Louis Armstrong’s entry into Fletcher Henderson’s big band is well established as a watershed moment in jazz history. Almost as well accepted is the fact that before he became the most influential artist in jazz history, Armstrong was a crowd-pleasing, critically acclaimed sideman, but a sideman nonetheless. Apparently he was even susceptible to bandstand politics. Speaking of Armstrong’s reaction to reedman Buster Bailey joining the band shortly after his arrival, James L. Dickerson notes that “he was annoyed at the [actual] reason Henderson wanted Bailey, which was to add another solo instrument to the group.”
Bailey’s lightning fast technique has earned him the reputation of being more of a technician than a soulful jazz musician, yet the music itself evidences a talent that must have aroused that special blend of admiration and suspicion among artists. On a peppy “My Rose Marie,” the arrangement gives Armstrong a designated hot chorus all to himself and he fulfills his role magnificently. Bailey on the other hand takes his own limelight, jackknifing in with a dazzling obbligato behind the band during the last chorus:
The acoustic recording makes it a little difficult to hear Bailey, which just adds to the tension between ensemble and individual, written parts and improvised licks, lead and counterpoint. Yet Bailey is there, on his own terms, playing with the listener’s expectations.
By 1924, at age twenty-two, Bailey was already a seasoned musician, having joined WC Handy’s orchestra as a teenager before gigging with blues and jazz star Mamie Smith and then King Oliver, where he first met Armstrong. Playing in Oliver’s band, Bailey must have honed his skill at providing the fast upper-register lines around the lead crucial to the New Orleans ensemble concept. Compared with frequent Oliver clarinetist Johnny Dodds and other New Orleans ensemble clarinetists, there is a busier, more penetrating approach to Bailey’s lines, as much informed by Bailey’s classical studies as his own “wicked” sense of humor.
Bailey never derails the Henderson band but rarely sticks to mere decoration. Fast, straight-ahead jazz numbers such as “Copenhagen” find Bailey soloing within the ensemble, rather than between or on top of it like Armstrong:
The peaks of Bailey’s phrases are easy to hear, hooks to grab onto before the next dizzying plunge. Even as Armstrong began to bring a new sense of ease and cohesion to jazz, Bailey insists on a peculiar intensity that remains unique to jazz of this period/style. Just compare Bailey’s second solo and then Armstrong’s right after it on “Twelfth Street Blues”:
Even alongside Armstrong’s towering presence, repeated and open-eared listening to Bailey reveals another player integrating his own influences into a deeply personal style: facile but proud to sweat, unashamedly “vertical,” energetic and mesmerizing in its jittery poise.
Armstrong himself would later refer to Bailey as “the great clarinetist and alto saxophonist,” implying an appreciation for his talents as both a clarinet soloist and a section man. Dickerson also points out that Armstrong was still “happy to see another Midwesterner” join the Henderson band and that the two would eventually became good friends. We can now admire Armstrong’s magnanimity and even forgive his youthful competitiveness, but it’s no surprise that Armstrong, and not to mention fellow Hendersonian and future “father of jazz saxophone Coleman Hawkins, were eyeing the tall, smirking gentleman from Memphis coming up behind them.
And Bailey spent his final playing time — not long — as a member of Louis’ All Stars in 1967. A whimsical sweet closing of the circle, perhaps.
Indeed. I guess a little friendly competition can be a good thing. Now if only I could have found a damned picture of the two of them side by side!
Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi has some very high praise for Bailey’s playing with the All Stars in his book, by the way.