About ten dollars and eleven pages worth of bookshelf space is a small price for pedagogy by one of your favorite musicians. So I didn’t hesitate to grab my credit card when I saw Buster Bailey’s edition of the Feist All-Star Series of Modern Rhythm Choruses on eBay:
The same friend who revealed the availability of this volume also explained how Feist would invite some of the biggest names in popular music of the swing era to perform Feist-owned tunes at their studio, then transcribe those solos for young fans who were eager to play like the pros. A glance at the back cover and some help from Google revealed the wide selection of instructional legends-to-be offered by Feist:
Initially I planned on doing copious research to find out more about when these books were printed, how Feist selected and transcribed the solos, what the musicians may have thought about the work and whether any of their solos could be found on other recordings.
Then, it occurred to me: since most of the original purchasers were probably geeking out at the thought of owning something straight from the minds and fingers of Bunny, Hawk, Pee Wee and others, why not stay historically accurate and take a moment to gawk at what Buster Bailey made?
The publishers describe Bailey’s tone and technique as “academic,” referring to Bailey’s extensive classical schooling. Critics would later dismiss Bailey as “academic” in the sense of studied and impractical, calling him a skilled technician unsuited to the serious expressive work of jazz music. Yet after reading this foreword, and holding a published set of transcriptions by none other than Bailey himself, that particular criticism seems stranger than ever when applied to a musician who remained steadily employed with some of the most influential names in jazz over a fifty-year career.
I haven’t had a chance to run through these solos to see how they compare to the sound of Bailey on record. There’s nothing notationally strange on paper, which suits Bailey’s clean, transparent style. The seesawing lines and sudden upper-register syncopations look like they’re part of his aesthetic. Yet transcription can be a difficult process, which even in its most precise moments might still miss the personal inflections and rhythmic nuances that make a jazz solo distinct. Besides that, who knows if Bailey was phoning it in to make a quick buck?
For me, even Bailey trying to make a buck is worth a listen. Whether it’s for educational or commercial purposes, prepackaged or woodshedded, transcription always comes down to hero worship. That’s probably why the Feist series started in the first place, or why Charlie Parker Omnibooks are still selling and Jamey Aebersold is so busy. Overtly this was an educational purchase, but the truth is, I’m a fan. Yet that’s okay, because Buster Bailey knew that and left something for his fans.
Sure, why not?