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British Guitarist Derek Bailey, 1930-2005
Published December 30, 2005

Groundbreaking British guitarist Derek Bailey died of motor neuron disease in London on Christmas Day 2005.

Groundbreaking British guitarist Derek Bailey died of motor neuron disease in London on Christmas Day 2005. Beginning in the mid-1960s, he and a cohort of like-minded players in London and continental Europe, and eventually others in the U.S. and the rest of the world, broke through the boundaries of jazz by embracing free improvisation. Bailey was always interested in exploring the unfamiliar, in playing with people whose backgrounds and styles were as different from his own as possible.

He recorded often in duo settings with drummers, including in his vast discography sessions with Han Bennink, Tony Oxley, Cyro Baptista, Eddie Prevost, Susie Ibarra, Louis Moholo and many others. But he also played with pianist Cecil Taylor, pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, saxophonists John Zorn, Evan Parker and Peter Brotzmann, and too many others to list here. He even recorded two albums with Japanese avant-rock bass-and-drums duo the Ruins. He also co-founded Incus Records, a label that continues to this day, run by his longtime partner Karen Brookman, and was the curator for some years of Company Week, a festival of improvised music where players from vastly different backgrounds and traditions would come and play together, often for the first and/or only time.

Bailey began performing professionally in the 1950s, in dance bands and any other available situation calling for live musicians. He played nightclubs, store openings, parties, and whatever else was available, just as generations of musicians did before recorded music took over as a public entertainment option (jukeboxes, etc.). He knew a repertoire of standards, one he revisited to somewhat shocking and ironic effect on his 2002 CD Ballads. But by the early 1960s, he’d set out on the fully improvised, constantly forward-looking path he would pursue for the rest of his life.

Bailey told Jazziz magazine, “There has to be some degree, not just of unfamiliarity, but incompatibility [with a partner]. Otherwise, what are you improvising for? What are you improvising with or around? You've got to find somewhere where you can work. If there are no difficulties, it seems to me that there's pretty much no point in playing. I find that the things that excite me are trying to make something work. And when it does work, it's the most fantastic thing. Maybe the most obvious analogy would be the grit that produces the pearl in an oyster, or some shit like that."