I don’t usually celebrate jazz birthdays. Then again, Buster Bailey would have turned 114 today, and there is “Log Cabin Blues,” featuring Bailey with Clarence Williams’s Washboard Five:
He’s witty in response to Ed Allen’s cornet, pensive in solo and tasteful in his obbligato around Allen’s lead in the last choruses. Throughout, he crafts in earthy scoops, baroque runs, brilliant execution and a sense of nervous animation: every note seems to spiral in place, every run pushes at the beat, not quite like Bailey is fighting the ground rhythm but more like he’s teasing it. Clarence Williams’s band, with Allen, tubaist Cyrus St. Clair, percussionist Floyd Casey and Williams’s piano and spare but smart arrangements, always makes for glorious jazz.
That’s all in a little over three minutes! I guess a little recognition is okay. Happy birthday to the late Buster Bailey.
The twenties can now seem very far away, yet “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” from a session led by Bobby Donaldson for the Savoy label back in 1958, might make them feel as distant as the Pleistocene era. The arrangement features a deliberate, downright stereotypical “Dixieland” instrumentation and approach, with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli plucking a banjo, Al Lucas swapping his string bass for tuba and drummer Donaldson tapping on rims. Rex Stewart and Emmett Berry even get to whinny through their horns on the introduction and coda, a throwback to the onomatopoeic “nut jazz” of the teens.
Ostensibly a feature for Buster Bailey, it all makes for a wickedly nostalgic trip back to jazz’s formative years that must have given the notoriously smartass clarinetist a giggle. He puffs away, tone smooth to a point well beyond soggy, delivering the first chorus with a satirical straightforwardness before sailing into more honest improvisation in the second one.
Bailey was the eldest member of the group, four years older than trombonist Vic Dickenson and twenty-four years Pizzarelli’s senior, yet he wasn’t the only one to remember actually playing in bands where banjos and tuba were not just present but very effective. Playing with the likes of June Cole, Ralph Escudero and the indomitable Cyrus St. Clair, Bailey had felt the heft and punch of a gifted tuba player. Lucas seems to have only ever played tuba on record for this tune and a lone “Caravan” from an Illinois Jacquet date ten years later. To Lucas’s credit, his stubbornly ponderous roots and fifths and potbellied tone add their own ambience. Whether or not he was a “good” tubaist or even liked the instrument, he also stays in tune and on the beat, remaining a musician even as he sticks to making an effect.
Bucky Pizzarelli acts the part of a “commercial” (as in, more likely to backs jingles than jam sessions) banjoist with the Peter Sellers-like conviction, using rhythmic stiltedness and thin voicings to set the stage but never get in the way. It’s easy to imagine full-time rhythm banjoists such as Johnny St. Cyr or Tommy Fellini laughing along with Pizzarelli, or wry humorist Eddie Condon doing his own imitation. Whether Donaldson’s penetrating, robotic rim clicking is deliberate or not, it’s far removed from the what Frank Snyder did for New Orleans Rhythm Kings in the twenties or the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s Tony Sbarbaro accomplished well into the fifties.
It’s all so hokey that it turns into exaggeration without mockery, satire that reminds of better execution but doesn’t throw out the source material. Thirty years can also seem like a long time, but it was short enough for at least Bailey, Dickenson and Stewart to remember these instruments, ideas and best practitioners still in the process of being declared passé. There’s no way to tell what any of these musicians thought, but their playing makes one very insightful joke.
Walter C. Allen’s massive discography of the Fletcher Henderson band lists either Don Redman or Buster Bailey as the bass clarinet soloist on three takes of “Why Couldn’t It Be Poor Little Me?” Historian John Chilton is more precise in his award-winning The Song Of The Hawk, praising Bailey alone for the “admirable” bass clarinet of these records [starting at about 1:35 into takes one, two and three below]:
Bailey’s runs and arpeggios, confident octaves and solid tone on the B-flat soprano clarinet are much closer to these bass clarinet solos than the smears and whinnies that Redman brought to the standard clarinet (unless Redman was really keeping his skill under wraps). Bailey was probably the more serious student of the clarinet and definitely the happiest of the group to play it: several writers have documented that neither Redman nor third reed Coleman Hawkins enjoyed playing clarinet. It’s hard to imagine Redman applying an unexpectedly proficient approach to the larger, unwieldier version of an instrument he disliked. As for Hawkins, it’s definitely his C melody saxophone following the bass clarinet, practically stepping on it during take two.
Process of elimination notwithstanding, the bass clarinet on the three takes of “Why Couldn’t It Be Poor Little Me?” and the bonafide Bailey obbligato on two takes of Henderson’s “Copenhagen” all feature similar rapid-fire intervals and a distinct intensity:
There is also Bailey’s sound. Commenters have pointed to Bailey’s shrill top notes but his chalumeau was always rich, centered and as warm as his upper register was bright. The second half of the third take’s solo really drives the connection home. For further comparison, check out Bailey’s brief but rewarding dips into the lower register on a trio recording of “Papa De Da Da” from a few months later:
For further enjoyment, listen to Bailey’s bass clarinet decades later on his own composition “Big Daddy And Baby Sister”:
For that matter, check out back-to-back-to-back Bailey on all three “Why Couldn’t It Be Poor Little Me?” bass clarinet solos, excerpted from each take in sequential order:
The oaken sound of the instrument, Bailey leaning into blue notes and stretching the tune into jittery noodles is an effective bridge between Louis Armstrong’s searing licks and Hawkins’s hefty C melody sax. It’s no surprise that so much has been written about Armstrong and Hawkins from this period, but it’s interesting to focus on Bailey. Apparently the arranger (Redman?) thought so: the Henderson band had already recorded Isham Jones’s new tune a few days earlier but now added this chorus just for Bailey, in stop time for further effect.
Also interesting is the use of the bass clarinet itself. The instrument didn’t exactly have a renaissance during the twenties but pops up often enough to make an impression. Eric Dolphy and others bass clarinetists garner more attention in jazz histories than Bailey, Bobby Davis or Johnny O’Donnell. The assumption seems to be that a musician playing bass clarinet in a twenties dance band did it for the sake of commercial novelty while the postwar generation were sincere experimentalists. Thank goodness is it is easier to decode soloists than historical classifications!
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.
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.
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 wideselection 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?
Reason and passion, order and chaos, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, Buster Bailey on the left speaker and Edmond Hall on the right:
Hall is all about consistent tension, like a winemaker wringing every drop of juice out of the same dark, intense grape. From his lines behind the introductory ensemble to his opening salvo with Bailey, he never relaxes that acrid tone or those spiky lines.
Bailey follows Hall with a clever epigram, feigning a simple “cool” to Hall’s “hot” but soon moving onto more controlled but equally cutting displays. Bailey crafts his phrases, putting more space between them but tightly packing a few key ones. He lets Hall have the lead in terms of volume and phrasing for their duet, fashioning a beautiful counterpoint to Hall’s wail. Yet for the closing ensemble, Bailey asserts himself over and against Hall with an incisive repetition. The victor may be up for debate but neither player loses.
Producer Ozzie Cadena may not have had an aesthetic smack down in mind when he assembled two different front lines to joust over this ODJB staple. Of course neither clarinetist is a perfect archetype for Nietzsche’s poles. Bailey never completely sheds instinct and abandon, and Hall doesn’t lack logic and clarity. It’s just a matter of degrees and balance. Everything in moderation.
Detail from “Apollo and Marsyas,” Hans Thoma (1888)
This month’s JazzTimes includes a fascinating article on the bass clarinet. From Eric Dolphy through Don Byron up to Todd Marcus, the piece provides a digestible but expansive survey of jazz bass clarinetists, as well as great insights from the musicians about the instrument’s development into a full-fledged solo horn.
It’s no surprise that this article is devoted to players from sixties and later. As James Carter notes, “Until Dolphy came along, the bass clarinet was used in ensemble shading but rarely as a solo instrument.” Still, it was hard to get the sound of the instrument with a Paul Specht small group on “Hot Lips” out of my mind while reading:
Clarinet obbligatos around and on top of the lead are a hallmark of early jazz. In this case the instrument’s bass kin doesn’t just play under the melody. Its shaded, oaky sound is halfway between ensemble coloring and solo. The bass clarinet peeks out ever so slightly because of its timbre, its burbling energy and even its deliberately campy sense of humor, which would be probably be fatally out of place in most modern settings.
The other bass clarinet anomaly that came to mind from outside of jazz’s post-postwar traditions was Buster Bailey on his own tune, “Big Daddy and Baby Sitter”:
This one still has plenty of humor but it comes from a much darker place, both texturally as well as emotionally. Backed by just piano and drums (thank goodness Bailey liked trio settings), the bass clarinet is darker but also oilier. Bailey’s theme statement is also miles away from his usually agitated style. He’s not doing much from a technical perspective, but in terms of sound and phrasing, he dials up a sense of good-natured sleaze.
“Big Daddy and Baby Sister” was recorded in June 1962, less than a year after Dolphy’s deservedly famous unaccompanied recording of “God Bless The Child” live at the Five Spot Café in New York City (unavailable on YouTube but here‘s another great performance). Maybe Bailey had his ears to the ground, or just decided to record something he had been experimenting with for a while. Either way, his playing leaves an imprint on the listener. Isn’t that what a soloist should do? “Rarely” was a very good choice of words by James Carter.
Thrilled to see my review of Buster Bailey‘s All About Memphis on All About Jazz. It’s great to see my name on an article, but I’m even prouder of the fact that this underrated clarinetist cut an album as a leader and that he’s getting some attention today, right next to some musicians who just happen to be alive.
Incidentally, the album is available as a (cheap) download on Amazon. Perhaps with the right attention, the only thing that will be a footnote about Bailey will be his death.