Derek Bailey And The Story Of Free Improvisation
Endlessly inventive as an improviser and a superb organizer, guitarist
Derek Bailey is also opinionated, combative, passively aggressive,
dogmatic, and often self-satisfied. Still, the 74-year-old Sheffield,
England-born Bailey is pretty much at Ground Zero when it comes to
discussing Free Music, at least in its British manifestation. London-based
critic Ben Watson attempts to explain both the man and his music in
this volume. Yet Watson also tries for much more than standard biographical,
chronological, and discographical fact gathering. He not only ponders
Free Music's place among other, more commercial musics, but also tries
to show how experimental sounds reflect musicians' liberation from
what he sees as a class-ridden, capitalist society.
A fascinating read for most of its 443 pages plus index, Derek
Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation offers impressive insights
as well as infuriating opinions. Besides tying together the various
strands of history that created Free Music almost a half-century ago,
Watson interprets many of the events according to his variant of humanistic
socialism. Understand that this is likely the first serious, yet anecdotal
book on jazz and improvised music to come from a Marxist perspective
since Frank Kofsky's John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution
of the 1960s. As Watson writes at one point, "Free Improvisation
… is the manifestation of socialist revolution in music—practical,
collective, anti-ideological and humanist".
There are times, however, when Watson's admitted bias results
in some conclusions that are more discordant than a Free Music solo.
Most off-putting is when his criticism of careerism takes in such
hitherto unconnected players as pioneering fusion guitarist John McLaughlin
and uncompromising saxophonist Evan Parker—once a close associate
of Bailey now estranged. Both these two and many other players are
suspect it seems, because they refuse to accept in toto Bailey's
singular theories that the basis of Free Music is selfless collective
Born in a lower working class family in 1930, Bailey was a dance band
and studio musician at a time in Britain when that sort of music-making
was considered a craft rather than art—rather like being a pipe
fitter or a blacksmith. Someone who says he probably played every
night of the week at one job or another from 1955 to 1968, the guitarist's
no-nonsense work ethnic has carried over into Free Music. As he tells
Watson: "I've never thought I could do anything—what
I do now or playing commercial music—unless I did it full-time".
Although satisfied as a pre-rock commercial musician, Bailey admits
he was still looking for a way to express himself more creatively
and was constantly woodshedding during that period. Although he has
had a lifelong admiration for American guitarist Charlie Christian's
advances, because of circumstances, he never described himself as
a jazz musician. British jazzers couldn't play the music full-time,
he notes, and that was a violation of Bailey's working class
In a perverse way, it was the advent of Beatlemania that drove Bailey
and others to Free Music. No longer did a commercial musician have
the freedom to interpret popular songs his own way; they had to sound
exactly as they did on the record. At about that point, Bailey, and
two younger Sheffield musicians, student bassist Gavin Bryars—now
a certified composer of so-called serious music—and Tony Oxley—who
later on was house drummer at Ronnie Scott's famous London jazz
club—started searching for their own path.
Impressed by the advances of such Free Jazz stylists as John Coltrane,
Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, and Scott LaFaro, in 1965 they formed
the cooperative Joseph Holbrooke Trio, named for an early Cockney
composer. In short order they went from playing conventional jazz,
to playing an English variant of Free Jazz, to outlining the first
stirring of what could be called Free Music. Later Bailey and Oxley
moved to London and began interacting and exchanging ideas with other
early BritImprov experimenters such as drummer John Stevens, trombonist
Paul Rutherford, and saxophonists Trevor Watts and Parker.
It's at this point where the book's chronology and Watson's
analysis breaks down somewhat. Claims and counter claims about which
musician developed which way of playing that was later accepted as
Free Improv divided and continues to divide certain parts of the Free
Music world. Certainly the supposed free spirit of the 1960s, when
previously experimental groups like Soft Machine and Pink Floyd had
best selling records, encouraged everyone, including journeymen like
McLaughlin—whose breakthrough fusion LP, Extrapolation,
featured Oxley—to try new things. And major record companies
even recorded them. Anyone who nowadays collects Free Music on weirdly
distributed CDs on tiny labels can attest to how things have changed.
But Bailey has remained constant in his collectivist ideas—at
least as he sees it. Despite being part of various playing situations
with those men and many other contemporary musical explorers, Bailey
was and is a Free Music purist, and the author describes the guitarist
"formulating his theory of permanent improvisation", a
resonance simulacrum with Leon Trotsky's slogan of "permanent
revolution". Always seeking more freedom and less structure,
Bailey is now capable of describing 1968's Karyobin,
one of the first certified British Free Music classics—and one
on which he played—as in retrospect sounding like "Whitey
Bailey has also peevishly insisted on the irrefutable difference between
European Free Music and American Free Jazz, which seems a bit perverse
as years go on. However, this hasn't stopped him over time from collaborating
with American musicians firmly in the jazz sphere including saxophonists
Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, and Lee Konitz, plus bassist William
Parker and pianist Cecil Taylor.
As Bailey's biographer, who constantly interviewed and consulted
with the guitarist over a three-year period as this volume was being
written, Watson is also a little too accepting of the guitarist's
point of view. Bailey's stated role as a working class bloke
from the provinces who just happened to stumble upon a way of playing
that satisfies him and is somehow accepted by a few other intelligent
fans, seems a bit louche. After all, Bailey has played literally thousands
of gigs throughout the world and has been featured on hundreds of
discs over the years. He, Oxley, and Parker founded Incus, the first
British Free Music record label in 1970, which he continues to run
today. In 1980 he turned a series of programs he produced for the
BBC's Radio 3 into the book Improvisation: Its Nature and
Practice in Music, and this seminal volume is still in print and
has been updated, republished and translated into other languages.
More importantly for Free Music's dissemination, from 1977 to
1994, first regularly, then sporadically, Bailey organized Company
Weeks. These musical free-for-alls were concerts featuring mix-and-match
combinations of any number of advanced jazzers, boho classical types,
and dissatisfied rockers playing Free Music. Bailey recorded and released
the resulting either spectacular or disappointing admixtures on Incus.
But little of Bailey's adult personal history is included—we
only learn in passing that he has been in three serious relationships.
More seriously, Watson, who can report exactly what V. I. Lenin said
about keeping useless people off the editorial board of the newspaper
Iskra in 1903—incidentally the name of another Bailey co-op
trio—discloses the guitarist's ongoing animosity towards
Parker without ever probing the reason for the break. Even Bailey
admits that "a lot of my relationships have sundred at the point
where somebody thought I was using them".
Maddeningly as well, the author mostly defines Bailey's improvisation
in terms of what it isn't, rather than what it is. He writes that
"Bailey's cool and precise—yet piercing and aggressive—tone
denies the generic associations and pleasures previously associated
with the electric guitar". And later: "The guitar playing of Bailey
sabotages merely sonic pleasures, redirecting attention to the totality
of the music. With Bailey, a guitar note is not an end in itself,
but a purposeful contribution to musical development—a question".
For Watson as well, Free Music "articulates the values of socialism
as against those of capitalism: life lived as a dialectical contribution
to human history, rather then cowering in positive and defended comfort".
Part of Watson's challenge may be Bailey's outwardly taciturn
blandness. In critical situations, as when listening to CDs for The
Wire's Invisible Jukebox—reprinted in the book—the
guitarist refuses to offer anything but non-committal praise for any
musician and music he hears, only relenting when he extravagantly
revels in the music of—surprise!—Charlie Christian.
Luckily Watson hasn't settled for the superficial. Doing his
research, he has gone through masses of published articles and interviewed
other observers, including not only Oxley and Bryars, but also a fan
who was at most Joseph Holbrooke gigs. Bailey will probably be shocked
to find the fellow describe the music as "really swinging hard...
very powerful like listening to the [Count] Basie band".
To offer other perspectives on Bailey's sounds, Watson reprints
his own and others' reviews of important Bailey discs and gigs.
Though it must be said he seems to prefer those who praise Bailey
rather than those who damn him. Finally, as someone who personally
attended many Company Weeks and was present at many other Bailey playing
situations, Watson offers his own perspective on what did and didn't
work in those situations. Again, not surprisingly though, it most
often appears to the author that Bailey's improvisations were
the saving grace in most awkward musical circumstances.
Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation is invaluable
for the way in which Watson situates Bailey's conception and
musicality within the worldwide jazz, classical, and pop scenes of
the past 40-odd years. Admirable too is his analysis of the many Bailey
projects that took place while the guitarist was, in Watson's
words "waiting for the rest of the world to catch up".
Until someone else with investigative reporting skills and, hopefully
no academic or polemical axes to grind, deals with the other major
British Free Music figures in as great depth, this book will remain
a primary source for understanding improvised music from that country.
Bailey's sometime perverse music and Free Improvisation itself
are precious and memorable for another reason. Watson articulates
it at great length near the end of this volume:
"In the late capitalist era, the ability to supply 'quality
product' has become the assumed aim of everyone, from manufacturers
of chicken tika to suppliers of industry-friendly graduate students.
The ideology of commodity production means that everything must serve
the needs of the accumulation of capital, or be decried as useless,
self-indulgent and anti-social. In such circumstances, it's
no surprise that 'perversity' has become a word for what
the bourgeoisie promised us in its early, heroic, revolutionary epoch: