Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 29 January 1930, Sheffield, Yorkshire; d 25 December 2005, London) Guitarist, composer. From a musical family, he served an apprenticeship 1952-65 in theatres, dance halls, recording sessions, etc; began improvising and became a major artist on the European contemporary scene: listeners persevering with his demanding, abstract music are rewarded with considerable drama and wit. He also played a 19-string guitar, crackle-box and ukulele.

From 1963 to '66 he rehearsed and played in a trio in Sheffield with classically-trained percussionist turned jazz drummer Tony Oxley and bassist Gavin Bryers, who later became a classical composer; they called themselves Joseph Holbrooke after a minor British composer (1878-1958) whose work they never played, and during that period they moved from jazz to completely free improvisation. Bailey worked with John Stephens's Spontaneous Music Ensemble (two discs of Eighty-Five Minutes recorded '74, issued '87 on Emanem, with Stevens, Evan Parker, Kent Carter, Trevor Watts). He formed Incus Records '70 with Parker and Oxley, the first independent in the UK owned by musicians; formed Company '76, an ensemble with changing personnel, but has mostly played solo or duo with selected company such as Parker, Steve Lacy, and Tony Coe. His book Improvisation: Its Nature And Practice In Music '80 has been translated into several languages and a four-part TV documentary was made for Britain's Channel 4, written and presented by Bailey, tracing examples of improv in various cultures.

More than 50 LPs since 1968 included Music Improvisation Company '70, Improvisations For Guitar And Cello '71 with Dave Holland on ECM; First Duo Concert '74 with Anthony Braxton and solo Domestic And Public Pieces '75-7, both on Emanem CDs; Improvisation '75 on Cramps, New Sights, Old Sounds '78 on Morgue; also Duo And Trio Observations '78 on Kitty with Japanese musicians, Yankees '82 on Celluloid, with George Lewis, John Zorn on reeds; View From Six Windows '82 on Metalanguage nominated for a Grammy, solo except for one vocal by Christine Jeffrey. On Incus: The London Concert with Parker, Duo with cellist Tristan Honsinger, Company 1 with Parker and two others, Company 2 with Parker and Braxton, Company 3 with Han Bennink on several instruments; Company 4 with Lacy, all '75-6; Company 5 with Honsinger, Parker, Lacy, Braxton, Leo Smith, bassist Maarten van Regteren-Altena, Company 6 and 7 with Lol Coxhill, Bennink, Steve Beresford, all '77; Fictions '77 with Coxhill, several others; Time '79 with Coe, Fables '80 with Lewis, Parker, Holland; solo Aida '80, others. Music And Dance '80 was a duo with a dancer, live in France with thunder and traffic for 'actual music'. Solo Lace '89 was live in L.A. on an Emanem CD. The Last Wave '95 on DIW was made in Brooklyn with Bill Laswell and Tony Williams. Legend Of The Blood Yeti '97 on Infinite Chug had Bailey, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth (described as 'Free-Noise's pop face') and duo Thirteen Ghosts performing a 'fluid animal thing'. Three-CD The Sign Of Four on Knitting Factory Works had Bailey and Pat Metheny exorcizing their live free-noise demons with a rhythm section of Greg Bendian and Paul Wertico.

He combined the guitar with unique chords, serialism, pedal-operated electronics and anything else that caught his fancy, always after misunderstandings, accidents, passion, indifference, as in a relationship or a conversation. He was never averse to playing with people who had fewer skills, because something interesting might happen. One of his least typical recordings was Ballads, made in 2002 for Zorn's Tzadik label, in which he found new angles and meanings in standards like 'Body And Soul' and 'You Go To My Head'. Three years later he made another solo CD for Tzardik called Carpal Tunnel, on which he could not hold a plectrum but struck the strings with his thumb, achieving a delicacy like that of Japanese koto music. Doctors thought it was carpal tunnel syndrome, but it was the motor neurone disease that soon took his life. Ben Watson's biography was called Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation; a DVD called Derek Bailey: Playing For Friends On 5th Street is an intimate concert from late in 2001. More info at