Of Things Not Seen and Shopping For Your Heart, is at work on two more. One of the upcoming albums is the product of his fruitful collaboration with Grant. The two are at work on crafting musical settings of the poetry of Pablo Neruda. The album will feature a nine-piece band.

“I think as a jazz musician, we’re constantly taking elements from various places and recombining them,” Baker said.
PSU jazz vocal major Kanda Mbenza-Ngoma raved about the professor.

“[Baker] is really great to work with. He sets the bar high for his vocalists while mapping out ways to achieve our individual goals. He has not only encouraged me to do my best, but he continually raises the bar in my individual lessons. He’s a great mentor and an awesome teacher.”

Mbenza-Ngoma, who now performs at venues like Brasserie Montmartre, credits Baker’s rigorous program with her musical development.

“Our goal is to expand my library or book of songs. [At each lesson] we normally start with warm-ups and modes. Afterwards, we work on tunes and arranging.”

Baker employs a rigorous technique with his students.

“I really do treat singers like instrumentalists, like horn players. We obviously spend time focusing on technique, but we spend equal amounts of time on harmony, improvisation and form. I think that’s been one of the things that has made my students so successful,” Baker said.

For more information about Jeff Baker, visit his blog,, and website,