Bailey, Buster (William C.) 1902–1967
Buster (William C.) Bailey 1902–1967
The clarinet that weaves its agile way through the repertoire of early jazz and classic blues is likely to be that of Buster Bailey. Bailey’s career traced the early history of jazz—he was present when jazz emerged from the constellation of ragtime and blues and dance music that preceded it, and he played in the bands of such pioneering figures as Fletcher Henderson and Louis Armstrong. A player with superlative technique honed by classical training, Bailey remained active as a musician through successive waves of jazz innovation and enjoyed an unusually long and successful creative life.
William C. “Buster” Bailey was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on July 19, 1902. Much of his early life is obscure, but he apparently began studying the clarinet as a student in the city’s segregated public schools. His first professional job came at age 15, when he joined an ensemble led by the so-called “Father of the Blues,” Memphis arranger and bandleader W. C. Handy. There Bailey played popular dance numbers and blues songs arranged in popular styles, but it was not until the Handy group came to New Orleans on tour that he heard the new trend in African-American music that was becoming known as jazz.
In an interview with jazz historian Gunther Schuller, Bailey mused on the differences between true jazz and the music he was playing at the time: “I … was embellishing around the melody. At that time I wouldn’t have known what they meant by improvisation. But embellishment was a phrase I understood.” Bailey was intrigued by what he was hearing in New Orleans, and joined the migration of musicians north to Chicago, where he arrived in 1919. There he encountered another powerful influence when he took classical clarinet lessons with Chicago Symphony Orchestra musician Franz Schoepp, best known as the teacher of swing clarinetist Benny Goodman.
For the rest of his life, Bailey would be known as a clarinetist who could handle the most challenging passages of pure fingerwork that his own imagination or that of a jazz arranger could devise. He immediately found work as a theater-orchestra musician, and soon he was working with the premier New Orleans band that was performing in Chicago, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Playing with the Oliver group in 1923 and 1924, Bailey hobnobbed with other New Orleans musicians and impressed the greatest of them all, trumpeter Louis Armstrong. When Armstrong made his second great jazz migration and moved from Chicago to New York City in 1924, Bailey followed a week later. Both musicians joined the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, New York’s leading jazz ensemble at the time, which was an incubator for the many top-quality players who created the music called swing.
At a Glance…
Born on July 19, 1902, in Memphis, TN; died on April 12, 1967, in New York City. Education: Studied classical clarinet in Chicago with Franz Schoepp, best known as teacher of Benny Goodman.
Career: Joined band of W. C. Handy at age 15; moved to Chicago, 1919; joined King Oliver band, 1923; followed Louis Armstrong to New York City, 1924; performed with Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, also performing in bands led by Noble Sissle, Clarence Williams, and others; appeared on hundreds of jazz and classic blues recordings, 1924-37; performed with John Kirby band, 1937-46; performed with Wilbur de Paris band, 1947-49; played with various bands in New York City, 1950s and early 1960s; played in Porgy and Bess opera orchestra, 1953; released solo album, All About Memphis, 1958; often appeared at Metro-pole jazz club; joined Louis Armstrong All-Stars, 1965.
Bailey toured Europe in the early 1930s. Bailey was especially noted for his participation in the Henderson-spawned groups that backed classic blues vocalists Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith. “Bailey weaves some exceedingly beautiful obbligatos in and out between voice and piano,” wrote Schuller, of Smith’s “Jazzbo Brown from Memphis Town,” a song about a Memphis clarinetist who “could not dance, could not sing, but Lord, could he play that thing!”
After a short stint with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Bailey joined Henderson’s bassist John Kirby in a new swing sextet in 1937. Kirby’s band, with its complex ensemble writing by arranger Charlie Shavers and occasional arrangements of classical pieces (such as “Bounce of the Sugar-Plum Fairy”), proved a creatively fertile environment for Bailey, and he was given the chance to shine as a featured musician on pieces such as the lightning-quick “Man with a Horn Goes Berserk.” Bailey remained with the Kirby group with only brief interruptions until 1946.
After World War II Bailey became involved with both the retrospective jazz movement known as Dixieland and with more contemporary styles. He performed with bandleader Wilbur de Paris from 1947 to 1949 and then led his own quartet for a time, appearing in venues along New York’s 52nd Street. After associations with the bands of trumpeter Red Allen and trombonist “Big Chief” Russell Moore in the early 1950s, Bailey returned to his classical roots in the middle of that decade with appearances in the orchestra pit of a production of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, and in concerts by several symphony orchestras.
Some commentators believed that Bailey might have had a successful career as a symphonic musician had it not been for the segregation that long pervaded the world of classical music. Bailey himself praised the increasing integration of the musical world in the 1950s and lamented the classical opportunities he had been forced to abandon earlier in life. But for the last decade of his long and vital career he returned to jazz.
Heard often at New York’s renowned Metropole jazz club in company with Allen and other musicians, Bailey also became a strong draw at the many jazz festivals that were important venues for promoting jazz music in the 1950s and 1960s. He released a solo album, All About Memphis, in 1958, and backed his old Henderson bandmate Coleman Hawkins and other musicians on several recordings. Always restless and seeking out collaborations with new musicians, Bailey joined several bands over the last few years of his life. He played with a band led by Wild Bill Davison from 1961 to 1963, and with Red Richards’s Saints and Sinners in 1963-64, before ending his jazz career as he had begun it—as a sideman to Louis Armstrong.
Bailey died in Brooklyn on April 12, 1967. He was a comparatively prosperous musician, and the list of jazz greats whose recordings were enriched by his playing was a long one. Yet Bailey was not well served after his death either by jazz historians or by the compilers of reissue recordings. No full-length or even article-length study of his life and career exists, and only a few CD compilations attest to the quality of the many recordings that featured his playing. Yet Bailey was the first classically trained clarinetist to become a major force in jazz, and his playing demonstrated the potential the instrument could have in the arrangement-dominated context of swing. His role in jazz history awaits a fuller appreciation.
All About Memphis, Felsted, 1958.
Buster Bailey Story, 1926-1945, EPM Musique, 1998.
Carr, Ian, et al., Jazz: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, 1995.
Feather, Leonard, The Biographical Dictionary of Jazz, rev. ed., Oxford, 1999.
Kernfeld, Barry, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan, 1988.
Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, Oxford University Press, 1968.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed. emeritus, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, centennial ed., Schirmer, 2001.
—James M. Manheim
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