Ben Watson’s Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation

Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation was published in 2004. Derek Bailey died the following year. Ben Watson’s book is therefore mercifully free of past tense references to its hero. To my mind no one, as a musician or as a guiding spirit, is more linked to the genre of music known as free improvisation (non-idiomatic improvisation or simply free music) than Derek Bailey. I believe very passionately in the spirit of this music, and because I do, and because Derek Bailey is no longer here to practice it, it is imperative that we keep it alive firstly by playing it, and secondarily as listeners, chroniclers and poets. The story of how a dance band musician from Sheffield in Yorkshire, England came to practice a form of guitar playing free of idioms and emerged in the 1960’s as a leader in a new genre of music is one of the most intriguing and inspiring chapters of modern music.

It is a story entangled in ironies, sometimes perturbing, sometimes delicious. Beginning with the primary fact that a freely improvised performance can happen but once. If it is captured in a recording, that recording is but an artifact of an activity that was meant to happen in time but once only. Recordings are now all we will ever have of Derek Bailey. These and for the lucky ones, memories. Yet free music only brings to a focus the salient fact not only of any art but also of any life itself, and I need not name it. Derek Bailey was notoriously dismissive of musical recordings, yet he depended on them for income and started his own record label, Incus. He kept a drawer full of written notes on guitar playing, and once suggested that he might publish them, but he never did. He was the kind of musician, Watson tells us, that preferred to let the music speak for itself. And yet a more knowledgeable and witty spokesperson for the music can hardly be imagined. Bailey became an expert on the history and practice of improvisation throughout the world, writing a book on the subject that became the basis for a documentary made for British television and available on the Internet today (that documentary is highly recommended because it is largely comprised of first-rate performances of all types of improvised playing from around the world). Yet the nature of the music is such that, for those of us concerned with language, poetic discourse seems most suited to address it. Subjective response cannot be as easily discounted with regard to this music as it might in the case of, say, Baroque music.

Because I am not a musician and because I live in a place where live performances of free music cannot be attended on a regular basis, my knowledge of this music has come mostly from seeking out recordings, with deep and prolonged listening. I find myself philosophically in tune to this music; I’ve applied my imagination and thought to it. I saw Derek Bailey play once. It was a solo acoustic guitar event. Afterward I had the pleasure of shaking his hand and asking him to sign my copy of his book on improvisation. I may not be the best person to judge the qualities or characteristics of this music, but in my own way I have applied what it teaches me to my own life and art practice. I believe that art serves life, and not the reverse. I believe that art should serve to keep one’s mind and senses sharp and fresh. I believe that one’s eyes and ears should be open and ready at all times. I am a bricoleur, and my art comes from everywhere and anywhere, at any time. In an important sense I believe that life itself is free improvisation. My spirit animal is a mockingbird for garsh sakes. That’s why this art inspires me.

I’m tempted to say that there’s nowhere to hide in free music. Or you can try, but that attempt becomes the performance. To play free requires endless listening and playing skills. Levels and degrees of those skills show. Personality and mood shows. There’s a way to play as a form of cooperation and a way to play as a form of subversion. One can work with others to build something, to interject questions or to interfere, even to the point of sabotaging whatever is happening. Sometimes it works beautifully. Sometimes it’s fascinating or merely interesting. Sometimes the result is horrendous. But if one goes in with the proper attitude as musician or as listener (bringing everything one has to the experience), then something can always be learned from the experience. Bailey always went in as a listener, always with the intention of learning something.

Subjective response is always a mixed blessing, and in Ben Watson’s case the reader has no choice but to accept the fact that Watson is a passionate Marxist. His every thought about free music comes back to it. Many of his arguments are compelling. The statement,

Improvisation is revealed as the kernel of the revolutionary idea: when we have nothing to lose and nothing to hide, the future can be improvised [page 192]

is beautiful. But the habit becomes tiresome. The problem is not with Watson’s approach in itself, but in that it is of more importance to the reader what Derek Bailey thought. We’re never told what Bailey thought of Marx, nor even how he voted, if he voted, though we can be sure, based on some of his recordings, that it wasn’t for the Conservatives.

Actually Watson admits in the introduction that while he “believe[s] that Bailey’s position is ultimately compatible with my own Musical Marxism, I don’t expect to hear him say so.” It’s not as though we don’t hear liberally from Bailey, but in a book about Derek Bailey we could have used even more from Bailey and less from Watson. Just to give one example—not a single sentence is devoted to the subject of Bailey’s talking pieces, those performances (and many have been recorded), in which Bailey spoke as he played guitar. Surely they deserved to be discussed in terms of aesthetics as well as the content of Bailey’s discourses. Unfortunately one senses that Watson would have been incapable of toning down his Marxism. His devotion to it borders on fanaticism. And fanatics cannot let go because nothing less than the survival of humanity is at stake.

Elsewhere some of Watson’s observations have encouraged me to rethink what I’m hearing. I have always heard Bailey’s contributions to ensemble playing as opportunities to invent ways of supplying what is missing or needed at any given time. This means that Bailey strikes me as the ultimate listener. But at the same time it suggests that he is a player who reacts more than directs the shape of the music, and this is clearly not the case. Bailey seems reluctant to shout down an exceptionally aggressive player, but he is not timid about finding unique ways to support, comment on or accompany aggressive high-volume sounds. And sometimes, if the players are listening, the direction of the music can shift. The best improvisers are not merely leaders or followers—they are both. Watson’s idea of Bailey as a Socratic figure supplying direction through inquisition and counter-proposition is fascinating.

Watson has other gifts. He bears out my suggestion that poetic language suits the subject of free music. Not only is he a brilliant writer, but I am willing to say he is a genius. His descriptive-poetic gifts are prodigious. Here’s a sprinkle:

[Bailey’s] lack of interest in linear harmonic coherence allows him to relate to the Boulezian delirium better than the horn players have done, commenting on what’s around him like an enthusiastic geologist at the edge of a volcano. [page 176]

In ‘Snaps’, the saxophones parp and prattle at the bleeping electronica like cartoon-caterpillar leaf-munchers faced with midget aliens sporting ray guns. [186]

Bailey ornaments Braxton’s livid presence like a demented electrician screwing light switches and bulb sockets into the prosthetic tentacles of an alien apparition. [191]

The musicians played like lovers stunned by each other’s presence. [260]

Bailey’s notes crept into the raw pockets created by her non-rhythmic blows like an invading termite army. [294]

…. too many typewriters, not enough calligraphy. [302]

…. plucking notes that hung above the tenebrous abyss like trembling stars. [287]

Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation is chockfull of observations like that. It’s also chockfull of quotes by Bailey and other improvisers. Derek Bailey’s Complete Invisible Jukebox, included as an appendix and which runs to thirty pages, is an absolute treasure. Conducted by the music magazine The Wire, Bailey was played various tracks of recorded music blind and asked to comment on them. Bailey’s wit combined with his attitude toward recorded music (he rarely listened to it) is pure delight. For me, Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation is indispensible.


Incus Records

film: Playing for Friends on 5th Street

Derek Bailey on The Internet Archive

Derek Bailey: On the Edge (Part 1) from Jimbo on Vimeo.

My Derek Bailey Spotify playlist

This entry was posted in book review, music essay and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ben Watson’s Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Mark: This is an insight that struck me particularly: “The best improvisers are not merely leaders or followers—they are both.” I have excruciatingly limited experience with improvisation of any type, consisting of listening to and attempts at playing jazz a very long time ago, but your comment strikes me as exactly right. The sense of ensemble must be wholly there in every respect, or the improvisation (if as a group), at least, will not cohere. Many of the quotations from Watson’s gorgeous prose that you note also seem to go directly to that point, perhaps most of all this: “The musicians played like lovers stunned by each other’s presence.”

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