Derek Bailey (1930-2005) was a successful guitarist playing pop music in dance halls and jazz in nightclubs in England when he had his ‘road to Damascus’ collision with Anton Webern and free jazz. From the mid-1960s until his death, Bailey worked with such avant-garde giants as Anthony Braxton, Gavin Bryars, Evan Parker, Han Bennink, King Crimson’s Jamie Muir and Keith Tippett, among others, spreading a free improvisation gospel. Players like Henry Kaiser, Eugene Chadbourne, Fred Frith, John Zorn and Thurston Moore have picked up the trail in Bailey’s wake.
“Playing is like living, only better”-Derek Bailey
Free improvising guitarist Derek Bailey (1930-2005) was without a doubt one of the most radical musicians who ever lived, and 15 years after his death he is increasingly one of the most influential, especially among forward-looking musicians.
Bailey was a successful working guitarist in London throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s, playing pop music in dance halls and jazz in nightclub bands before (as he put it) “finishing up” in the studios, which meant radio and TV work. He also played in orchestras, including prestigious gigs like the Royal Command Performance for the Queen. By the mid-‘60s, Bailey was doing so well he was able to buy a house, but he had by now become acutely bored with playing this kind of music. As one journalist would write years later: “Ironically, it was the comfort of steady studio employment that finally led to Bailey’s complete musical metamorphosis.”
(Bailey’s biography, a hefty 500-pager called Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, includes an amusing photo of young Bailey in a white tux, playing standup bass with Count Basie in an English restaurant in 1956.)
Derek Bailey – Incus Records Audio Ad circa ’86
In his words, “I was looking for a place to go,” and he started casting about for something new, possibly a new approach to his instrument as a source of new sounds, and maybe even a new vocabulary for playing guitar music. This eventually led to the idea of “instant composition,” or free improvisation.
It is now known that in this early period of self-study, Bailey copied onto reel-to-reel tapes all of the LPs he could find of the sparse, radically atonal classical music of Anton Webern: terse, concentrated clusters of sound that seemed to hang alone and drift in space, unresolved. Derek Bailey, a young man with very large ears, was transfixed.
Anton von Webern – Three Little Pieces, Op 11
The result was that Bailey, 33, who up until this time was considered to be one of the most “swinging” jazz guitarists in London (largely in the style of Jim Hall) was now developing an angular, percussive, abstract guitar style on both the electric and acoustic instruments, a kind of music that seemed to have no beginning or end: austere, at times brittle barbed-wire abstractions that were almost as much about the physical properties of the guitar (a hollow resonant “box” with taut metal wires stretched across it, after all) as the musical statement itself.
One of the great “characters” in modern music, Bailey clearly was formed in the mold of what was once known as British eccentricity.
The resulting free improvisations were loaded with an arsenal of effects: flinty, behind-the-bridge flakes of sound and strangely colorful string-bending and a use of tone clusters, harmonics and pinging grace notes (heard to great effect, for example, on duo albums with the American jazz maestro Anthony Braxton) that essentially added up to a new language for the guitar.
(Those who saw him perform in the early 1970s would have witnessed Bailey playing his so-called “19 string [approx.] guitar,” and his original use of stereo foot pedals, which made floating tones hover and fly from speaker to speaker.)
Anthony Braxton / Derek Bailey – The First Set: Area 1
This new free style made Bailey a perfect fit for the emerging London jazz avant-garde, and he found himself playing regularly with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, a group formed in 1966 by drummer John Stevens and saxophonist Trevor Watts, soon to be joined by bassist Barry Guy and a revolutionary young saxophone player named Evan Parker. The great jazz critic Barry McRae called Bailey’s contribution to the group one of “coloring the ensemble sounds, one that adds the artistic finishing touch.”
History records that some of the earliest SME gigs took place in the basement at Better Books, an early London counterculture hub run by Barry Miles, who was friends with both Paul McCartney and William S. Burroughs.
An album liner note written by Eddie Offord, the recording engineer for one of the SME’s first records (Oliv I & II) gives an indication of how hard to digest the new music was for so many people, even in the midst of the revolutionary late 1960s:
“My first impression of the SME? Well to be frank, a joke. But by the time the LP was finished, I found myself admiring not only their skill as musicians, but also the close musical contact between them. My last impression of the SME? Utter sincerity.”
Spontaneous Music Ensemble – Withdrawal Soundtrack Part 1B
Like Bailey, most of the British free movement’s notable figures were veteran jazzmen and most of them had come from working class backgrounds. Many had spent time in their younger days playing in military bands, including Bailey himself. Essentially they created the new language by developing it through playing, inspired initially by radical black American “free jazz” and the latest developments of the classical avant-garde.
Prior to playing with the SME, Bailey had already spent some years in an experimental jazz trio with drummer Tony Oxley and bassist Gavin Bryars, today a renowned composer. The group enigmatically called itself “Joseph Holbrooke” after a largely forgotten English composer of the early 1900s. (“It seemed a good cover for our activities,” Bailey once commented drily.)
Joseph Holbrooke Trio-“Miles Mode”:
Tony Oxley would soon become a much in-demand, straight-ahead jazz drummer in London clubs. (Essentially, he pursued two careers at once.) Like Bailey he was a native of the old steel mill town of Sheffield, Yorkshire in the north of England, and it was in Sheffield that Joseph Holbrooke enjoyed a long-term, “lunchtime” residency at a pub called The Grapes, where they specialized initially in playing Coltrane and Bill Evans tunes.
Over time the trio developed their own unhurried, spare approach to playing an increasingly abstract, improvised music (again under Webern’s influence), a music that loosened and finally broke with its jazz moorings and anticipated much of the British free music that would follow for the next 20-plus years. Sadly, the trio didn’t record very much, except in the beginning.
Bailey was a tall, lanky Northerner who favored wire rimmed glasses, pullover sweaters and corduroys (the man was born in 1930, after all), and more than once was described as someone who looked like a slightly eccentric science teacher. One of the great “characters” in modern music, Bailey clearly was formed in the mold of what was once known as British eccentricity. He was a great fan of Samuel Beckett’s bleakly comic writings, and the English television comedians he’d played for in the “pit.”
“It’s not a question of why be a free improvisor. It’s a question of what else? Free Improvisation offers more playing per cubic second than any other type of music making.”
His dry sense of humor would come across even in the midst of some of the most forbiddingly “difficult” music ever created, once pulling out of a guitar case a tenor banjo and hurling the bulky instrument over his shoulders, letting it clatter noisily onto the floor behind him…after which he sat down, uncased his Gibson electric and proceeded to play a raucous and splintery improvisation. (“A symbolic condemnation of trad jazz?” one critic wondered, about the banjo.)
Indeed humor, so often the one ingredient forbidden in the avant-garde arts, often reared its head whenever Bailey played with the Dutch drummer Han Bennink, a musical partnership that dated back to 1969. Like some vintage comedy act, both men shared an anarchic sense of humor and a commitment to aggressive, tumbledown musical chaos.
If Laurel and Hardy had ever played free improvisation… One track on their 1977 duo album Company 3 was titled “Another Fine Mesh.”
Derek Bailey & Han Bennink, “Umberto Who?”:
Bennink was a veteran of the Amsterdam jazz scene, with a swinging straight- ahead style who had played with pretty much every American jazz master who ever came through Holland in the 1960s: Ben Webster, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Rollins and even guitarist Wes Montgomery.
He was also a founding member of the Amsterdam-based ICP (Instant Composers’ Pool), a collective of Dutch jazz musicians who covered everything from ragtime to the most heavy-duty avant-garde but with a decided theatrical bent to their performances. This circuslike showmanship carried over to Bennink’s intensely manic behavior whenever he played with Bailey.
As the ‘60s were heating up Western Civ from San Francisco to Prague, free music spread across Europe, a widening network of British, German and Dutch jazzmen (including a number of art school graduates, like the West German saxist and painter Peter Brotzmann) who were inspired by the screaming energy of American free jazz and the experimentalism of composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose intense expression was immortalized on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album cover.
In 1970, Bailey and Parker co-founded the first British independent record label devoted to freely improvised music: Incus Records (Tony Oxley was a third partner, but soon dropped out of the label business). The first release on Incus was the now legendary The Topography of the Lungs, a ferociously knotty trio excursion for Bailey, Parker and Bennink.
Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Han Bennink-“Titan Moon” from The Topography of the Lungs album:
In a 1990 interview, Bailey recalled when he and Evan Parker would walk into record shops (correction, shoppes) with copies of Topography, their brand new baby in hand, asking proprietors if they wanted to “buy some of these…”
“We’d walk in and there’d be some Stan Getz tootling along in the background, wasn’t bothering anybody. And they’d say, ‘well sure, put it on.’ And after a few minutes they’d just sort of…look at you. ‘What are you doing to me, what is this?’ I mean they reacted strongly.” Still, the first pressing sold out.
Evan Parker’s musical metamorphosis, from young acolyte of “cool” jazz saxophonist Paul Desmond to his current mastery of long, hypnotic lines of pure sound using the “circular breathing” technique on his soprano saxophone can be charted by listening through his decades-long discography.
The breakthrough solo LPs revealing this new technique are: Monoceros, Six of One, and The Snake Decides (all reissued now as CDs on Parker’s Psi Records label).
Evan Parker sax solo @ Talos Festival 2017
Without doubt some of the scratchiest, gnarliest, most thrillingly abrasive improvised recordings ever made were Parker’s high-tension-wire duos with the percussionist Paul Lytton, no doubt one of the most radical “drummers” (the word really doesn’t contain him) in music history. Lytton took free music’s radicalism to its logical extreme, playing a percussion setup that included everything from standard drums to piles of junk on the floor to sheets of metal (always good for scraping) to pads of felt. Combined with Parker’s squealing, metallic industrial growls on the saxophone, it sounded like the apocalypse.
Evan Parker & Paul Lytton – Lytton Perdu 1972
If anyone ever dares to tell you the ‘70s were boring…well, they weren’t. By the middle of that decade the gloriously aggressive chaos of free music / free jazz / free improvisation (or maybe even “music-meets-noise,” or jazz turned inside out) had exploded across the European continent. Labels were being born, LPs were being pressed, festivals could run for days. German free music, in particular, was a study in ferocity:
Nr. 7 (Brotzmann) · Brotzmann featuring Bennink and Van Hove
The European improv scene included visiting American jazzmen like Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith, as well as “zanies” like the Canadian-American guitarist Eugene Chadbourne (who later recorded with Camper van Beethoven) and stars of the British art-rock fringe, like guitarist and founder of Henry Cow, Fred Frith.
Fred Frith – Hollow Music
One of Bailey’s most celebrated musical partnerships was his on-off-again collaboration with King Crimson’s percussionist Jamie Muir. In the early ‘70s they were both members of the free improvising ensemble the Music Improvisation Company, which had recorded an album for ECM Records, long before that label had locked into its current, “classical jazz” format. Bailey and Muir later recorded a duo album, Dart Drug, for Bailey’s Incus label.
Muir famously spent time in a Buddhist monastery in Scotland after abruptly leaving King Crimson, and just before teaming up again (in 1980) with the London-based free improvisors. What did progressive rock’s onetime percussion genius have to say about “crossing over” to the even less popular side of the musical spectrum?
“Improvising percussionists are primarily concerned with effecting alchemical changes over rubbish,” Muir wrote enigmatically in 1972. “I think group improvised music is one of the great forms of 20th century music because it’s so radical. It should be listened to live and not in an acute intellectual way. A lot of other music is quite absurdly intellectual.”
Bailey’s especial compatibility with drummers one-on-one continued with the brilliant, decidedly non-rubbishy 1977 album Drops, featuring the Italian percussionist Andrea Centazzo:
The London rock music press of the ‘70s, meanwhile, was hip enough to include occasional bits of jazz coverage within its pages. Melody Maker and the NME (New Musical Express) did not ignore what was going on under their rockish noses, but coverage of “new music” was still more or less a token affair. Sometimes one could find concert and record reviews of avant-gardists like Bailey, Parker and groups such as the SME, alongside coverage of progressive jazz ensembles like Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath.
Chris MacGregor-Brotherhood of Breath:
But even those groovy rock papers could sometimes take a patronizing or quasi-outraged stance towards the new music:
“Are we ignoring a musical revolution on our doorstep or is it just undisciplined anarchy?” asked Melody Maker on December 15, 1973, in a piece called Free For All! which purported to “put into perspective the meaning of free music.”
Here a middle-aged bebop musician declared, “free music is unpleasant to my ears.” Bailey, Stevens and pianist Keith Tippett (another veteran of several early King Crimson albums) took potshots at the bopper’s persistent philistinism:
Bailey: “Playing free is not an idiom, it’s a whole area. Free is not a replacement for bebop, it’s a whole area and new experience…I think the mainstream of jazz has gone, and they’ve lost their self-confidence. The music has disappeared into a number of things, like jazz-rock. Where an improvising musician, in earlier times, would have looked to America for some kind of guidance, now he is left in limbo. I find it preferable that they should be finished as an influence and now we are left to our own devices.
“I think that most people don’t like the sound of our music. There are certain basics: people want a beat hammered into their head!”
Tippett: “I would rather be a bad innovator than a good copyist.”
Bailey: “It’s a healthier way to work, anyway.”
MM: “So the Arts Council don’t help you at all?”
Bailey: “They don’t give grants for improvising. If I wanted a subsidy I could get one by writing a piece, but you could never get one for being a player.”
MM: “Then again you wouldn’t get one if you were a struggling rock musician.”
Bailey: “Oh come on, they’ve got the whole of the entertainment industry behind them.”
Did the “musical revolution on the doorstep” last, and did it bear fruit? Yes, and lots of it. Guitarists Eugene Chadbourne and Henry Kaiser were among the first North Americans to take up the mantle of “free improvising guitar player” after hearing Bailey’s records for the first time in the ‘70s. Both spread the gospel of non-jazz improvisation, with the help of other Bay Area enthusiasts like the Rova Saxophone Quartet.
Much later, when European free improv’s raucous and very loud New York offshoot, “noise music,” began to percolate in downtown Manhattan circa 1978-1980, Europeans like Bailey were recognized as direct inspirations and were invited to improvise at Tonic, Roulette and the Knitting Factory, plinking and plonking, scratching and buzzing with the young Americans, including “downtown scene” impresario John Zorn and noise-drone guitarist Rudolph Grey…and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who declared Mr. Bailey to be one of his five favorite acoustic guitar players ever.
Improvised Music #1 · Derek Bailey · Sonny Sharrock · John Zorn · Bill Laswell · Fred Frith
The 1990s were a highly successful, at times odd period in Bailey’s career. His fame, influence and the number of his followers among guitarists increased worldwide, and musicians like Moore and Nels Cline of Wilco went on record as longtime fans. His discography expanded in a burst of recordings with newer, younger improvisors who jumped at the chance to play with their guitar hero. Some of these releases were of dubious musical quality (or just badly in need of editing) and some of his newfound collaborators were simply second-rate.
On the flipside, many of these collaborations hit the bullseye. He recorded, for example, with a Japanese rock band, one of the first of his successful “crossover” records at the time:
Derek Bailey & The Ruins -The Purcell Rooms South Bank, London April 3, 1997 – Improvisation 6
During a long, rambling and expensive phone call from L.A. to London in the late ‘90s, I asked Derek Bailey about the large festival audiences he’d recently encountered in Europe, playing such allegedly “difficult” music:
“When I played in Portugal last year, the audiences were extraordinary! All improvised music, and all solos. There were 500 to 600 people every night for five nights, and the really startling thing is, they were there when you finished!
“I mean we’ve had big audiences before at the beginning, but not at the end.
These seemed to stick!”
Then I asked him to elaborate on a few things that seemed to be on his mind in recent magazine interviews:
Q: “Is it more enjoyable to freely improvise when the situation is less familiar, when you haven’t played with the other musicians?”
A: “I don’t think it’s always more enjoyable but it’s more stimulating. I mean there’s more to do! You have to do something.
“If you’re playing with somebody who doesn’t have an automatic stylistic compatibility, you have to find some way of working and that’s what improvising is. I mean that’s what fucking bus drivers do when they’re driving down the road! Improvising comes into all kinds of things.
“Because although the rate of failure can be quite high, the business of playing with anybody builds up certain kinds of skills. And it exercises what we’re supposed to be about, it seems to me. Well as far as I’m concerned, that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about producing fucking masterpieces!”
At this point he was touring more or less constantly, becoming a favorite of music journalists who found the bespectacled British “pensioner” (now in his 60s) an unpretentious and witty interview, though serious about music and what it meant to be an improvisor:
“It’s not a question of why be a free improvisor. It’s a question of what else? Free Improvisation offers more playing per cubic second than any other type of music making.”
Reviewing a Chicago concert in 1989, one music critic wrote, “Bailey’s powerful improvisations swat ideas around like ping-pong balls, all the while providing a clinic in obscure, nearly unique guitar methodologies.”
As someone who lived by the notion that “if you‘re going to do something, do it full time,” Bailey wrote a book on the subject of musical improvisation, which was originally published in 1980: Improvisation, Its Nature and Practice in Music. Since then, it’s been translated into several languages and seemingly never going out of print.
British free improvisation was always prone toward ideology and the writing of manifestos, and Bailey was no slouch in this department, despite his pronounced sense of humor, sharpened by many years in showbiz. One of his most controversial pronouncements, regarding the sprawling genre of music he helped to create, was the notion that free improvisation was not an “idiom” or a genre at all, a curious idea that seemed to exist in his mind only.
This odd hobbyhorse he seemed determined to ride for years in various interviews, something his fellow improvisors no doubt silently indulged, knowing full well that “free improv” definitely had developed its own ground rules and a distinct musical approach…and a familiar sound.
I first met Bailey in 1980, when he was touring the U.S. with Parker, his then-partner in running Incus Records. Having gotten a taste of Bailey’s humor through his letters (I wrote to him years earlier, to buy records) I brought to the concert not only some of his LPs to sign, I whipped out an old battered 45 produced by a local kennel club featuring ten pure minutes of dogs squealing and whining and yapping away. Ever the professional, he cheerfully signed all of them.
Does anyone remember that ‘90s phenomenon, Drum ‘n Bass? Back in those days Bailey found himself “improvising to,” as it were, some strangely invigorating beats which he’d come across while scanning local pirate radio stations in his London flat. John Zorn arranged with Bailey and someone called “dj Ninj” (actual name never revealed) to record some tracks of this novel sounding, rule-breaking matchup. The resulting CD was called Guitar, Drums n’ Bass. It did surprisingly well, with both music’s audiences.
Derek Bailey – Ninj (De-mix)
As Bailey and Zorn spent more time with each other in New York, the younger musician increasingly became a font of suggestions and ideas, some of which Bailey took to heart. The most lasting result of this was the startling appearance of two CDs of Bailey playing, in his fashion, the kind of music he grew up with and spent his early career playing. The first one was called Ballads, later to be followed up by another CD, Standards.
On paper, both sounded simple-but-tantalizing: Derek Bailey freely improvising on the old standards, the classic songs from what we now call the Great American Songbook:
Laura, Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone, Stella By Starlight…
Hearing those resonant old melodies ring out on Bailey’s huge big-band acoustic, only to spool off the rails and into his abstract world of pings, scrapes, bell-like harmonics, overtones and aggressive cluster chords (the polar opposite of pretty music) is an exercise in musical humor, anticipation and sheer fascination with the sounds that the entire resonating body of an acoustic guitar can produce.
In retrospect these two albums were a real coda, both accessible and fascinating, to a revolutionary career in music.
Derek Bailey died on Christmas Day, 2005. The Wire magazine’s issue for February of 2006 ran an obituary article that was filled with tributes from other musicians, titled: Live and Invent.
I sometimes have a recurring dream, in which I go to my mailbox and find tall stacks of plump little Jiffy-bag envelopes with his distinctive handwriting and colorful British stamps plastered all over them, stuffed with personal message cassettes, printed Incus Records ephemera, and letters in his insanely doctor-like handwriting.
“Derek stepped on the gas and left the rest of us in the dust,” Henry Kaiser once said. Clearly, the late guitarist answered the call put out years earlier by his old friend, the poet and music connoisseur Peter Riley:
“Musician, be different.”
Incus Records’ website:
Evan Parker’s Psi Records website:
Emanem Records website:
Andrea Centazzo’s Ictus Records site:
John Zorn’s Tzadik label ‘site: