Born on January 29, 1932, in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England. Addresses: Record company--Incus Records, 14 Downs Rd., London ES 8DS, England, website:

Derek Bailey, a professional musician for over four decades with more than 180 recording sessions to his credit and a pioneer of free music, is considered one of the most radical innovators of guitar technique. He rarely plays conventional melodies or harmonies and does not improvise on blues scales, but uses his electric guitar instead to create spontaneous sounds. "There are three basic timbres on the guitar: the harmonic, the stopped note, and the open string," said Bailey in a 1994 interview with Down Beat's John Corbett. "You can play the same note in many different ways; if you include its various octaves there are fantastic possibilities on the guitar."

In addition to exploring new territory on his instrument, Bailey remains open to all musical influences, from rock 'n' roll and modern classical to world music, and plays in a variety of settings. He has accompanied Min Tanaka, a Japanese Butoh dancer, for example, and has played in the duo format with the most celebrated drummers in free jazz and improvised music, most notably Eddie Prévost, Milford Graves, Han Bennink, Tony Oxley, and Susie Ibarra. In addition to recording solo, Bailey has worked with larger groups such as the Globe Unity Orchestra and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Other important associations include sessions with saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker, and composer/pianist Cecil Taylor.

A tall, even-tempered man who avoids drawing attention to himself, Bailey, in spite of his relaxed presence onstage, nonetheless is capable of drawing surging, metal-heavy sounds from his instrument amid quiet pings, scrapes, and streams of notes. He continues to inspire others to stretch the boundaries of free music. "Bailey has influenced more avant-indie copy-shop-employee guitarists in the past 30 years than--pick a name," proclaimed Sasha Frere-Jones, a contributor to the Village Voice. "We'd have no Thurston Moore, Hans Reichel, Don Caballero, Alan Licht, Henry Kaiser, Fred Firth, Jim O'Rourke, or that dude in Rage Against the Machine if it weren't for Bailey. He threw out the rule book, left blues and jazz in the garage, and took off down the road at top speed when people doubted a road existed."

Bailey was born on January 29, 1932, in Sheffield, England. He acquired early inspiration from his grandfather and uncle, who were musicians. As a youngster during the 1940s, Bailey, determined not to work as a laborer like the rest of his family members, studied music with C.H.C. Biltcliffe and guitar with John Duarte. Turning professional by the 1950s, Bailey started performing with various jazz groups in dance halls and nightclubs throughout England, taking any gig that came available. He also dabbled in radio, television, and studio work. Then, in the early 1960s, Bailey's father became ill, compelling the young guitarist to return to Sheffield.

While playing locally, Bailey arrived at the conclusion that straight-ahead jazz was not his calling. "By the time I was about 23 or 24," he explained to Phil Freeman in Jazziz, "I decided that if I wanted to be a jazz player, I should have started in a different place, a different time, and maybe in a different race. And I was very aware that the guitar player I particularly admire, Charlie Christian, was dead by the time he got to the age I was already at--and I was nowhere."

In 1963 Bailey met the young composer and bassist Gavin Bryars and drummer Tony Oxley. Together they formed a trio named after the late composer Joseph Holbrooke. From that point, Bailey's musical direction began to shift. "It was just some gradual changeover," he told Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Steve Dollar. "We kind of went in a different direction, from conventional jazz to free playing. It wasn't a chosen direction. We're three quite different kinds of musicians. It seems like the most successful way we could work together was to develop this free sound. It was a very logical thing, It would have been perverse not to have done what we did."

After Joseph Holbrooke disbanded in 1966, Bailey moved to London and formed musical associations with, among others, bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Evan Parker, drummer John Stevens, and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. These musicians recorded as a collective improvisation unit called the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Two years later, in 1968, Bailey joined Oxley's sextet, remaining with the group until 1973. In 1970 Bailey formed a trio, Iskra, with bassist Barry Guy and trombonist Paul Rutherford.

In that same year Bailey helped establish the Incus Records label. Formed as the first musician-owned independent label in the United Kingdom by Oxley, who had the original idea, Michael Walters, who funded the project, and Bailey and Parker, who served as directors of the company with Oxley, Incus is now run by Bailey and Karen Brookman. The label's first album, Bailey's Topography of the Lungs, was issued in 1970. He continued to release material for the label into the new millennium.

In 1976 Bailey founded a free music ensemble called Company, whose ever-changing lineup has included Anthony Braxton, Han Bennink, Steve Lacy, and trombonist George Lewis. By the 1980s Bailey had begun collaborating with newer jazz and new music artists, including New York arts scene alto saxophonist John Zorn, known for infusing classic jazz with his own sense of hipness. "Players like ruts and they can slide into them as soon as possible. [Zorn is] one of the guys whose flattened a few ruts out," Bailey told Freeman. With the saxophonist, Bailey recorded the album Yankees, also featuring Lewis on trombone. He continues to release material on Zorn's record label, Tzadik.

Bailey shows no signs slowing. Some of his later recordings include 1995's Wireforks, a guitar duet set with Henry Kaiser; Saisoro, released the same year, a trio date with bass and drums rock duo the Ruins; 1996's Guitar, Drums 'n' Bass, wherein Bailey plays over techno music; 1997's Music & Dance, recorded with mainstream jazz guitarist Pat Metheny; and 1999's Mirakle, a "free-funk" album recorded with bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer Calvin Weston. The guitarist's most recent works include Ore, a duo with drummer Eddie Prévost of the British trio AMM, and the solo album Improvisation, both released in 2001. In 2002 Bailey returned with the following sets: Ballads, Pieces for Guitar, and Duos, London 2001.

by Laura Hightower

Derek Bailey's Career

Began professional career, 1950s; played with composer/bassist Gavin Bryars and drummer Tony Oxley in the trio Joseph Holbrooke, 1963-66; formed Spontaneous Music Ensemble, 1966; played with Oxley's sextet, 1968-73; helped found Incus Records, released Topography of the Lungs, formed the trio Iskra, 1970; founded the ensemble Company, 1976; began collaborating with newer artists such as John Zorn and Pat Metheny, 1980s.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

July 26, 2005: Bailey's album, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, was released. Source:, /, July 29, 2005.

December 25, 2005: Bailey died on December 25, 2005, at his home in London, England, from complications of a neurological disease. He was 75. Source: New York Times,, December 30, 2005.

Further Reading



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