Obituary: Derek Bailey, 2.1.2006 by David Toop

“But there are different ways of relating to the instrument, aren’t there? I’m a very traditional relater to the instrument. Unless I hold it in a certain way I can’t play it.” This was Derek Bailey, speaking two years ago in his kitchen in east London. Despite his thorough reconstruction of guitar language, Bailey considered himself to be a conventional musician. His holding of the guitar had been shaped over time, determined in the first instance by the priorities of post- war entertainment in which the relationship of performer to audience remained deferentially in service, a doffed cap, downstairs to the upstairs.

In later years, audience initially non-existent, then more or less equal partners in the listening process, the stance prevailed as a constant in the meteorological fluctuations of improvisation. Sometimes he might wander through the musical events in which he found himself, a tall and somewhat bemused anthropologist equipped only with an acoustic guitar for technical support, but his customary pose was seated, feet planted solidly, leaning forward very slightly, head bowed in order to study his left hand with deep concentration. The meeting place of fingers, strings and wood was where the music happened; not in the mind, or any mystical or theoretical place, but in the action of the moment.

How painful it must have been then, to lose this communicative fluency, through which the body rides its own volition, sparking and engaging with others in their moments, moving through unknown intervallic relationships and fractional timbral adjustments. “Sometimes there’s nowhere to put your feet,” Bailey said to me during the same conversation, discussing the need to play with groups in which unfamiliarity was predominant. “It’s like walking across ice floes and it might just disappear and you have to react much quicker, even if the music’s slow. Maybe that’s something to do with playing.”

Playing was Derek Bailey’s blood, food and air. When he was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, a painfully disabling disorder of the hand and wrist, he recorded his struggle to discover a new physical relationship to the guitar. Unable to hold a plectrum, he was forced to play with his thumb. Others would have kept this faltering process behind the closed door of the practice room, but Bailey’s sense of autobiography in his playing had shifted over time from purely sonic content to the anti-drama of a figure on the stage: the whole person caught in a spotlight of his own devising. Like Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, there was the feeling of memory, recording, performative speaking and writing all conflating under the pitiless gaze of age itself.

We can become party to this during the first track of Derek’s CD, Carpal Tunnel, released in 2005 by John Zorn. Bailey begins to play in much the same way as on many previous solo records, yet a faltering imprecision is immediately evident, and breathtaking, as if the sure virtuosity, invention and rightness of the previous forty years has gained sudden clarity and deeper meaning through reflection in a clouded mirror. As he plays, he speaks a letter to a person, thanking her many times for some unknown compliment and explaining the reduced nature of his playing ability. The track is a private letter, perhaps destined never to reach its target yet certain to be heard by many unknown listeners on the way; at the same time it exposes in public the corrosive nature of the disability and its effect on Bailey’s traditional relationship to the instrument. There are echoes of other players forced by their own drive to begin again after serious illness – Roland Kirk for example – or of singers like Billie Holiday who continued to work after the voice was shot. To add further poignancy, the problems of playing were rooted in a far more serious source. Unknown to Bailey, he was suffering the first effects of motor neurone disease. At the age of 75 he died on Christmas Day, at home in London, from complications arising from this illness.

On this and other recordings of what Bailey called ‘chats’, there was very little artifice. His voice is conversational, if a little self c0nscious, and negotiates the guitar in a rudimentary fashion: no fancy counterpoint or dramatic pauses. Co-founder in 1970 with Evan Parker and Tony Oxley of Incus Records, a landmark label in the history of UK independent record production, Bailey had always experimented with channels for publishing: one-off reel to reel tapes in the early 1970s; VHS video tapes that he claimed nobody wanted but released them anyway; CD-Rs with a simple cover and a felt tip scrawl on the disk. Chats is one of the latter, a sequence of open letters to Eugene Chadbourne, Henry Kaiser, Fred Frith, Steve Beresford and others. The way Derek describes this in the first track, “Explanation”, is that he was interested to discover if he could do two things at once. Actually, he does three things at once: talks, plays and takes the piss. Derek could be acerbic, confrontational, sarcastic, recklessly abrasive and outright rude, famously so, and would be disappointed with any obituary that failed to confront the issue.

I asked Steve Beresford, one of the victims of Chats, for his opinion of this side of Derek. “What it reminded me of,” he said, “was an episode of The Larry Sanders Show. There was an old guy who insulted people. Everybody goes up to him and says, please insult me, and he says, go away, I’m too busy. Derek’s insults might have had a grain of truth in them but you couldn’t be hurt by them. At least I’m in his consciousness. He was showbiz, deconstructing show business, and for anybody to be so obsessed with deconstructing show business they have to have come out of show business.”

When I interviewed him for the mid-1980s Channel 4 television series, Chasing Rainbows, Derek discussed his time in the house band with Opportunity Knocks , a long-running British television talent show. “Wow, that was revealing,” he said. “It was a totally professional show. I liked the way they hoodwinked the public.” Off-camera (the host of the show, Hughie Green was still alive at that time), he revealed that Green, the family entertainer, used to describe the famous Clapometer that registered audience applause as the Wankerphone. Much of Bailey’s scepticism, or cynicism, about the sacred cows of entertainment – the communion of audience and performers, for example – was formed in the days when he played in variety shows and television with stars such as Shirley Bassey and Russ Conway. “Even now,” he said, “I don’t want to believe that the worse it is, the better they like it, but there’s an awful lot of evidence pointing that way.”

There is a misunderstanding, however, frequently aired by journalists, rabid music fans and the most lofty academics, that musicians they consider experimental or ‘progressive’ have a contemptuous relationship to commercial music. Invariably, this is a reflection of the snobbery of the non-musician. One assumption about Derek Bailey’s two part career is that free improvisation was a passport to freedom, liberating him from the prison of musical forms that were cheap, mediocre, nakedly commercial, at best kitsch. The issue was far more complicated than this. During a conversation in 1992, the subject of economics came up between us, and its role in pressurising musicians to standardise.

“If I’d carried on being a commercial musician,” said Bailey, “I’d have been made redundant by now.” At one point his ideal job had been to take the place of guitarist Oscar Moore in the Nat King Cole Trio, but since that chair was filled admirably by Moore, then usurped by string orchestras, making a living was the only serious option. During the Chasing Rainbows interview, he described this period as “wanting to be a black jazz man in south Yorkshire . . . hopeless, from an employment point of view.” The alternative was working in provincial dance halls, where, as he said, “the criminal classes were well represented – they attended almost religiously.”

In 1992, he related a conversation with the brother of his partner, Karen Brookman. “I was telling him,” said Bailey, “what I’d really like is to carry on doing exactly what I like doing, and for it to be useful. It wasn’t to play some useful music, but to play something that somebody would find useful. One of the things I used to like about working in the dance halls, in the small groups, where you had total freedom really as regards what you played within what you knew what to play. I didn’t want to play free in those days but I wanted to play some stuff. Largely it would be jazz related thing but it wasn’t only jazz. It would be all kinds of funny stuff. People used to make tunes up on the spot in that game. You’re working in a quartet, you go on at 3 o’ clock and you’ve got 45 minutes to play, and there’s nobody in the dance hall at all. You’ve got to play for that 45 minutes, so depending on the management and your knowledge of the situation, you can play anything at all. When jazz waltzes came in, in the 1950s, we used to play jazz waltzes for 45 minutes just to get used to it. There was a type of playing that went on that I was totally into. Retrospectively, I think it was a perfect situation because whatever we did was musical wallpaper. We couldn’t even offend the dancers because they never expected anything from us. If the big band had done it they’d immediately complain. The dancers went for a cup of tea when we were on. You could do anything that you liked, but you were useful.”

Clearly, there was a nascent methodology here that was given the opportunity to evolve in the Joseph Holbrooke Trio, the group formed in 1963 in Sheffield by Bailey, Tony Oxley on drums and Gavin Bryars on bass. In his notes for the forthcoming Tzadik release of Joseph Holbrooke Trio: The Moat Studio Recordings, Bryars writes about the rehearsal ideas examined by the group, including a device of playing modally but allowing a soloist to take as many choruses as they wished. This seems an extension of the practice of using a sparsely attended set to learn how to play jazz waltzes, as well as confirming Bailey’s professed dislike of jazz after bebop, a reaction to the strictly regulated, overdetermined characteristics of hard bop.

Derek was inclined to dismiss most theories that claimed to locate the origins of free improvised music with any one group or individual player, but he could be persuaded to discuss the various forms of music that contributed to its emergence. One major strand - the ecstatic expressionism of free jazz - seemed to interest him very little. Although capable of making a lot of noise, he was wary of music being used as an emotional gusher, an expression of power and endurance. Other strands of music fed into improvisation: Anton Webern, Erik Satie, Morton Feldman, John Cage, electro-acoustic composition and live electronics, along with the kind of jazz in which formal experimentation pointed towards various kinds of freedom, even if the final step was never taken. Derek would sometimes talk about Herbie Nichols, whose compositions of the mid-1950s were more like obsessive, maddening puzzles than the customary romanticism of the piano trio. Others who pushed (though sometimes with fingertip pressure) at the language of jazz from the late 1940s until the early 1960s included Charles Mingus, Chico Hamilton’s groups, Cecil Taylor, Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz, George Russell, Walt Dickerson, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Joe Harriott, Paul Bley, and the Bill Evans Trio.

Reading the trio’s accounts of the group in Bailey’s book, Improvisation: its nature and practice in music, and listening to the rehearsal extract released on Incus as Joseph Holbrooke ’65, reveals their focus on a cooler music of ideas, extrapolated initially from musical conventions rather than the immersion in sound of contemporaneous AMM, or the gestural energy of free jazz.

I asked Gavin Bryars about these strands of experimentalism, their significance for the group, and Derek’s lifelong work of exploring intervals rather than developing a facility for fast runs. “I don't know whether it's any more than a coincidence that what you call ‘jazz experimentalism’ appears around the same time, early to mid-60s, as post-Cage experimentalism, late 60s into early 70s,” he answered. “There were, of course, some people who overlapped such as Cornelius [Cardew] playing with AMM. Derek subsequently disliked any allusion to jazz in reference to his own work.

“But it is true that the kinds of jazz we related to in Joseph Holbrooke grew out of the Bill Evans 1959-61 Trio, especially the Village Vanguard sessions, and I would see Bill Evans having strong connections with Lennie Tristano. You probably know too, in fact, that the three of us accompanied Lee Konitz on a tour in 1966. There was not a great deal of interest in Chico Hamilton although certain things in Gabor Szabo's sound could be close to Derek at times.

“He got very interested in close intervals - I can still see his hand making the awkward stretch to voice minor ninth chords - and this was something in Bill Evans’s left hand voicings. But he was also interested in Webern, especially the Piano Variations and this affected the way he approached things melodically, and, by extension, harmonically, once you put those melodic intervals into vertical alignment.”

These connections may have tasted bitter to jazz fans who refused to accept the implications inherent in the music they loved, but they existed for anybody who listened at a deeper level. Bassist Chuck Israels, who replaced Scott LaFaro in the Bill Evans Trio had this to say about a 16 measure chorus played by Evans in his 1959 version of “When I Fall in Love”: “Bill thinks it’s one of the most disjointed things he’s ever recorded, but I think it’s a masterpiece of modern musical construction. The rhythmic freedom on that, the uses of little Webern-like snatches, made me realize the connection between that music and jazz. When you talk about it like that it sounds so academic, but it sounded so natural when Bill played it.”

Something similar might be said about Derek. For the notes written for Pieces For Guitar, recorded in 1966 and 1967 and released by John Zorn in 2002, he revealed his obsession with Webern during the mid-1960s: “The library close to where I was living had the recordings made by Robert Kraft of Webern’s compositions,” he wrote. “Not an enormous corpus. I copied them onto a single reel of tape and played it almost daily.” Hearing Webern’s Variations for piano, Op. 27, the tension of its intervals and silences, is like an eerie pre-echo of Bailey solo recordings such as New Sights, Old Sounds, produced by Aquirax Aida in 1978, Incus Taps, the rare 1973 recordings reissued by Organ of Corti, or the exquisitely muted Lot 74, released as Incus 12 in 1974. On the other hand, as Chuck Israels said of Bill Evans, “it sounded so natural”; what Bailey added was a burred, blunt aggression on Incus Taps , quickness and a floating aura of feedback on Lot 74, layered complexity and a profound sense of intimacy, sense of place, on New Sights, Old Sounds.

Whatever their differences, silence is central to these recordings, a reminder that in studying the works of Cage during the Joseph Holbrooke period, Gavin Bryars had encountered Cage’s book, Silence, and begun to play with lower and lower volume. “The music started from silence,” said Tony Oxley, interviewed for Derek’s book. “It didn’t start from the rhythm section ‘getting it on’. It started from what we accept as silence.”

Focusing so closely on Derek’s solo recordings is contradictory, because of his commitment to group improvisation, yet inevitable because of its pivotal role in his development as a player. His own attitude to solo playing was ambivalent. During a conversation in 2003, I raised issues of vulnerability that can show up in improvisation. “Now I think you’re talking about, or thinking about, solo playing,” he said. “I think that’s totally different, it’s almost a different category. It’s playing, for sure, and certain sides of playing probably show up more in solo playing than in group playing. And the reverse is certainly true. It’s true, it’s vulnerable. It’s a dicey business and in some way I think it’s disgusting. I spend most of my time doing it nowadays. Solo playing can be alright, can be enjoyable, but it’s usually for some ulterior motive, I think, stimulated by something. Paul Rutherford used to play these stream of consciousness solos, just dribbling on, and I used to love it. I thought he was a great solo player. It was like one voice, on its own, lonely, trying to find out where the fuck it was going.

“I used to play to nobody at the Little Theatre Club. It was the only place I could play. I was trying out some things like some electric stuff and maybe stereo and stuff. Anyway, when you’ve carted an amplifier up four flights of stairs you’re not going to not play, right? There were a number of reasons why I started playing solo and part of it was to work out some kind of music. One of the reasons I got into regular solo playing was through John Stevens, because when the SME imploded to a duo he used to say to me, why don’t you play solo opposite. That was kind of an interesting period. Initially with Evan and later with Trevor. Again, that was provoked from some outside source, although I was already, as you know, hauling everything up there to play solo to nobody. So it was good to be playing to two musicians who were waiting to play.”

This was amusing to both of us, since I remember hearing Derek play his solo electric set-up at the Little Theatre Club, in one of the gigs organised by John Stevens. Maybe Derek was playing opposite the minimalist duo of John and Trevor Watts, or maybe I was one of the two musicians waiting to play. He played with that familiar stance, one foot on a volume pedal, the other on a Fuzz Face pedal, used to increase volume and add a slight roughness to the sound, rather than imposed as an effect. The volume pedal was crucial in the early days, because it allowed Derek to play electric guitar as if it were either breath controlled, off to on; with a hard attack, full on, like percussion; or at full volume generating feedback sustain.

The squeezed sound of the volume pedal can be heard (the pedal can also be seen, on the cover photograph) on The Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s Karyobin. Alongside AMM’s AMMUSIC, this is one of the breakthrough records for free improvisation in Britain. Within this fluid, delicate context, in which instruments slip through quickened air, only the most subtle control of minutia could survive the precision and balance of the ensemble. Many of the conversations between myself and Derek would gravitate towards John Stevens and the SME. Bailey was constant and generous in his praise for Stevens. “He’s still completely underrated, is John,” he said to me two years ago, “because nobody realises he invented a group music and that’s very rare.”

He used to wonder why John didn’t pursue total improvisation with more commitment, or why he failed to make more of an impact outside the UK. “When he was really totally involved he did take a lot of shit,” said Derek. “I think he’s quite sensitive. It seemed to bother him. We did a broadcast once for Jazz Club on the BBC and we did a suite of his which was called Seeing Sounds and Hearing Colours. Humphrey Lyttleton came up and said, ‘Can we have a little chat about this?’ and John talked seriously to him about it. Then during the broadcast, Lyttleton says, ‘Now the Spontaneous Music Ensemble,’ leaving a pause for sniggers, ‘will perform a piece which John Stevens tells me is called Seeing Sounds and Hearing Colours. Personally I think it was something he ate.’ This was the fucking announcement.”

A new mood of militancy and self-organisation was evident by 1970, the tone of it audible on the first Incus release, The Topography of the Lungs, featuring Bailey, Evan Parker and drummer Han Bennink. Aside from being a rumbling, spurting monster of a record, barbarous enough to transmit fatal indigestion on to the Humphrey Lytteltons of the period, it signified a new European consciousness that Stevens never quite managed to embrace. One track is dedicated to Peter Brötzmann and Peter Kowald; in the same year Bailey recorded with Han, Misha Mengelberg, and John Tchicai for the Dutch label, ICP, and in the previous year all three of them had taken part in the sessions for Brötzmann’s album, Nipples, released on the German FMP label.

Acrimonious personal feuds, historical revisionism and poor scholarship have since obscured the complex interactions of this period, but at the time, the impact of these players, all different but all working to a more or less common aim, was like the weight of a wrecking ball hitting the side of a municipal building. Bailey’s duo performances with Han Bennink in London in the early 1970s were shocking, hilarious and frightening, and no matter what he said in the last years of his life, his partnership with Evan Parker produced astonishingly close and complex music.

What I shall miss, apart from the chance to hear Derek play live, along with the Incus records that arrived at intervals accompanied by one of Derek’s amusing and self-deprecating letters, is the conversations, particularly those telephone calls that began with a practical enquiry and quickly wandered into the great forest of stories, those seemingly trivial anecdotes that create a memory structure for the transient, insecure lives of working musicians. Derek’s capacity to digress from his digressions, though always sharp with a final point, echoed the structuring of his music. After years of working with comics such as Bob Monkhouse and Morecambe and Wise, Derek had learned the subtle arts of deadpan, timing and punchline; some of these oblique approaches to a question can still make me laugh out loud. In 1994 I interviewed him about Company Week, an institution of 17 years that he had decided to curtail.

Company was a particularly interesting area of Derek’s work, since it exposed to scrutiny the idea that musicians of all kinds could play together in public without prior discussion and without necessarily knowing the first thing about each other. Unsurprisingly, it could work beautifully or be truly grotesque. My own experiences as a player in Company were not, as they say, in the comfort zone: a Company Week grouped in the funny farm with Tristan Honsinger, Toshinori Kondo and Charlie Morrow, which was intermittently hysterical, and a one-off with Tony Coe and Howard Riley, which made me think that Derek would have paired Link Wray with Art Tatum, given the opportunity. In the latter case, I’m sure I felt what many others have considered in similar circumstances: at least I can play with Derek.

Whatever the results, the enterprise was clearly very demanding. Solicitously I asked, are you worn out by the job of organising it? "I once saw this television film about Lowry, the painter," Derek replied. "He was about 87 at the time. Right at the end of his life they made this film, and he'd stopped painting. The interviewer said to him, 'Why have you stopped painting, Mr. Lowry?' and he said, 'I'm sick of it'.”

Then came the second answer: “But it's not that. There are a number of contributory reasons. I think the main one is like this. One of the central things about Company, without being too . . . something . . . about it, is it's a kind of celebration of the impermanence of playing. Nothing lasts for ever and most things last hardly any time at all, but it's come to seem as though Company was going on for fucking ever." Maybe Derek Bailey seemed to be going on for fucking ever, renewing himself by walking on the ice floes, but nothing lasts for ever and most things last hardly any time at all. “Live and invent,” Samuel Beckett wrote in Malone Dies. “I have tried.”

© David Toop
Used by permission.
Originally appeared in The Wire