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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.

Derek Bailey
Restlessly creative guitarist forever pushing at the boundaries of music
John Fordham
Thursday December 29 2005
The Guardian

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 
commercialised art.

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