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Derek Bailey, avant-garde guitarist

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Ben Watson looks at the life and work of guitarist Derek Bailey who died at Christmas.
Issue 1983
Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey

Derek Bailey, born in Abbeydale, Sheffield, in 1930, died in the early hours of 25 December in Clapton, east London. In his 75 years, he made a name for himself as the most fastidious and intransigent member of the musical avant-garde.

He questioned every cliche of the music industry. His dry, determinate guitar notes — the opposite of the blur and twang associated with rock — have become highly prized, even by the likes of rock band Sonic Youth.

His insistence that improvisation is the wellspring of musical creativity was a polemic against the classical score and chart pop. For Bailey, music wasn’t about buying records or downloading files, it was about active playing. He rewrote the rules of music from the point of view of the working musician.

Bailey grew up in an era when jazz was inseparable from pop music. His early inspiration was Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman’s guitarist.

Bailey learned his trade by ear, accompanying showbiz acts such as Winifred Atwell, and Morecambe and Wise. He emerged as a top session player. However, keenly aware of the new, free music pioneered by Bill Evans and John Coltrane, he maintained a distance from the commercial scene.

In Sheffield in the early 1960s, playing with Tony Oxley on drums and Gavin Bryars on bass, he developed a way of playing jazz that was full of pregnant pauses and explosive eruptions.

When he relocated to London and found kindred spirits, the music found a name — “free improvisation” — and a politics. This was musician’s music, violently opposed to the corporate labels and their attempt to shape all musics in the mould of the pop explosion.

Bailey was probably the most fluent and skillful guitarist of his generation. His decision to keep playing countless gigs in unprestigious venues, where no backstage pass was necessary for a chat or an invitation to play, made him highly influential among the next generation.

The US singer Eugene Chadbourne learned from his example, fusing free improvisation with political songmaking in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Tom Lehrer.

Whereas the political statements of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen have always been tainted by their collusion with the music industry, Bailey showed Chadbourne the way to a more convincing anti-capitalist stance.

In the late 1990s, Bailey was championed by John Zorn, whose economic clout allowed him to realise some amazing Bailey releases. These were Harras, Viper, Mirakle, and the last release on Tzadik, referencing the Motor Neurone disease which killed him, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

However, his most extraordinary late work was released on his own label, Incus. Called Limescale, it found Bailey surrounded by younger musicians and revelling in their rap-influenced rhythmic urgencies. Capitalism embalms successful artists in cliches which betray their real intent. Bailey never allowed that to happen. For this alone, his work is worth exploring.

Ben Watson’s biography Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation is published by Verso. Frankfurter Ahnung, a CD just out from Sonic Arts curated by Watson, includes two Bailey tracks

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