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Free-improvising guitarist, Incus label headby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2006 Todd S. Jenkins
The prolific guitarist and label head Derek Bailey, one of the most adventurous iconoclasts of British free improvisation, died of the effects of neural disease in the early hours of Christmas Day, 2005. He was 75 years old.
Bailey came from strong musical stock, inspired by a grandfather and uncle who were professional musicians. He began his career playing straight jazz and show music in local pit bands. However, the music that paid his bills wasn’t very close to his heart. Like his longtime friend, drummer Tony Oxley, Bailey was interested in exploring the outer edges of improvised music. The two briefly played in the trio Joseph Holbrooke (named for a modern composer) with bassist Gavin Bryars. The group began in fairly mainstream territory but had moved into completely spontaneous interaction by the time it was dissolved in 1966.
That year, Bailey moved from Sheffield to London, falling into a growing cadre of like-minded improvisers. Saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist Barry Guy, drummer John Stevens, trombonist Paul Rutherford and others became close associates of Bailey’s. All played roles in Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble; Rutherford and Guy later joined the guitarist in the trio Iskra 1903, named for a Soviet Communist newspaper (Communism was another bond between the improvisers in the 1960s and afterwards). In 1970 he co-founded the Incus record label, releasing the now-lost classic The Topography of the Lungs with Parker and Dutch drummer Han Bennink. Bailey contined to have a hand in Incus, Britain’s first fully musician-run label, up until his death.
With Parker, percussionist Jamie Muir and keyboardist Hugh Davies, Bailey formed the Music Improvisation Company (1968-1971, Incus, 1971). The group only lasted for three years, but its ideas planted seeds in Bailey’s fertile mind. In 1976 he inaugurated Company, a rotating aggregation of players who explored avant-garde music in all its permutations. Over the course of two decades, Company performances and recordings featured the cream of European improvisers, as well as American guests like saxophonists John Zorn and Steve Lacy. The guitarist organized annual Company Week festivals, five-day celebrations of the musical frings. These ran from 1977 until 1994 when it became economically unfeasible to continue.
Bailey’s guitar technique evolved very quickly from bebop- and swing-inflected to all-out improvisation. He coined the term “non-idiomatic” to describe his playing, as he consciously avoided references to perceptible idioms like rock, folk and jazz. Eventually he moved away from group performances, preferring to explore his concepts in either solo (Aida, Incus, 1980) or duo settings. He extended as much courtesy to young players as to veterans, duetting with such disparate artists as Lacy, Bennink (Han, Incus, 1988), Henry Kaiser (Wireforks, Shanachie, 1995), Dave Holland (Improvisations for Cello and Guitar, ECM, 1971), DJ Ninj, and Japanese dancer Min Tanaka. He performed on both electric and acoustic guitars, using a completely unique approach to each instrument. Always unpredictable, he recorded with members of Ornette Coleman’s electric group Prime Time, and reunited with his Joseph Holbrooke cohorts for a 2000 tour.
Bailey was also the author of Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (1980), which inspired a BBC Channel 4 television series, On the Edge (1989-91). The book was universally acclaimed as one of the finest analyses of the process of artistic improvisation, and remains in print and popular today.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.