Buster Bailey ended his long tenure with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra two years earlier yet plays with the fire of a young freelancer on “Some Of These Days” with Dave Nelson and The King’s Men. Just listen here for Clive Heath’s beautiful restoration of this very rare record.
Bailey shapes a swinging yet otherwise straightforward arrangement with a virtual catalog of obbligatos: tongue-in-cheek seesaw patterns alongside the saxes on the first chorus, low register, low volume counterpoint under Nelson’s vocal and wails behind the full band for the finale. Aside from the leader, Bailey is also the only soloist to get an entire chorus to himself; precious real estate on a three-minute 78!
As Scott Yanow put it, Bailey had a “wicked” sense of humor and sounded as though he were trying to rip his instrument a part. He may not have been as warm as Johnny Dodds or Benny Goodman or as instantly recognizable as Sidney Bechet or William Thornton Blue. Yet Bailey’s sleek, cutting tone is well suited to his rapid-fire improvisations. A classically trained musician with a monster technique, whose colleagues insisted he could have played for a symphony if he were white, Bailey just may have had something to prove. He may have also merely delighted in the scales, arpeggios, intervals and runs that form the foundation of a solid clarinet technique, the same way an expert watchmaker appreciates finely crafted cogs and springs or a painter appreciates the brushstrokes as much as the images of a portrait. The term “technician,” often applied to Bailey, doesn’t necessarily require “cold” before it.
Following Bailey’s solo, the leader’s trumpet provides a cool contrast to Bailey’s heat, alto saxist Glyn Paque and pianist Sam Allen split a chorus and then a brief clam by one of the tenor saxophones provides another bit of timbral contrast. From there, Bailey continues to accompany and energize the band before all at once before reaffirming why the last chorus is often called a “shout chorus.”
He dominates four of this side’s six choruses, something hard to imagine earlier on in Henderson’s star-studded orchestra or later on in John Kirby’s tightly arranged sextet. Assorted pickup dates of the early thirties with Nelson, Noble Sissle, Bubber Miley, Mills Blue Rhythm Band and others are great opportunities to hear Bailey stretch out. Never expecting him to be an innovator or even an artist, Bailey’s various bosses knew he had plenty to offer. No “sideman” ever did the term prouder.
I believe that in the early years of the previous century a BUSTER was something spectacular — hence young Mister Keaton’s nickname after he took a tremendous fall in vaudeville. So William Bailey picked up that powerful nickname early on (perhaps also to avoid being called BILL BAILEY?) and he deserved it. If you see his recording history, it’s clear he was the clarinetist you’d call on for reading, ensemble, and fearless improvisation.This continued into the Thirties: he was a John Hammond favorite and recorded with Bob Howard, Red Allen, blues singers for Decca, and more. Thanks, as always, for writing a Buster of a post.
Well said, Michael. Thanks for reading, and for your kind words!
Further to your point about Bailey’s versatility, if you or any other readers can tell me if Bailey played lead alto on any recordings, I would be grateful.
I always wondered how Buster ended up recording with the lush-toned, semiclassical string ensemble The New Friends of Rhythm. His technique was classically fine but his tone was anything but – somber and dry. Their other clarinet guest, Hank D’Amico, was much more simpatico with the group.
It’s funny you mention D’Amico, because I am now reading Arthur Rollini’s autobiography and he praises D’Amico as a clarinetist (while saying he played “poor alto sax”). Anyway, maybe they wanted that contrast. Personally I like those dry, oboe-like “French-toned” clarinetists with string ensembles.
Buster does haunt my very soul on a gorgeous piece of impressionism by the Friends called “The Mood in Question.” One of his few out and out ballad excursions, it was redone by Artie Shaw in about 1950, but it just wasn’t the same.