Derek Bailey

Avant-garde jazz guitarist


Derek Bailey, guitarist: born Sheffield 29 January 1930; twice married (one son); died London 25 December 2005.

Oddly, for an avant-garde player whose music was so intense and uncompromising that his following was devoted but small, the guitarist Derek Bailey appeared at the 1968 Royal Command Performance. In his time he also worked as an accompanist to Gracie Fields and Kathy Kirby - and it should be pointed out that for the royal concert he was in the pit band.

He turned his back on commercial music and rose to become the most renowned member of the British free-form jazz movement.

Bailey had an uncompromising philosophy that involved exterminating music that he had already played. It led him rigorously to move on from one group of musicians to the next: he believed that familiarity bred predictability. He was perhaps at his happiest in his metamorphosis to solo guitar player. Paradoxically his improvisations were recorded many times and the resultant albums were much sought by his followers across the world.

He believed in turbulence and musical aggression, although it was notable that, when more conventional musicians like Tony Coe or Steve Lacy were drawn into his orbit, he softened to form exquisite musical partnerships that led non-believers to wonder at what could have been. In his regular conversations with his audiences he showed a beguiling sense of humour that perhaps didn't chime with the density of the music.

But Bailey, like the musicians he mixed with, was a man convinced and possessed. From his playing he stripped out rhythm and conventional harmony and cast aside anything recognisable as jazz tradition. Over the years he withdrew from group playing and played without accompaniment. He worked often on the Continent, mostly in Germany, but chose to stay in England.

"He was rapidly arriving at the stage where he saw the nearest parallel to his own role in those of a writer or a painter," wrote the trumpeter Ian Carr, who described Bailey as "fastidious and ascetic" in his music:

He is austere, uncompromising and formidably committed to exploring and expressing his own interior vision . . . With monastic vigilance he tries to avoid the habitual side of playing.

Bailey was a key figure in the 13-hour concert played in Camden Town, London, in the summer of 1978 by the London Musicians Collective - this was in itself a compromise, because the saxophonist Evan Parker, a close comrade of Bailey's, had planned for the musicians to play around the clock.

Derek Bailey's grandfather was a professional banjo player and his uncle a professional guitarist. He took to the guitar when he was 11 and became a professional musician in Sheffield during the Fifties, working mostly at music that he didn't like. But, before leaving for London in 1966, he formed his own avant-garde band that included the like-spirited drummer Tony Oxley.

In London Bailey fell in with Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford, Barry Guy and other free-form players and played regularly with the drummer John Stevens's Spontaneous Music Ensemble. He joined the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra and formed the trio Iskra 1903 with the trombonist Rutherford and bassist Guy, whilst he was also a member of the Music Improvisation Company. His frequent partnerships with Evan Parker gained him fame across Europe and he was soon working with musicians on the Continent and with visiting Americans including Anthony Braxton and Steve Lacy.

With Rutherford, Guy and Bailey's wife Karen, Bailey in 1970 founded the record company Incus, the first musician-run label in Britain, to distribute their music. He eventually came to own the label himself and continued its policy of never deleting albums. In 1976 he formed Company, an ensemble bringing together groups of British and international improvisers. An annual Company week was held for 17 years until 1994. Bailey was a member of Kenny Wheeler's band in 1978 but from then on mainly played as a soloist or at best in duos.

He made an exception during the Eighties when the avant-garde Ganelin Trio came from Russia to work in Britain for a period. Bailey worked happily with them until the leader, the pianist Vyacheslav Ganelin, emigrated to Israel.

Bailey influenced guitarists as far away as Japan and in 1997 worked with the avant-rock Japanese duo Ruins. In that period he also played with the drummer Tony Williams and the guitarist Pat Metheny.

His book Improvisation: its nature and practice in music (1980) led to the Channel 4 television series On the Edge (1989-91).

Steve Voce

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