Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, by Ben Watson

Ben Watson’s book about Derek Bailey is largely composed of interview transcripts with Bailey. The interviews are intimate and present Bailey as a sensitive and gentle person. The introduction to this book however, is very punchy and Watson gets straight to the subject of free improvisation. He talks about musical improvisation with heated immediacy and emphasises that his own abrupt mode of delivery is akin to his perception of the abruptness of musical improvisation itself. It lives in the moment. In particular he portrays Bailey the guitar pioneer as a strong-willed individual whose fiery output was partly ignited by the oppressive confines of working as a studio musician for over ten years during the 1950s. Improvisation, particularly Derek Bailey’s guitar work from 1963 onwards is described with an emphasis on the moment in which it is performed. This emphasis highlights the aims of the music industry to package and mass-produce recordings of artists work. So it comes as no surprise that Watson and Bailey’s shared concerns on capitalism and the mainstream music industry quickly come to the surface to counter these aims. It is worth considering that although Bailey had strong opinions on recording, he recorded and published many improvised works until his death in 2005. Watson describes Bailey’s attitude toward improvisation with an almost Marxist polemic.

Derek Bailey’s philosophy of Free Improvisation is fully in line with that of Heraclitus – you can’t step into the same river twice. The water changes, you change, everything changes. The first take is the best because it’s unique, and all imitations are ghastly. The real world is concrete, ever-changing and specific, irreducible to fixed concepts and laws For Bailey, music is a tissue of concrete utterances, irreducible to scores and systems: Free improvisation is thus militantly dialectical. It confounds bourgeois assumptions about music being a matter of scores and records, fixities derived from the world of property relations and promising profits to those with capital to invest. (Watson 2004 p.8~9)

Derek Bailey was born in 1930. In an interview with Henry Kaiser broadcast by KPFA in 1987, and also published on UbuWeb (Kaiser 1987) Bailey talks through his early career and the motivation to make improvised music. He began playing guitar for big bands, dance halls, nightclubs, theatres and studios as a commercial musician. By the late 1960s Bailey was growing tired of the restricted freedom he found in commercial music. As a studio musician he felt increasingly confined. In 1963 he met drummer Tony Oxley who also grew up in Sheffield, and Bassist Gavin Bryars. They started working together almost immediately as the Joseph Holbrooke Trio. Oxley acquired lots of drumming experience when he served in the British army as a military drummer and Oxley, Bryars and Bailey felt that they needed to take music in a new direction using their improvisation. The trio played together until 1966 during which time Bailey claims to have defined his personal style of playing. Within three years as a group they moved from playing new music compositions and some jazz to performing free improvisations.

KAISER, H. (1987). Derek Bailey Interview by Henry Kaiser, February 7, 1987 Berkeley, KPFA. Available at [Accessed 9th April 2009] Republication on UbuWeb edited by Kenneth Goldsmith 2004.
WATSON, B. (2004). Derek Bailey and the story of free improvisation. London, Verso.

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