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In Memoriam: Derek Bailey

Kurt Gottschalk By

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I don't think it's done any good for free improvisation, generally speaking, to be coupled with jazz. —Derek Bailey
Arguably one of the most significant developments in music in the 20th Century was the breaking down of the idea of musicianship; expressiveness surpassed finesse as the reason for playing an instrument. And, arguably again, it was Derek Bailey who was a primary instigator of this evening of playing fields.

Which in a sense is to damn the British guitar phenom—who died on Christmas Day, 2005—with high praise. Bailey was a remarkable talent, a dexterous player who could maintain several linear threads of pure abstraction at a time and knit them into a coherent, deeply personal statement. But he did so in a language that seemed inclusive, even inviting, as if to say, "Come along, pour your soul out on the strings like me, you can do it. Of course, you couldn't, not really, but that's a different story. For what Bailey peddled during a career that spanned six decades was not technique—not the ability to play Villa-Lobos or to compose great somethings—but to be so completely in the moment, to pull notes from his heart and from the ether and to make the listener intimately there, with him.

And this was the revolution of the 20th Century, the one that Derek Bailey didn't start and likely didn't mean to perpetuate but nevertheless epitomized. Thelonious Monk: "That's The Way I Feel Now. John Lennon: "Be Here Now. You gotta see it to believe it, you had to be there, wish you were here. The charisma of Sinatra, Elvis Presley's bump and grind - concerts weren't cell-phone photo-ops, they were shared experiences. And the experience wasn't a recreation of Shakespeare or Sibelius, it was the hip, the new, the now, the excitement of what had never been done before. Punk mattered because the time span between being in the audience and being on stage was about two months, the walls were gone. Bailey inspired a similar feeling of freedom of expression. You couldn't do it like him, not really, but that wasn't the point.

The genre of music that most embraces that freedom in many peoples' eyes is jazz—a form Bailey started in and, even while playing at various times with the likes of Steve Lacy, Paul Motian, Tony Williams and Pat Matheny, spent much of his career trying to disassociate himself from. With his typical, understated grace, Bailey authored a book in 1980 called simply Improvisation, for which he interviewed classical, rock, raga and other musicians about the role of improvising in their music. The point—never overtly stated—was that improvising doesn't make one a jazz musician, and that the music Bailey played was not jazz.

"I don't think it's done any good for free improvisation, generally speaking, to be coupled with jazz, Bailey told Nick Cain in 2000, in an interview published in Cain's online magazine Opprobrium. "But my view of jazz is that it died about 1956. It staggered on in some quite interesting ways into the early '60s, and then it was resurrected in a rather ghoulish manner in the 1980s. But this is also a personal thing. It was partly to do with my own dissatisfaction with it and my decision, around the age of 23, that I was never going to be Charlie Christian. Before that, I'd probably entertained delusions about being a great jazz player. I decided at that time that if that's what I wanted I should have started in a different place, at a different time, and maybe in a different race.

The time and place Bailey started was Sheffield, Yorkshire, on January 29, 1930. His uncle played guitar and—along with those Charlie Christian records—was an early influence to his picking up the guitar. By 1950, he was working jazz club circuits in England, moving from town to town for extended pub gigs. His talent as a guitarist led to bigger gigs and eventually to meeting drummer Tony Oxley and bassist Gavin Bryars. In 1963, they formed the Joseph Holbrooke Trio, named by Bryars for an obscure British composer known as the "cockney Wagner who died in 1958. Though they earned little notice, they began exploring non-idiomatic improvisation together.

"We were aiming for the opposite of driving because everything was like that— this was the Oscar Peterson time—it was all about getting it on, as Tony used to say, Bailey told his biographer Ben Watson in 1997. "That's one thing we had in common. An impatience with the gruesomely predictable. Another thing we were interested in [...] was that we liked silences.


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