Derek Bailey

From Academic Kids

Derek Bailey (born January 29, 1932) is a free improvising avant garde guitarist.


Career summary

Bailey was born in Sheffield, England. He played the guitar from an early age, studying with John Duarte among others. He found work as a guitarist in clubs, radio, dance halls, and so on. He began to play in a trio in Sheffield with Tony Oxley and Gavin Bryars called Joseph Holbrooke. Although originally performing relatively traditional jazz this group became increasingly free in direction.

In 1966, Bailey moved to London where he met many like-minded musicians, including Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, John Stevens, Barry Guy and Dave Holland, occasionally collaborating under the umbrella name of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (or the SME as they tended to be known).

Derek Bailey pictured at the , , 1991.
Derek Bailey pictured at the Vortex Club, Stoke Newington, 1991.
In 1970, Bailey founded the record label Incus with Tony Oxley and Evan Parker, often said to be the first independent label owned by musicians.

In 1976, Bailey formed Company, an ever changing collection of like-minded improvisors, which has at various times included Anthony Braxton, Tristan Honsinger, Misha Mengelberg, Lol Coxhill, Fred Frith, Steve Beresford, Steve Lacy, Johnny Dyani, Leo Smith, Han Bennink and many others. In 1980, he wrote the book Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice. This was adapted by UK's Channel Four into a four part TV series in the early nineties, edited and narrated by Bailey.

Bailey's music

For listeners unfamiliar with experimental musics, Bailey's distinctive style can be difficult. He tends to eschew conventional notions of melody, harmony or rhythm, and on a superficial level his playing can seem like little more than random noises.

There is, however, an unconventional logic to Bailey's playing; Steven Loewy suggests that Baily's music "might be compared to musical approximations of abstract expressionist art, with each number unfolding in unanticipated ways."[1] (

Playing both acoustic and electric instruments, Bailey obtains a far wider range of sounds from the instrument than are usually heard, producing delicate tinkles as well as the most fierce noise. He sometimes plays on the body of the guitar rather than the strings, but typically plays a conventional instrument without preparations. Nonetheless, the sounds he produces have been compared to those made by John Cage's prepared piano, whilst others describe him as "a compressed insectoid version of Anton Webern". Bailey himself argues that his approach to music making is actually far more orthodox than performers such as Keith Rowe of improvising collective AMM (group), who treats the guitar purely as a 'sound source' rather than as a musical instrument.

Eschewing labels such as 'jazz', Bailey prefers to describe the music he plays as 'non-idiomatic', and has collaborated with other musicians as diverse as Pat Metheny, John Zorn, Lee Konitz, David Sylvian, John Stevens, DJ Ninj and the Japanese group Ruins.

Partial discography

  • Karyobin (with the SME, Island records, 1968)
  • The London Concert (with Evan Parker, Incus, 1971)
  • Solo Guitar Volume 1 (Incus, recorded 1971, reissued 1992)
  • Solo Guitar Volume 2 (Incus, 1972)
  • Company 6 & 7 (other players on this re-issue originally recorded at the 1977 Company Week include Lol Coxhill, Han Bennink, Leo Smith, Tristan Honsinger, Steve Beresford, Anthony Braxton and others, Incus 1992)
  • Yankees (with John Zorn and George Lewis, recorded 1983; issued variously on Celluloid and Charly)
  • Lace (solo guitar, Emanem, recorded 1989)
  • Village Life (with Thebe Lipere and Louis Moholo, Incus 1992)
  • Playing (with John Stevens, Incus 1992)
  • Guitar, Drums and Bass (with DJ Ninj, Avant records, 1996)
  • The Sign Of Four (with Pat Metheny, Gregg Bendian, Paul Wertico, Knitting Factory, 1997)
  • Ballads, Tzadik, 2002
  • Barcelona (with Agusti Fernandez), Hopscotch Records, 2001, available from [emusic (]
  • Wireforks (with Henry Kaiser) Shanachie/Jazz, 1993 available from [emusic (]
  • Legend of the Blood Yeti with Thirteen Ghosts and Thurston Moore
  • Improvisation Ampersand/Runt 1975, available from [emusic (]


  • Ben Watson. Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation. ISBN 1844670031

External links


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