Benny Bailey

Jazz trumpeter of tremendous stamina and technique

Friday 12 July 2013 02:13

Ernest Harold ("Benny") Bailey, trumpeter: born Cleveland, Ohio 13 August 1925; married (one son, one daughter); died Amsterdam 14 April 2005.

The Cleveland saxophonist Willie Smith had good reason to be aware of Benny Bailey's devotion to the trumpet. The two men shared a room together when they played in Los Angeles. "Music was all Benny thought about," said Smith:

He used to wake up in the morning, grab his trumpet from the table next to the bed and practise for an hour before getting up. It used to bug me.

"I still do that before I eat breakfast," Bailey said many years later. "It gets me set for the day." Bailey, who had the athletic build of a boxer, had tremendous stamina and technique that made him both a great soloist and a powerful lead trumpeter in any big band - an unusual combination.

As a child Bailey learned to play piano and flute before taking up the trumpet. He studied at the Cleveland School of Music and with the jazz composer George Russell. He listened to records by Louis Armstrong and learned many of Roy Eldridge's solos by heart. He wanted to be at the raw edge of jazz and by the time Bebop was developing in the early Forties Bailey was already there. The local scene was dominated by Freddie Webster, much older than Bailey and one of the most powerful of all trumpet players who went on to fame in the Jimmy Lunceford Band. He too was a strong influence.

But the music Bailey played in public was rhythm and blues. He formed a band whilst still at high school called the Counts of Rhythm that included Willie Smith (not the Willie Smith who played with Jimmy Lunceford). "I remember the first gig we had," Bailey said:

We got paid in hot dogs. We would copy Louis Jordan, his arrangements, everything. He was very popular in those days and it was very simple to copy. I just never listened to Duke Ellington or the older musicians. I had my hands full keeping up with Bop, which was pretty fast action. It's only in more recent years [this was the Eighties] that I've gotten to appreciate Duke and Billy Strayhorn, Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson and all those other great people and understood their outstanding contributions.

Smith and Bailey went to Los Angeles in the band of the drummer Scatman Crothers. When Bailey left the city it was to go east in the band of the pianist Jay McShann. But the trumpeter felt that McShann's penchant for relaxing and having a drink compromised the band's success and so when they reached Chicago, where he knew Dizzy Gillespie was rehearsing a new big band, Bailey left and joined him. Gillespie was at the peak of his powers and this was his second classic big band. "Next week we go to Europe," he told Bailey. The 1948 tour was the stuff of legend, and Bailey appeared on the historic recordings the band made at the Salle Pleyel in Paris.

At the end of the tour Gillespie disbanded and Bailey returned to Cleveland, later joining the band of the vibraphone player Lionel Hampton. Bailey travelled the road with him for five years. "I quit five times, but I always went back," he said. He finally left to play in an orchestra in Italy and then, in 1953, went to Stockholm, where he joined Harry Arnold's band. Quincy Jones, whom he had known when both played trumpet for Hampton, was contributing arrangements. He wrote a showcase, which he later played with his own band, called "Meet Benny Bailey".

Jones formed a big band to take to Europe. The band was a huge success artistically, but a financial disaster, and the musicians were stranded in Paris when the money ran out. Jones struggled to find the band work and put together a punishing series of one-night stands. Before it broke up the band won innumerable polls and awards. Bailey returned to the United States with Jones and recorded an outstanding album under his own name, Big Brass, but moved to Germany in 1961, recording and playing in concert there with the saxophonist Eric Dolphy:

I wanted to get away from all the drugs and stuff being used in America. All my friends were getting high. If I had stayed there I'd have had to become a hermit to stop because as soon as I saw somebody I knew I'd be drawn into the circle again.

His playing much appreciated, Bailey became a European fixture, playing with bands and orchestras in Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. He was a member of the cosmopolitan Clarke-Boland band when it played a season at Ronnie Scott's Club in London, where it also recorded an album.

During the Nineties he toured Europe with his own quintet and in 1992 he returned to Cleveland to play in an 18-piece band put together by Willie Smith. He spent his last fruitful years working from Amsterdam. Had he stayed in the US rather than Europe, he might have won much more acclaim, but he might, as he feared, have lost his career to drugs.

Steve Voce

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