Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation

By Ben Watson
Verso Books

by Ken Waxman

October 1, 2004

Endlessly inventive as an improviser and a superb organizer, guitarist Derek Bailey is also opinionated, combative, passively aggressive, dogmatic and often self-satisfied. Still, the 74-year-old Sheffield, England-born Bailey is pretty much at Ground Zero when it comes to discussing Free Music, at least in its British manifestation.

London-based critic Ben Watson attempts to explain both the man and his music in this volume. Yet Watson also tries for much more than standard biographical, chronological and discographical fact gathering. He not only ponders Free Music’s place among other, more commercial musics, but also tries to show how experimental sounds reflect musicians’ liberation from what he sees as a class-ridden, capitalist society.

A fascinating read for most of its 443 pages plus index, Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation offers impressive insights as well as infuriating opinions. Besides tying together the various strands of history that created Free Music almost a half-century ago, Watson interprets many of the events according to his variant of humanistic socialism. Understand that this is likely the first serious, yet anecdotal book on jazz and improvised music to come from a Marxist perspective since Frank Kofsky’s John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s. As Watson writes at one point, “Free Improvisation … is the manifestation of socialist revolution in music — practical, collective, anti-ideological and humanist”.

There are times however when Watson’s admitted bias results in some conclusions that are more discordant than a Free Music solo. Most off-putting is when his criticism of careerism takes in such hitherto unconnected players as pioneering fusion guitarist John McLaughlin and uncompromising saxophonist Evan Parker — once a close associate of Bailey now estranged. Both these two and many other players are suspect it seems, because they refuse to accept in toto Bailey’s singular theories that the basis of Free Music is selfless collective improvisation.

Born in a lower working class family in 1930, Bailey was a dance band and studio musician at a time in Britain when that sort of music-making was considered a craft rather than art — rather like being a pipe fitter or a blacksmith. Someone who says he probably played every night of the week at one job or another from 1955 to 1968, the guitarist’s no-nonsense work ethnic has carried over into Free Music. As he tells Watson: “I’ve never thought I could do anything — what I do now or playing commercial music — unless I did it full-time”.

Although satisfied as a pre-rock commercial musician, Bailey admits he was still looking for a way to express himself more creatively and was constantly woodshedding during that period. Although he has had a lifelong admiration for American guitarist Charlie Christian’s advances, because of circumstances, he never described himself as a jazz musician. British jazzers couldn’t play the music full-time, he notes, and that was a violation of Bailey’s working class ethos.

In a perverse way it was the advent of Beatlemania that drove Bailey and others to Free Music. No longer did a commercial musician have the freedom to interpret popular songs his own way; they had to sound exactly as they did on the record. At about that point, Bailey, and two younger Sheffield musicians, student bassist Gavin Bryars — now a certified composer of so-called serious music — and Tony Oxley — who later on was house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s famous London jazz club — started searching for their own path.

Impressed by the advances of such Free Jazz stylists as John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and Scott LaFaro, in 1965 they formed the co-operative Joseph Holbrooke Trio, named for an early Cockney composer. In short order they went from playing conventional jazz, to playing an English variant of Free Jazz, to outlining the first stirring of what could be called Free Music.

Later Bailey and Oxley moved to London and began interacting and exchanging ideas with other early BritImprov experimenters such as drummer John Stevens, trombonist Paul Rutherford and saxophonists Trevor Watts and Parker.

It’s at this point where the book’s chronology and Watson’s analysis breaks down somewhat. Claims and counter claims about which musician developed which way of playing that was later accepted as Free Improv, divided and continues to divide certain parts of the Free Music world. Certainly the supposed free spirit of the 1960s when previously experimental groups like Soft Machine and Pink Floyd had best selling records encouraged everyone, including journeymen like McLaughlin — whose breakthrough fusion LP, Extrapolation, featured Oxley — to try new things. And major record companies even recorded them. Anyone who nowadays collects Free Music on weirdly distributed CDs on tiny labels can attest to how things have changed.

But Bailey has remained constant in his collectivist ideas — at least as he sees it. Despite being part of various playing situations with those men and many other contemporary musical explorers, Bailey was and is a Free Music purist, and the author describes the guitarist “formulating his theory of permanent improvisation”, a resonance simulacrum Leon Trotsky’s slogan of “permanent revolution”. Always seeking more freedom and less structure, Bailey is now capable of describing 1968’s Karyobin, one of the first certified British Free Music classics — and one on which he played — as in retrospect sounding like “Whitey Free Jazz”.

Bailey has also peevishly insisted on the irrefutable difference between European Free Music and American Free Jazz, which seems a bit perverse as years go on. However, this hasn’t stopped him over time from collaborating with American musicians firmly in the jazz sphere including saxophonists Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton and Lee Konitz plus bassist William Parker and pianist Cecil Taylor.

As Bailey’s biographer, who constantly interviewed and consulted with the guitarist over a three-year period as this volume was being written, Watson is also a little too accepting of the guitarist’s POV. Bailey’s stated role as a working class bloke from the provinces who just happened to stumble upon a way of playing that satisfies him and is somehow accepted by a few other intelligent fans, seems a bit louche.

After all Bailey has played literally thousands of gigs throughout the world and has been featured on hundreds of discs over the years. He, Oxley and Parker founded Incus, the first British Free Music record label in 1970, which he continues to run today. In 1980 he turned a series of programs he produced for the BBC’s Radio 3 into the book Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, and this seminal volume is still in print and has been updated, republished and translated into other languages.

More importantly for Free Music’s dissemination, from 1977 to 1994, first regularly, then sporadically, Bailey organized Company Weeks. These musical free-for-alls, were concerts featuring mix-and-match combinations of any number of advanced jazzers, boho classical types and dissatisfied rockers playing Free Music. Bailey recorded and released the resulting either spectacular or disappointing admixture on Incus.

Little of Bailey’s adult personal history is included — we only learn in passing that he has been in three serious relationships. More seriously, Watson, who can report exactly what V. I. Lenin said about keeping useless people off the editorial board of the newspaper Iskra in 1903 — incidentally the name of another Bailey co-op trio — discloses the guitarist’s ongoing animosity towards Parker without ever probing the reason for the break. Even Bailey admits that “a lot of my relationships have sundred at the point where somebody thought I was using them.”

Maddeningly as well, the author mostly defines Bailey’s improvisation in terms of what it isn’t, rather than what it is. He writes that “Bailey’s cool and precise — yet piercing and aggressive — tone denies the generic associations and pleasures previously associated with the electric guitar”. And later: “The guitar playing of Bailey sabotages merely sonic pleasures, redirecting attention to the totality of the music. With Bailey, a guitar note is not an end in itself, but a purposeful contribution to musical development — a question.” For Watson as well, Free Music “articulates the values of socialism as against those of capitalism: life lived as a dialectical contribution to human history, rather then cowering in positive and defended comfort.”

Part of Watson’s challenge may be Bailey outwardly taciturn blandness. In critical situations, as when listening to CDs for The Wire’s Invisible Jukebox — reprinted in the book —, the guitarist refuses to offer anything but non-committal praise for any musician and music he hears, only relenting when he extravagantly revels in the music of — surprise! — Charlie Christian.

Luckily Watson hasn’t settled for the superficial. Doing his research, he has gone through masses of published articles and interviewed other observers, including not only Oxley and Bryars, but also a fan who was at most Joseph Holbrooke gigs. Bailey will probably be shocked to find the fellow describe the music as “really swinging hard … very powerful like listening to the [Count] Basie band”.

To offer other perspectives on Bailey’s sounds, Watson reprints his own and others’ reviews of important Bailey discs and gigs. Though it must be said he seems to prefer those who praise Bailey rather than those who damn him. Finally, as someone who personally attended many Company Weeks and was present at many other Bailey playing situations Watson offers his own perspective on what did and didn’t work in those situations. Again, not surprisingly though, it most often appears to the author that Bailey’s improvisations were the saving grace in most awkward musical circumstances.

Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation is invaluable for the way in which Watson situates Bailey’s conception and musicality within the worldwide jazz, classical and pop scenes of the past 40-odd years. Admirable too is his analysis of the many Bailey projects that took place while the guitarist was, in Watson’s words “waiting for the rest of the world to catch up”.

Until someone else with investigative reporting skills and, hopefully no academic or polemical axes to grind, deals with the other major British Free Music figures in as great depth, this book will remain a primary source for understanding improvised music from that country.

Bailey’s sometime perverse music and Free Improvisation itself are precious and memorable for another reason. Watson articulates it at great length near the end of this volume:

“In the late capitalist era, the ability to supply ‘quality product’ has become the assumed aim of everyone, from manufacturers of chicken tika to suppliers of industry-friendly graduate students. The ideology of commodity production means that everything must serve the needs of the accumulation of capital, or be decried as useless, self-indulgent and anti-social. In such circumstances, it’s no surprise that ‘perversity’ has become a word for what the bourgeoisie promised us in its early, heroic, revolutionary epoch: freedom.”