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In Memoriam: Derek Bailey, 1930–2005

Derek Bailey died on Christmas at age 75. It seems strange that such a pleasant, thoughtful Englishman was one of the most radical improvisers on his instrument, the electric guitar. But trailblazers are not always terrors.I interviewed Bailey by phone from his London home four years ago, when he was scheduled to appear locally. He didn’t come — partly because of his health, and then there was that 9/11 thing, which had just happened. He said he was terrified to fly.Artistically, though, he was never afraid. In the mid-’60s, at a time when the straight jazz he’d been playing was obsolescent, Bailey gradually changed over to free music. He found a few like-minded souls, and honed an approach that bucked every notion of swing in favor of instant invention, tone refinement and harmonic reconstitution (noise, said less perceptive listeners). In 1980, he published a book of interviews with improvisers from various musical disciplines. For many years, he helped put together a worldwide concert series called Company. And over time, people began to know who he was.When he began getting free, though, he was a lonely inquirer. Ornette Coleman had rethought sax; Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor had rethought piano. But rethinkers of the guitar? “There weren’t many, that’s for sure,” said Bailey, “and I didn’t know who the others were, if there were any.”The free-improv community he built in ’60s England, unlike America’s, didn’t mix its radicalism with drugs. “I was in my mid-30s, and the people I met were usually in their early 20s. Unless you’ve been 36 in 1966, you don’t know what ageism is. I’d been working with musicians for 15 years at that point, but not like these. And one of the things that struck me was how clean they were. They didn’t take drugs, usually they didn’t smoke, they didn’t drink, they didn’t eat meat or drink coffee. Quite militantly straight. Which was unusual for that time. But they were unusual people anyway.”Bailey always appealed to the young. “There does appear to be a different kind of audience now,” he said, “but that’s probably due to the general state of, let’s say, non-mainstream music, which seems to be a kind of goulash. I’m able to find a place in that.”Do modern audiences understand him better? “They’re more curious,” he said. “At one time this music clung onto the edges of jazz; it was barely tolerated. But now there are these people who seem to be prepared to listen to almost anything. I don’t assume even at this point that there are many people taking notice, but there are certainly more than there used to be.”One who always took notice was L.A. guitarist Nels Cline. “He was one of the most important sonic innovators on any instrument in the last 50 years,” said Cline when he heard of Bailey’s passing. “When I saw him last year in Barcelona, I thanked him for being such a courageous and tenacious seeker, and for making it possible for cowards like me to benefit.”


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