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Derek Bailey RIP
I know that Derek Bailey's passing has been mentioned here before but my
wife just sent me this
excellent short biography from Englands' the Guardian. I thought I'd pass
it on: R.
Restlessly creative guitarist forever pushing at the boundaries of music
Thursday December 29 2005
On and off over the past decade, I would meet Derek Bailey in the same
Chinese restaurant in Dalston, north London. As well as being a wonderful
raconteur, the Yorkshire-born guitarist regularly blew holes in convenient
wisdoms sitting smugly on some shelf in my head. His provocativeness was
oneupmanship, or a parade of erudition; it was the way his brain was
He had done the same for musicians and listeners all over the world for 40
years or more as a free-player and a freethinker, a Frank Zappa for the
world of spontaneous performance.
Bailey, who has died aged 75 of complications from motor neurone disease,
was a guru without self-importance, a teacher without a rulebook, a
guitar-hero without hot licks and a one-man counterculture without ever
believing he knew all the answers - or maybe any at all. With his passing,
the world has lost an inimitable musician and an implacable enemy of
Bailey once described his friend John Zorn, the American avant-garde
composer and improviser, as "a Diaghilev of contemporary music" for his
catalytic influence. But he could as easily have been describing himself.
worked with performers as different as free-jazz piano legend Cecil
cool school saxist Lee Konitz, Harlem bop-and-swing hoofer Will Gaines,
naked Japanese improvising dancer Min Tanaka, fusion guitar star Pat
and the drum virtuoso Tony Williams. In later years, he collaborated with
Japanese art-of-noise rock band the Ruins, and - when he had already
70 - with young drum and bass DJs.
Singlemindedly devoted to unpremeditated improvisation, Bailey published a
book on the subject in 1980 called Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice
Music. Twelve years later, it led to Jeremy Marre's revealing Channel 4
four-parter On the Edge: Improvisation in Music, an ambitious venture that
Bailey both scripted and presented. The project tracked the improvising
impulse through the most radical interpreters of Mozart, the methods of
organist at the Sacré Coeur, Paris, in baroque music or the blues,
and in locations from the Hebrides to the Ganges.
Bailey was born to George and Lily Bailey, in the Abbeydale district of
Sheffield. His father was a barber, his uncle a professional guitarist who
gave the boy his first instrument and some haphazard lessons. By a process
of osmosis from musicians he met, sustenance from odd jobs,
(bebop guitar pioneer Charlie Christian was his early model) and some
self-education in theory and arranging, Bailey became a pro on the UK
dance-band and studio circuit in the early 1950s. By 1965, he was playing
Blackpool seasons for Morecambe and Wise.
By that time, he had begun rehearsing regularly with two adventurous
players in Sheffield - classical percussionist turned jazz drummer Tony
Oxley and bassist (later to become classical composer) Gavin Bryars. The
three formed the group Joseph Holbrooke (named after an obscure British
composer whose work they never played), and, from 1963 to 1966, its jazz
beginnings in John Coltrane and the Bill Evans Trio were crossbred with
ideas from John Cage, Stockhausen, serialism, Oxley's labyrinthine rhythm
variations, and much more. Gradually, the group moved from jazz into a
non-idiomatic approach - free-improvisation.
>From 1966, Bailey began visiting the Little Theatre Club, a West End
>bolthole where the drummer John Stevens ran all-comers' sessions and
>improvisers (including Evan Parker, Trevor Watts and Paul Rutherford),
>virtuosi (Dave Holland, Kenny Wheeler) and contemporary classical players
>like Barry Guy gathered. With various versions of Stevens' Spontaneous
>Music Ensemble, Oxley's sextet, the Music Improvisation Company
>(electronics, percussion and Parker's sax) and the trio Iskra 1903 (with
>trombonist Rutherford and bassist Guy), Bailey began to build a
>new vocabulary for the guitar.
Though he never abandoned the conventional instrument, he was mixing
chordal ideas, serialism's lateral melodies, Cage's elevation of silence,
pedal-operated electronics and a brittle attack borrowed from
percussionists. From 1970, he also ran the Incus Records label, first with
Oxley and Parker, then with his partner (and later third wife) Karen
Brookman - their Hackney flat is still the Incus HQ.
Bailey's Diaghilev qualities came to the fore in 1976, when he began his
Company project, an improvisers' festival that involved 400 players each
year up to 1994 in Britain, the US and Japan, with Zorn, Lee Konitz,
Steve Lacy, classical violinist Alexander Balanescu, bassoonist Lindsey
Cooper and composer/saxist Anthony Braxton among those taking part. He
invited dancers, performance-artists, electronica-specialists and
avant-rockers to join in, with the artists deciding who would improvise
He likened improvisation to spontaneous relationships and conversation -
full of accidental harmonies, misunderstandings, passion and indifference.
Though a sophisticated instrumentalist himself, he did not mind playing
people who had comparatively few skills; something interesting might
happen. He worked with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Tony Williams in
trio Arcana in 1995, and collaborated with Pat Metheny and two
percussionists on The Sign Of Four in 1996.
He described that encounter to me thus: "The equipment I use I bought in
Canal Street 15 years ago. Pat's sitting in the middle of what looks like
the console of a 747, with four guitars and a distortion unit that could
used for dispersing mobs. There were two guys with huge percussion kits,
I'm making a lot of noise, and then he switches this thing on, and it's
there's three dogs playing around a little, and suddenly an elephant lands
on top of them."
Yet for all that raw-noise energy, Bailey continued to be a delicate
acoustic improviser, often unaccompanied or in duets. Just in time, he was
caught by the ideal biographer, Ben Watson, in the book Derek Bailey and
Story of Free Improvisation. And, though his combativeness never left him,
he seemed to take heart from the musical eclecticism and dissolution of
idiomatic differences he had done so much to encourage.
"The kids don't mind whatever it is these days," he told me once. "Maybe
there's a lot of stuff out there now that is by its nature odd. But they
seem to be able to take anything. Which is great to somebody like me. I
it very comfortable. In an uncomfortable sort of way." Karen survives him,
as does Simon, the son of his second marriage.
Richard Williams writes: The least typical recording Derek Bailey ever
also turned out (not that he would have appreciated the compliment) to be
one of the great jazz recordings of the last 40 years. Titled simply
Ballads, and recorded in 2002 for John Zorn's Tzadik label, it consisted
solo guitar meditations on 14 songs from the standard repertoire,
Laura, Body and Soul, What's New, Stella by Starlight and You Go to My
Although this was the last project one might have expected from a
enemy of composed music, it was no surprise to discover that in these
songs - their musical and emotional contours long since flattened by
overuse - Bailey found brand new angles and meanings, thanks to the
application of his highly personal imagination and unique instrumental
language. Extraordinary renditions, indeed, and utterly spellbinding.
By the time he recorded another solo CD for Tzadik, entitled Carpal
three years later, his refined technique had all but disappeared. No
able to grasp a plectrum with his right hand, he adapted by striking the
strings with his thumb. The album's title came from the condition, carpal
tunnel syndrome, that was said by doctors to explain his reduced
In fact, it marked the onset of the motor neurone disease from which he
In these pieces, the spiky elegance of Ballads is replaced by a halting
delicacy reminiscent both of Japanese koto music and of the last paintings
of Willem de Kooning, when illness had robbed the great abstract
expressionist of the power to do anything other than trace a haunting
of the shapes and colours that had once burst from the canvas.
· Derek Bailey, improvising guitarist, born January 29 1930; died
December 25 2005
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited