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In Writing

Derek Bailey remembered

January 2006

A full collection of tributes to the late musician, including a number of pieces which were not published in the magazine.

On Christmas Day 2005, Derek Bailey died, aged 75, from complications arising from motor neurone disease. David Toop charts his determinedly nonidiomatic approach to guitar playing through a career that spanned television showbands backing comedians like Morecambe & Wise, the birth of European free improvisation, and the founding of the pioneering independent record label Incus. Plus, artists, colleagues and friends offer their personal tributes to one of free music's most enduring, radical figures.

Han Bennink
Dearest Derek, Trying to get away from the yearly xmasstreefuss, I went to Addis Ababa to play with Jimmy Jimmel Mohammed and the legendary Getatchew Mikurya. I had a great time, but... Everything changed by the second Christmas Day when Mary phoned me and told me that you said goodbye to us. OK, I did not see you for a year or so, but!and!!NOW!!!WHAT? All memories came up: staying at the houseboat and you knocking politely on the door asking, 'May I have one of those little oranges, love?'
Making our first duo album, ICP004. By the way, Evan was the one who introduced you to us - you both coming in a Morris Minor with Gavin Bryars to Wuppertal - we all played in a large group (Machine Gun) with Brötzmann, and Paul Rutherford was there too. The work with ICP, especially Misha and also Wim T Schippers - man, we had such a great time! I r emember meeting your mum and Simon. On the duo tours in England you always booked in very cheap B&Bs and a couple of times including Leeds you didn't rent a drum kit for me because you told me, 'There are plenty of chairs and tables to play on!' The recording by Evan, Topography Of The Lungs. The many variations from Company. Unbelievable! You did soooo much for the music. The book about improvised music, the TV series, it seems endless. 'Bullocks!' you would answer. Later, when Karen came into your life it was another peak. Staying on Downs Road. I think that the last idea was 'Air Mail Special' - another great item. Thank you so much for everything. I will miss you very much. Lots of luv, Han

Steve Beresford (Unpublished)
When I think of the guitar, I hear Derek.

John Butcher
Around 1974, BBC TV aired a programme spotlighting British jazz. It ended with an awkward Spike Milligan introducing a few minutes of Bailey/Guy/Rutherford with something like, 'And now folks, you probably won't like this, but they're pushing forward musical boundaries.' I did like it. It was puzzling but extraordinary, and the fact that, 30 years on, the boundaries remain well and truly shoved, owes much to Derek Bailey's incisive thinking and profound musicality. Playing with him was terrific, but I also have a fondness for peripheral moments; a late lunch after a recording session, courtesy of the 'Incus expense account'; a 3am walk through the Lower East Side after a Tonic gig, with Derek at 70, full of energy. He was a man who repelled pretension, refused to be shoehorned into comfortable categories, and played amazing guitar.

Martin Davidson (Emanem Records)
Some Derek Bailey anecdotes from the 1970s: Driving across London to make a solo recording at my house and unloading his gear to discover that he'd brought one amplifier, two speakers, three pedals and numerous cables - everything, that is, except a guitar.
Handing out a (Michel Waisvisz) Crackle Box to audience members to accompany a solo concert. Confusing a provincial audience expecting a 'pleasant' guitar concert, by starting off with a football that was supposed to hit an amplified thunder-sheet, but which hit the audience instead. Showing his boredom with someone else's group by putting his guitar aside, attaching a contact mic to his throat and eating an apple.
Pulling an enormous (Gavin Bryars?) score across the whole stage, thereby hiding his playing partner (Han Bennink) from view.
Setting up his guitar and practice amp in the Wigmore Hall so that he could play an encore without leaving the dressing room.

THF Drenching
Discovering free improvisation, and particularly Derek, revolutionised my musical thinking. At the time I joined Limescale I was a guitarist, and proud that my instrumental technique was once compared unfavourably to that of a cat. Free improvisation dissolved these abstract musical moralisms. Here was music where instrumental proficiency no longer meant flaccid selfaggrandisement. And it wiped the floor with the composerly prejudice for abstract thought, proved you could knock out something like Stockhausen's Zugvogel sieben Tagen a week in a room above a pub.
Much is often made of Derek's formidable purism. I think of him as a musician who pushed his own purism to its breaking point. So much so that it actually becomes strikingly impure, wonderful and heterodox. There's no hairshirt on this shit. Full of chats, jokes, bird recordings, beauty, rubbish and invention spread out like an assault course for his guitar to negotiate. His only prerequisite was surprise, and the opportunity to play.

Agustí Fernández
I consider one of the greatest privileges to have shared music with Derek Bailey. The last time we played together was at a concert, 12 May 2005 in Barcelona, at La Pedrera, Gaudí's emblematic building. I knew Derek was very sick and I was ready for a solo concert in case he didn't show up. The organisation was also alerted. But he came to the venue and played with exquisite devotion for the whole set. Fantastic music. After the concert Derek was exhausted but very happy. His last words before getting in to the taxi were: 'Big ears! Big ears!' Some months later, on 24 December, I bought Carpal Tunnel, Derek's last solo recording. I listened to it on the 26th, just before I knew he had died on the 25th. I don't know what to think of this sequence of facts.

Fred Frith
Back in the 80s I took part in a Channel 4 programme dedicated to unorthodox guitar playing. Keith Rowe, Hans Reichel and I were invited, along with a couple of others and, of course, Derek. His response was wonderful: he would be happy to participate if the programme was only about him! Derek and I had hit it off from the moment I was the only audience member at a concert of his in 1971. He invited me home for tea, and we ate pork pies and talked about cricket. Meeting Derek changed my life, actually. His encouragement and support gave me the feeling that I was doing something that mattered. He came to Henry Cow gigs and radiated enthusiasm while unfailingly and cheerfully complaining that we weren't improvising enough. As a player Derek had a fearless and resolute clarity, and because he was so curious, and so willing to challenge himself, you never saw him perform without hearing things differently. Which made improvisation the most exciting and logical thing to be doing.

Will Gaines
I first met DEREK BAILEY in the early 60s, working with his group, in Sheffield & Cheshire, with TONY OXLEY, BUNNY THOMPSON... MAN, they were the swingingest musicians I'd heard since coming to Britain. In America, I'd been working with people like ERIC DOLPHY, THELONIOUS MONK & CHICO HAMILTON. DEREK & the group were the best heard since arriving in Europe... And that's saying something!!!! Along with JOHN STEVENS, DEREK was an energy, a spearhead, a futurist, a pulse of life, which won't die. What can I say about DEREK? In one word, CREATIVE!! I used to say to him, YOU PLAY IT MOTHER, I'LL DANCE IT!! I next came across DEREK when he booked me for a week in London with Company... THAT was an experience!! He then asked me to go to Sweden, Switzerland, then four days in New York. No gig was the same, except the NY venues in the middle of nowhere. I recorded a CD with DEREK, Rapping With Will. Another of DEREK'S ideas. Man, he was a one-off! I kept saying to him, 'I'M JUST A TAP DANCER'. He must have seen or heard something he liked. We did have the same sense of humour. RIGHT ON BABY!!!!!!

Keiji Haino
My greatest happiness comes when I experience rock from a new source. Derek Bailey once gave me such happiness. It was in London, when we were recording a radio show in the BBC studios, him on guitar and me on vocals. I made one request to him before we started - rather than one long track, I wanted us to divide the time into shorter segments. It was between these segments that I felt the vibrations of happiness. I was standing in front of the mic, a little behind Mr Bailey so I could see his back. Just before he started playing I could see him shake his shoulders slightly, marking out a rhythm. Involuntarily, my heart shouted out, 'Rock exists here, even here!' This happened several times during the set.
Someone once told me that when Mr Bailey was asked what he thought about me in an interview, he replied, 'He's just as strange as I am'. I took great pride in that. I dedicate these next words as my own prayer for the repose of his soul:
That, which while enfolding this now and present perfume, speaks, 'I will use to the fullest this form bestowed upon me' and blurs into the firmament - ah, where and in what form will it next be devised

Toby Hrycek-Robinson (Moat Studios)
In more than 30 years of recording music, I have never met anyone with Derek's charm, elegance and flair - as a performer and a person. Most people who heard him play were changed by the experience. My wife Kasia, having previously never heard a note of improvisation, beamed for days after hearing Derek play for the first time. She couldn't explain why. She simply felt uplifted. Work would invariably stop in our studios when Derek came to the Moat to record. Musicians of every genre would drop by from other rooms - initially to sneak a quick listen, mostly to end up staying all day. Derek had the great gift of making what can be an impenetrable form of music readily accessible to anyone with even half an ear open to something new.
But more than the enjoyment I got from recording Derek's music over many years is my pleasure in the man himself. Erudite, witty and plain-speaking, yet equally instinctive and profound, Derek was someone who never failed to delight me with his presence. I will miss him terribly.

Susie Ibarra
Derek was a true original, a romantic with a great sense of humour. From his dentist-gum guitar picks to his uncanny background of playing in a Latin salsa band, he always brought a presence of great pleasure, beautiful and outrageous music, and a soulful, childlike existence. I miss the white wine and fish dinners and long evenings of great conversation. I miss the great concerts of the unexpected and delightful surprises. I miss the dear friend who, with his wife, Karen, shared their passion and love of life with everyone. With a cigarette and dark shades, Derek has stamped an impression of one mean guitarist in my head... and heart.

Jak Kilby (photographer)
It must have been in the early 1970s. Usually I have the time and place logged in my picture files, but this was one of those instances when that did not happen, since, for a variety of reasons, I took no photographs. But John Stevens had roped me in to drive to a gig, in any case usually a pleasure. Lol Coxhill had organised this one and it was an oddball even as such things went at that time. Lol, together with John and Derek Bailey, were going to play free improvised music at an English boys' public school, somewhere in the Home Counties, and give a talk on this to those eager students.
During a verbal interlude, Lol and Derek ganged up on John, announcing to the attentive boys that their Uncle John Stevens would now entertain by tap dancing! Now, John had a childhood history of this art since his father was a tap dancer, but here he was wearing plimsolls (in those pre-trainer days). And John did dance, as hard as he could to get a sound to the free and fragmented accompaniment of Lol's soprano and Derek's guitar. And I just caught sight of that rare wry grin on Derek's face (which it later took me years to photograph!).

Joëlle Léandre
I met Derek in 82 in New York. I had received a French grant to be there, take time, play, meet people... Great time! I saw Derek's name in The Voice and I contacted him. We played all day and drank tea! It was fantastic; the only thing I remember in this place was a small matelas, a table and a huge pile of Incus discs on the floor... and we played and talked, drank and played. 'Le gentleman à la guitarre', I could call Derek; I learned a lot with him; later in New York, he invited me to Company, then we played in England, the BBC where we recorded, then we played quite a lot in duo in Europe and recorded again until the last time in duo, also in Liverpool, two or three years ago...
Derek was a great 'elegance' person, with a lot of spirit, very funny sometimes and a 'strong' individualism, all his playing, his life and his musical life was an 'elegance': only this simplicity to be, to be a musician without any hierarchy in sounds, aesthetic, gentle, just 'making music together'... It's rare!!! We never talked about music after concerts!! But I learned this jubilation, this freedom to be 'you' and responsible. In any case Improvisation is a collective music (even if we sometimes like to play as soloist) but just play this unique result like a 'foods' is natural; this unique result can ask us a lot of questions, but also sometimes transcend us! Merci Derek, nous sommes un peu orphelins maintenant... so long.

George Lewis
Everyone who plays with Derek tells a different story, because he seemed to play differently with each person. For me, I imagined that a speeded-up recording of Derek would sound like white noise, with equal power at all frequencies. I would improvise a responsive multimodal filter, wrestling an octopus that seemed to anticipate everything you were doing - although Derek was anything but a Calvinist. Free will (and free improvisation) is largely about listening, something that Derek did supremely well while tempting the border separating tenacity and style from obstinacy and stasis. His landmark book on improvisation proved that musical experimentalism could engage a wide audience across many fields with issues of vital importance to humanity. Derek jumpstarted a new field of inquiry and inspired a new generation of organic musician-intellectuals, using nothing less than his musical approach, executed via other means - in which everyone came away telling a different story.

Alan Licht
I saw Derek perform numerous times in New York since 1990, including the notorious encounter with Pat Metheny at the Knitting Factory, but for me the most memorable concert was a duo with James 'Blood' Ulmer one afternoon at Tonic. The two had never played together before; Ulmer did a very nice, droney solo guitar set, and then Derek came on for the duo. Ulmer stayed in simple, tonal mode; Derek played a couple of pleasant sounding, empathetic jazz chords and then, for the next hour, played nothing but the most discordant clusters possible. It wasn't an attack - his manner, both during and after the concert, was utterly genial, as it tended to be, no matter where in the musical spectrum he'd been dropped into. It was a statement of purpose and of commitment to the alternative approach to the guitar and playing music with other people he'd pioneered since the 60s. That low-key determination was one of Derek's essential characteristics, and very, very inspiring.
I also recall Thurston Moore introducing Derek to The Stooges' Ron Asheton after a set at Tonic by Thurston, Derek and Loren Connors. 'Oh, I've heard a lot about you,' Derek said to Ron. 'Especially today...'

Oren Marshall
Derek was a big inspiration to me. He was a fantastic example of how open a musician can be. I played Company Week in 1992 and there was one night when everybody was playing at the same time. After a while I thought, 'What's the point? All this large group Improv stuff just ends up sounding the same.' I just stopped playing and went and sat in the audience. And then Derek came out and sat next to me. 'Are you all right?' he asked. 'Well, I just feel there's nothing I can really contribute.' And he said, 'You've just got to bathe in it.' And that completely changed my perception of improvising in that context and also gave me another way of looking at living in London. Rather than using up so much energy trying to decode or take on everything that's happening, just bathe in it. That was quite inspiring to see that level of openness in somebody as time-worn as Derek.

Tony Oxley
I find it difficult to contemplate 43 years of friendship and musical experiences in such a short time. I will say Derek was and remains THE UNCOMPROMISED CONSCIENCE OF IMPROVISED MUSIC. It was my privilege and pleasure. Thank you, Derek.

Eddie Prévost
I have known Derek Bailey for most of my adult life. 40 years ago or so we first met during the Little Theatre period and later we worked together in the Musicians' Cooperative. And, although we rarely performed together over the intervening years, I am pleased that we made a duet recording in 2000. However, we had different affiliations and a differing slant on the nature of improvisation. These differences do not obscure for me the impact that Derek had upon the development and continuity of a form of music that we call free improvisation.
Derek's passing has already been described as an end of an era. But I think that this proposition diminishes the effect and the value of Derek's music. I do not subscribe to the idea that free improvisation began or ends with any individual. This only suggests that somehow the music Derek made was so individualistic that it failed to communicate anything beyond personal expression. Given that the impact and the practice of improvised music is far wider now than it was in the 1960s, when this particular initiative began to gain momentum, Derek's music clearly has more punch than that: for we are undoubtedly not at the end of an era. Free improvisation is certainly impoverished with the demise of Derek Bailey. It would have been a greater pity if his music had not had the undoubted effect that it had (and will continue to have) upon others.

Keith Rowe
Derek... a towering presence 'I get jetlagged walking to the end of the road', was Derek's response to my enquiring after his health. Although Derek and I rarely saw each other, hardly ever played together (just once, I think), there was a certain comfort in knowing that there was this guy somewhere out there who took care of an aspect of guitar playing that (for me) summed up all the guitar playing that came before him. In Derek I found what I find in every great artist... He had developed his own language, something in the world is now missing, something irreplaceable. Something unique.

Paul Rutherford
Derek's musical and human input were totally incompatible with the prevailing twisted social dogma of Thatcherist/Blairism. Hardly surprising, in a warped society of subhuman puffballs. They merely survive, extravagantly. HE LIVES. Art, Music and Humanity are up for sale and privatisation. DEREK IS NOT. AND NEVER WAS.

David Sylvian
Derek was a no-nonsense poet. Mischievous, provocative, elemental. He spoke a language recognised by many but with a syntax all his own. A discomforting amalgam of the elemental Hughes, Beckettian reductionism and Celan-like compounds and fractures, and it says something of his achievement that he appears to have been so many things to so many people (it's fascinating, judging from the numerous online testaments written since his death, that to facilitate discussion of his work and its impact, Derek is often compared, without pretension or aggrandisement, to artists working in mediums other than his own). A towering giant of the guitar. Singular, unique.

Alex Ward
Without Derek's initial encouragement and help, I might not be doing what I do now at all, and I'm sure fewer people would know I was doing it. However, the start he gave me is only part of what I have to thank him for. Both when playing with and listening to him, I've received more inspiration over the years from Derek's playing than from that of any other musician I can think of - not to mention sheer enjoyment. Nor has anyone been kinder to me or more of a joy to talk (and eat and drink) with - his humour, blunt honesty (his response to someone who praised a duo gig we'd just done: 'Yeah, it works all right when we don't get into that flowery shit', followed by a list of occasions when we'd perpetrated this), and sheer conviviality will be as missed by me as his irreplaceable guitar sound.

Mark Wastell
Simon Fell and I had just arrived in New York to take part in Company 2001. We knocked on his apartment door at the now famous Soho Suites Hotel and were greeted by Derek wearing his comfortable slippers and holding a tea towel. 'Cup of tea lads? Karen, where are the biscuits?' A few hours later we're on stage with Derek, John Zorn, Rhodri Davies, Joey Baron, Will Gaines, Annie Gosfield, Jennifer Choi and Min Xiao Fen. In front of a Derek-worshipping capacity crowd at Tonic, we played two sets a night for four nights. I have to keep reminding myself it wasn't a dream. A wonderful memory for me, another wonderful week at the office for Derek.

Alan Wilkinson
I first met Derek in the mid-80s in Leeds when I was running the Termite Club. He and Han Bennink did a fantastic gig for us at a pub called the Cardigan Arms (later released on Incus as Han). On another visit to our usual venue at the Adelphi, we all arrived to find the room double-booked. Without further ado, another pub within walking distance was phoned and the entire gig moved lock, stock and barrel up the road. Derek, landlord of new pub, audience, indeed everyone had a very memorable night at the new venue.
On these numerous visits to Yorkshire, the local musicians were encouraged to play by Derek, who made it very much part of his 'raison d'être' to check out new musicians wherever he went. It was as a result of this I received a gobsmacking invitation to play in a small Company line-up playing in Switzerland and Italy.
To an improvisor, that's like being asked to join John Coltrane's Quartet, The Rolling Stones, or something similarly momentous. The line-up included Derek, Barre Phillips, Ernst Reijseger, Steve Noble and myself. Ernst couldn't do the first gig in Geneva, and over dinner before the gig Derek suggested we start with him and Barre in duo and Steve and I in duo. I suggested we start with a quartet, since I'd only met Barre five minutes before, but was of course in awe of his reputation. Derek's immediate reply was, 'OK, we start with Barre and Alan in duo and Steve and I.' He always wanted to throw you into the deep end and enjoy watching you not drown, because he knew you wouldn't.

Davey Williams (Unpublished)
"Derek was more important than even he knew, or cared about to begin with. Anyway, I was watching him play solo at some gig in south London. Several college student-looking people, who clearly weren't liking the music, exited the auditorium. As they passed the front of the stage, they angrily threw their ticket stubs onto the stage at Derek's feet. Totally nonplussed, Derek remarked, "Yes, well I figured it was about time for a clear-out."
Derek was a fellow who did what he did (which was massively innovative), not because he thought he'd be famous or admired, but because he wanted to do it. As it turned out, he was both famous and admired, not that it made any difference to him. And that in itself is to be admired."

Otomo Yoshihide
His improvisation was his way of life. Living daily life like his improvisation. That I learnt from Derek et al best. And it is the most important philosophy for me Improvisation looks as though it always disappears somewhere. However, it incessantly is succeeded and is alive in our way of life.

Ingar Zach
I met Derek Bailey for the first time in at his house in Hackney in January 2000. A couple of months before, I rang him up to ask if I could stop by for a play and a chat. I had heard CDs with Derek in 1998-99, and I was totally taken by his music. I was just starting up with improvisation and I just knew that I had to play with him. For me, the most important side of Derek was his honesty, both as a person and in music. He didn't care about success, being famous and all that. He was a musician who was in constant search for his music. That's why his music always sounded so fresh and strong. I got to know him in the last five years of his life. Although it was a short time, I felt that I got to know him, just by playing with him. I am very grateful to have had the chance to know Derek and his music. I will miss him.


Hard to believe its been almost 13 years. Still, I love re-listening to his entire output.

I first heard Derek's recordings in the early 80s; already open to "free jazz," improvisation, & delta blues, he changed my view of the world as much as Sun Ra, Son House, Jack Kerouac, Mad Magazine & my teensge viewing of "Hard Day's Night. I'm still attempting to free up my "Ornette-Coleman-slide-guitar playing thanks to Derek.

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