At 58 (at the time of the interview) Derek Bailey was one of the institutions of free improvisation in Britain and worldwide. In the early 1960s, with the Sheffield based group Josef Holbrooke, he began to develop radical guitar techniques which he carried on exploring until his death in 2005. He was widely known for his solo and group work and for Company, a flexible organisation of improvising musicians through which many dozens of musicians from many musical backgrounds have passed. He also ran Incus records, for many years along with Evan Parker, which released many albums of improvised music. In addition he wrote Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice In Music which was later developed into a TV series On the Edge for Channel Four. Virtually before I had sat down in the practice room in his house in Hackney he began to speak….
Well, the first thing I’d like to say is that I think the interview is useless as a source of reliable information, largely because of the people who usually get interviewed. Certainly where there’s any career aspects involved at all. Now this might not apply at all to your stuff – but the interview’s been going on so long and so widely accepted that it becomes more or less a regular part of people’s thought, they think about their work in the interview form. So they have the answers lined up, and they have good answers. It’s not enough to be meandering on and not making any sense, they finally see it in print and they realise what sounds good and what doesn’t. So somebody whose a practiced interviewee – if that’s the right word – can spin a right tale. And they do, you only have to listen to the old blues players, guys who’ve been interviewed over and over again, I mean they run rings around these jazz critics. But – to get to the main object – there are guys who’ve kind of shifted their aesthetic positions to fit in with their best description. They do something which is pretty well undefined – because I mean they don’t know precisely what they’re doing anyway – then they come to talk about it, and they present this edifice about it. Now, what they do is over there and what they say about it is over here, and what they say about it is much more attractive, possibly, than the thing they do and gradually what they do comes over here to match what they say! Now I actually know a couple of examples of that – which I’m not going to tell you about – of well known players who seem to me to have somehow shifted their attitude towards music to fit in with this aesthetic they’ve developed through talking.
So when the old guys – jazz players I mean – used to go, ‘Well, I just play man,’ maybe that was the best possible answer. Playing is very funny stuff and its never been analysed adequately. Being a player of a certain type who improvises is a very vague thing it seems to me. So you can chop a bit of that off and make it clear and that takes the place of the whole thing, that’s what I suspect happens, because it’s possible to develop a coherent partial view of what you’re doing, and it takes over the whole thing.
I played for I suppose twelve years as a professional musician, and looking at it now it’s clear to me that the side of music which interested me was always improvisation. Now I knew nothing about free improvisation, I came across people doing it although it was not a recognised activity at that time. I think all kinds of musicians have tried it at different times, it’s just an obvious thing to try. But it meant nothing to me, I was interested in other things. What attracted me to being a commercial musician was that I could to as many different kinds of work as possible. I mean I wanted to become a jazz musician from the age of about eleven to twenty one, it was only when I’d spent a couple of years trying to make a living as a jazz musician that I changed my mind. Because I didn’t like delivering milk, which seemed to be an integral part of being a jazz musician in South Yorkshire. Most of the jazz musicians I knew spent most of there time selling second-hand cars and I knew I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to play and so I shifted, I mean I still wanted to play jazz but I didn’t care what I played as long as I played something. And I spent years like that. I used to change jobs just in order to do a job that I hadn’t done before, so I might go and work in a pit orchestra, which was horrible, I mean I hated the work but I’d just be interested to learn it. Anyway, the types of work I did like always involved more improvising. I suppose it was really the only thing that I was any good at. The jobs that attracted me were freer – if you like – there was more scope for pissing around. I liked to work in palais, in dance halls, I liked to work in trios and quartets. They’d have a big band which was the main band and then there’d be a kind of little relief band, the music was continuous you see. I used to like playing in the little band even though the big ones paid you more money and prestige. I also liked accompanying singers because there could be quite a lot of freedom in that. It seems to me now that I was always trying to encourage, develop and pursue this adaptability, finding yourself in an unusual situation and finding out how to do it.
There were always two kinds of musicians, band musicians and musicians who’d been to music schools and learnt to play in orchestras. So as a band musician you were automatically in a sense self-taught, if not on the instrument then as regards the work. Nobody taught you how to play in a trio in a restaurant. I mean there are certain things you do in that job and you can tell whether you’re doing it right or whether you’re doing it wrong, but nobody tells you that. And that’s completely different from playing in a nightclub… lengths of tunes, volumes, the type of tunes… I really missed that kind of work when it fell apart. That came to an end more or less about the time rock’n’roll came generally accepted as something other than a purely youth thing. So that if you worked in a nightclub in 1964 you were expected to know all the Beatles’ tunes, before that you were just expected to now all the tunes and the choice was kind of yours. The same thing would apply to last weeks’ hit parade, I mean you had to know it from one to fifty because somebody in the club would want their current favourite which might be a real piece of garbage, but you had to learn it because you would never come across it otherwise. Before that it was a stock that you built up from other musicians and your own knowledge about popular music. This number 7 you would learn from the hit parade wasn’t going to be any bloody use next week, you see, it would have fallen down to number 89 or something. The whole face of popular music changed. Another aspect of this is that after ’62 or ’63 it was unknown for somebody to play guitar and not sing: the public perception of a guitar player was of somebody who stood there singing, so the whole work situation changed and particularly for my instrument. There were subtleties in the work which disappeared, it all became standardised. When you get to, say, ’64 or ’65, there weren’t any differences between restaurants, nightclubs and dancehalls because you just played Beatles tunes all the time, except sometimes you played them louder and sometimes you played them longer. Being a working musician became a much cruder business, you weren’t expected to do anything, you were expected to replicate what was very popular. Anyway I went into the studios, and I found that the studios were very much more standardised than the lower levels, so I had very little interest in them and I got out as soon as possible. By that time Josef Holbrooke had started.
I met these two guys (bassist and composer) Gavin Bryars and (drummer) Tony Oxley, they hadn’t had all this other stuff, they were still young musicians, I was ten years older than them. So I was very lucky to meet them at that time because they were already interested in all this other shit – like John Cage and Messiaen, I’d never heard of John Cage when I was thirty one. I loved it when I heard it, I didn’t know you could get away with that kind of rubbish! It was a revelation meeting those guys…
No, I didn’t feel part of any movement. When we were in Sheffield there wasn’t any movement. There was some free jazz, like Ornette Coleman, but I didn’t personally like his stuff – I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. I thought we had some connection with jazz earlier on but when we were playing free I didn’t. We discovered there were things in London happening, around John Stevens for instance, and we came down and played at the Little Theatre, which was about the last gig we did, but we were very much little fish in a little pond, we were very isolated really. I sort of believe in that sort of situation, I don’t for instance believe in competition. Where we were, up in Sheffield, nobody knew about us and we didn’t know about anyone else, we just got on with it, we just went where it took us and there was no peer group pressure to take it anywhere else. There was nobody to shoot us down, nobody said it was rubbish, nobody said it was good, we followed certain imperatives. I think a lot of things happen like that, outside of a competitive situation, and I don’t think that sort of thing can really live in a real competitive situation.
We had three years of that and that’s quite a long time, and it had finished, so I took a job in London in a nightclub. Then Incus Records was formed in 1970 and so was the Musicians Cooperative, just kind of self help because we were sick of the other stuff. I mean we were getting no help from anybody and at that time many of these guys were kind of rebellious characters, they’re not now, people like Evan (Parker), (Tony) Oxley, Barry Guy, Paul Lytton… So there were these moves to take control. It was a bit of a thing in the air at that time; ‘do your own thing,’ it was to take control of the music. Because we were making records for people who were restricting us, we weren’t making the kind of records we wanted to make. On the continent they’d done similar things already like FMP (Free Music Productions in Germany) and ICP (The Dutch Instant Composer’s Pool) ) so we did it here. When I say we did it, I actually played the least part of all, because some of these guys were really militantly interested to do that, they didn’t do it just as a last resort it was a first resort. In the late 60s we all got the chance to record (for the big established labels) but somebody like Evan or Tony wanted the means of production under our own control and we wanted to get our own concerts together in a regular place, and our own funding. You see we all played together, I’m only talking about 7 or 8 people but in that 7 or 8 people would be 5 bands and we were all in all of them – almost!
But I find that there’s a lot of suspect attitudes within free improvisation nowadays, particularly I must say amongst the players who’ve being playing it a long time. I think a lot of them are running scared because of the aesthetic climate, they’re like the present day Liberals, they can’t move right fast enough to keep up with the fucking fascists. Because the conservative side’s in the ascendancy and they’ve nothing to grab hold of. I don’t think many players these days would want to be identified as self-confessed free improvisers. Improvisation has never done anybody any good and now the whole thing’s been marginalised quite severely. Jazz is in now, but we’re not…
– No, I don’t feel close to the jazz revival at all. It seems to be a kind of musical academicism, it’s a received, completed thing. I mean it could be Beethoven, its got a start a middle and an end and that’s the whole deal, you don’t mess with it. The present day version of bop is essentially discipline, it may even be about discipline. It’s authoritarian, maybe its appropriate for the cultural situation we’re in, but that seems to me to be a very unmusical way of dealing with music.
In the ’60s the move from jazz to free music was almost implicit, well, we thought so, but it turns out later that it wasn’t, because there’s still people playing like that – in Bill Evans’ or John Coltrane’s music there’s no movement or development implied at all for most people who play it. We were playing it at a time when it was current but twenty or twenty five years later people are playing it without any thought that it might actually lead somewhere, they’re not interested in that, they just want to play it. We found that actually what that music meant was to stop playing that music and do something else, it seems like that retrospectively.
You see jazz is about getting a certain atmosphere, a kind of fantasy element that’s in almost all music, and I don’t think free music deals with that at all. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with atmosphere, I think it’s dumped that. But jazz, like Indian music, is a whole world, it’s a kind of aura that people can slip into, it’s a trip. I don’t think free music offers that, it can’t turn you into whatever you want to be, it’s not going to dump you in 42nd street in 1945, it’s not going to put you in some kind of Flamenco bar, it’s not going to have you sitting with a woman in a nightclub or on the banks of the Sienne in 1890… all these kind of fantasies. You don’t have that programmatic element to it, because nobody knows what the fuck it’s going to be anyway. Most people who play it, I believe, don’t set out to recreate something, they just set out to play. At its worst it sets out for some obvious kind of excitement, but even then it’s not a specific excitement in the way rock and roll is…
I just can’t see how you could not have improvisation in music, I think it’s the most important aspect of making music. Without it jazz and popular music just turns into this thing that you have with so called ‘classical’ music, which has not survived, which is a strange kind of ornament. I mean the kind of huge body of European music from about 1750 to 1900 or 1920, something like that. I think New Music, the contemporary version of classical music has been trying to do something about it. But I don’t think it’s successful, I don’t think it has done anything about it. I mean a guy like John Cage is probably more ignored now than he has been at any time during the last 20 or 30 years. People who’ve tried to deal with this peculiar thing that is ‘serious music’, classical music, who have tried to inject some sense into it, to turn it into something that isn’t just idiotic, have just been dumped. They don’t want that, the people or the spirit that guides that music doesn’t want it to be any different from what it is. They don’t mind somebody writing a piece of music in 1988 as long as its the same as it would have been if they’d written it in 1888! And they think that its an honourable practice to do that. For me Beethoven was just some sort of unbelievably dreary aspect of school really, because I took music at school I was introduced to this shit, in fact I gave up music on the basis of this being music, because that’s what I had to study, I couldn’t study what I knew of as music, which my uncle played and which I loved to listen to. So I had no interest in that, if that was music I would do something else… I’d maybe deliver milk.
I do actually have more interest in it now. I listen to a lot of Bach and that’s come out of playing because I’ve developed an interest in something on the guitar and I’ve been poking around and then I’ve heard some specific thing and I’d find out it would be Bach. So I’ve kind of looked at that because it seems to be dealing with problems that I’m dealing with, a similar type of problem to do with the manipulation of pitch. So that’s led me currently to be quite interested in some of the things Bach did, but I ain’t interested in the whole story that goes with it. I think there’s some value in certain kinds of musical ignorance. I’m quite happy to have been musically ignorant of this area for most of my playing life. It has a very strange effect on people to be introduced to all of that. I think it’s very odd to study music academically. Orchestral players for instance are a very strange bunch of people. That sounds kind of racist in a way or some sort of equivalent of racism, but I’m prejudiced against orchestral musicians, I realise that. I think they’re are amazing, unbelievable twats. I mean when it comes to music they seem to lack all sensibilities. I’ve met a lot in, f’rinstance, pit work and in the studios. They prize cynicism so highly that… there must be some sort of sadistic element in their training… I don’t know, I’ve never made an articulate case out of this but I was very glad to have avoided all that and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone whose interested in pursuing a career in music.
The flexibility was always the big attraction of music, its an even bigger one now. It is so malleable, it really is like sand, you have to make it stick, naturally it doesn’t stick, you can just form it and then its gone and I think that’s a great attraction. I think to make it stick is actually a kind of heresy. The nature of improvisation is to infuse music, it’s almost the reason to play music. The point is just to exercise this thing that you can do in music. It’s like a perfect match, and when it happens it’s an expression of perfection, a perfect fit between what you’re doing and the way that you’re doing it. Anything at all can happen, not just in free playing, it can happen in anything at all where there’s improvisation, but it can’t happen if there is none, that’s my belief anyway.
But I can’t really deal with all the kind of sociological, religious connotations or attitudes attached to artistic practice. I have such an aversion to that kind of shit. This is back to what we started with in a way, I think you could work out a great story about improvisation visavis survival in a non-improvising world, in an increasingly regimented, overseen, directed, authoritarian world. I think you could make up a very good argument for improvisation being an essential lifeline for our species. All that might be right you know. But I’m not going to do that… the only ideology I hold is to do with the character of the music and I don’t actually know anything about improvisation other than in relation to music. I think music’s best played through improvisation and improvisation is best practiced through music. But it might have other applications, increasing consideration towards improvisation might have all kinds of rewards or might indicate very useful things socially, I could imagine that’s so but it isn’t an argument that I’ve got any time for, I have enough trouble just playing the guitar.
(12th February 1988)