In one of those ironies only possible in music, Buster Bailey’s phenomenal ability as a clarinetist and saxophonist earned him a string of impressive jobs but little opportunities to record as a leader. Starting from his teenaged years touring with WC Handy‘s orchestra, Bailey’s solid “legitimate” technique and high-flying improvisations made him both a sought-after soloist and section man, a shoe-in for posts with King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, John Kirby and later on in life, alongside Louis Armstrong in his All Stars. Bailey either had little time or little need to direct his own ensembles.
Even on the few dates he led during the thirties, Bailey shared solo space with heavy hitters such as Red Allen, JC Higginbotham and Benny Carter. Bailey, acclaimed by legions of jazz musicians, was perhaps too in-demand. Like the best NFL kickers, his role was unique and indispensable but rarely given over to the spotlight.
Whether it was a prescient A&R man or recording session fluke, whatever got Bailey into a studio in May, 1925 to wax two extended solos is nothing short of a gift. With just a small unobtrusive accompaniment of piano and banjo, early on in his career and at a time when many jazz players didn’t get the whole floor (even Armstrong still had to play with a Hot ‘Five’ at this point), it’s a chance to hear Bailey, alone, front and center.
Despite all the room to stretch out, Bailey never becomes unhinged. “Papa De Da Da” moves but Bailey’s solid technique and control are always on top. He dashes off intricate upper register asides like parlor tricks, and moves into a rich lower register like he just happened to have a bass clarinet on the other side of his mouth:
Fats Waller’s’ “Squeeze Me” starts with even more restraint. Bailey knows he has a good melody to stick close to, using it to display let a very personal tone (with a sweet arpeggio blooming in at about 0:52 in the clip below). Bailey’s reedy sound can turn shrill, maybe even a little cold at times, but remains distinct. To really make the track his own, towards the end he adds more of those effortless double-time runs, including an especially ear-popping one right before the tag ending:
Bailey’s style has been described, not unfairly, as mechanical. While he may have lacked Johnny Dodds’ earthy lyricism, Benny Goodman’s slick humor or Sidney Bechet’s imagination, Bailey forged his own style based on the nuts and bolts of his awesome technique. There’s a confidence as well as transparency to Bailey’s playing, a man who’s not afraid to show off the fine stitch work and sophisticated seams of his best suit. When you admire the detail, you can’t blame him for wanting to show it off.
Speaking of showing off, Buster Bailey unplugged and “unhinged,” here: