July/August 2001

Billy Bauer

Billy Bauer is like a chameleon, blending into the background for more than 50 years as a guitarist of quiet renown.

Bauer has been an impressive jazz guitarist since he played with Woody Herman in the mid-1940s. He was a melodic, tasteful and sensitive improviser, and a superb accompanist and rhythm-section member with Herman’s First Herd. Fellow Herman sideman John LaPorta says of Bauer, “He delighted in playing rhythm guitar with a solid, steady beat in the tradition made famous by Count Basie’s guitarist Freddie Green. Rhythm playing and compatibility were the qualities Billy gave to the rhythm section.”

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Billy Bauer
By Caroline Mardok
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Billy Bauer
By Caroline Mardok

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Bauer moved on to Lennie Tristano’s groups between 1946 and 1949, where he received some attention and was a Metronome poll winner. Following this, however, he devoted much of his time to working as a studio musician and teaching. Consequently, he fell from public view and today only a relative handful of people are aware of his achievements.

Tristano’s mark on jazz is difficult to evaluate. He developed an entire musical system that garnered praise from musicians and critics, and he had a big effect indirectly through one of the men he influenced, Bill Evans. But even at the height of his popularity Tristano had relatively few disciples.

Some of the jazz artists who were marked by Tristano at one point in their careers shed his influence and went on to play in mainstream styles, one being Bauer—even though the guitarist was the first jazz musician to exhibit a Tristano influence on record, in 1946 on a series of Keynote releases.

How could Bauer, who’d been with Tristano in his glory years, exhibit little or no trace of the pianist’s ideas throughout the rest of his career with non-Tristanoites? After speaking to Bauer and reading his self-published autobiography, Sideman, I have the answer.

Bauer was always interested in improving his technique, reading ability and knowledge of harmony and theory, and he worked very hard to do so. He was not so concerned with being an innovator or aligning himself with any particular genre of jazz. He took pride in his versatility: Not only was he a member of the Tristano band that cut the first free-jazz records, he’s performed with Dixieland bands.

But Bauer has a fantastic ear and intuitive sense. When Tristano came to New York in 1946, Herman bassist Chubby Jackson hooked him up with Bauer, who knew nothing about the pianist’s music. Nevertheless, Tristano used the guitarist on his first recording sessions, and Bauer was not only able to hang in with the extremely modern pianist, but to impress him. Though never a devoted Tristano student like Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, Bauer assimilated the pianist’s far-out musical vocabulary and developed a style of his own—even though he was only trying to fit in.

Outside of Tristano’s context, Bauer attempted to fit in, too, trying to blend his playing into whatever style of music he played. The guitarist didn’t set out to be a jazz artist when he became a professional musician; he just gravitated to it.

Born in 1915, Bauer’s first home was a three-story tenement in the Bronx. As a kid he played ukulele, mandolin and banjo. He quit school in his early teens and played banjo on the radio, in speakeasies and clubs and Catskill resorts. After a few years Bauer started playing guitar, a Dobro-National, which has a resonator: “I could hear it better,” he recalls from his Long Island home. He took a few lessons, learned a few chord voicings and, “Eventually I got better and better and little by little the banjo went.” Later he experimented with electric guitar: “Electric guitar wasn’t common [yet] in little night clubs. Charlie Christian was just about coming into the scene. Floyd Smith was featured in Andy Kirk’s The Clouds of Joy. Alvino Rey played electric guitar. My first electric guitar was a Rickenbacker—it looked like a frying pan, a banjo with a fat neck on it.”

Around 1937 Bauer started moving toward jazz. He played gigs with Harry the Hipster Gibson as the Domino Twins, “White Boys with Black Rhythm.” Bauer also frequented Harlem, where he dug Pete Johnson and Count Basie.

The swing era was under way, and Bauer started playing with commercial big bands, Henry Jerome, Jerry Wald, Dick Stabile, Abe Lyman and Carl Hoff. He first appeared on record with Hoff in 1941. “[Hoff’s] band made me play a Gibson because they wanted a Charlie Christian type of sound. At that time you might have heard a little Christian in me.”

Bauer was with Lyman, who had a radio show, in 1943, and also played jazz gigs around New York with tenorman Flip Phillips. In 1944 Bauer joined Woody Herman’s band, though Herman was unfamiliar with his playing. “I only knew one guy, Flip Phillips,” Bauer says. “He must’ve told Woody to get me.”

Phillips certainly had a high regard for Bauer’s work, saying, “In 1944, Dave Tough, Billy and I joined Woody Herman’s band and that was the beginning of a history-making band. Billy and Dave rounded off a great rhythm section consisting of Ralph Burns and Chubby Jackson. In those days the soloists played a lot of choruses and that rhythm section used to kick us pretty good. Billy was always there, pounding out that rhythm. He became one of the great guitar players.”

In addition to some great Herman recordings, Bauer also cut some records with small groups from the Herd, including the Woodchoppers, for whom he wrote a lovely ballad, “Pam.” Bauer’s solos with the small groups are intelligent and inventive. Though influenced by Christian, his playing is less laid back and more angular. It has something in common with the work of Oscar Moore, another Christian-influenced guitarist.

In 1946 Bauer and Tristano, along with bassists Clyde Lombardi and Bob Leininger, made some groundbreaking trio records for Keynote. On them Bauer plays what was an unusual role for a jazz guitarist. “Whatever tune we played, Lennie would say, ‘Don’t play the melody or straight rhythm.’ I’m primarily a background, rhythm player. I either had to play counterharmonies, countermelodies or what they call today comping. Not too many people were doing that, especially in trio settings. I’d throw in chords and try to make them melodic. No matter what I’d do, it would seem like he was playing in another key. Later on I realized he was playing extensions and substitutions. I went along with it because no matter how mixed up I’d get, I’d fall into some kind of counterpoint.”

Tristano helped Bauer create a new style by ruling out playing melody or stating the beat. With those options pretty much gone, Bauer had to find a new and unique way to work with Tristano, and he did. Bauer himself credits an obscure and eccentric but apparently brilliant guitarist, Zeb Julian, with influencing him to comp the way he did with Tristano.

In 1947 and 1948 Bauer also played in more mainstream groups, including those of Benny Goodman, Chubby Jackson and Charlie Ventura. He solos on three takes of a Goodman recording of “Mary’s Idea” for Hep, and his work, though somewhat more daring than it was with Herman’s sidemen earlier, is pretty similar stylistically; there’s little or no Tristano influence in it. However, he did make some important dates with Tristano and Konitz between 1949 and 1951 for Capitol and Prestige, including the precedent-setting free-jazz recordings “Intuition” and “Digression.”

“In 1949 ‘Intuition’ and ‘Digression’ were the first commercial recordings of free interplay,” Bauer says. “Lennie would say, ‘You start it. Play what you want to play.’ No key, no tempo, no nothing. Whoever wanted to could come in or drop out. No premeditated sounds, no arrangements. I know it’s not the greatest music in the world, but it’s a pretty good idea of how musicians organize their sound. Some parts sound just like a composition. In Birdland, Lennie would play one of these spontaneous compositions a night. They ran about 10 minutes. Lennie would say, ‘Listen to that guy behind me saying, “There they go with that stuff again.”’”

Bauer’s playing on his 1949 to 1951 recordings with Tristano and Konitz is more refined and advanced than that of his Keynote recordings with the pianist. He’s got a mellower, warmer tone and his articulation is smoother. Sometimes when he’s comping he’ll use his fingers rather than a pick to get a softer sound. During Bauer’s often melodic solos he’s using more Tristanoish rather than swing or bop ideas, and playing quite melodically.

Though he struggled at times, Bauer eventually found his way in Tristano’s system. Bauer writes in his autobiography, “I didn’t get into Lennie’s scene. I don’t know why he kept me on. I went along with it. I don’t know how I did that.”

Sideman also tells an account by Tristano bassist Arnold Fishkind about the relationship between the pianist and guitarist. Bauer said to Tristano, “‘Every time I catch you harmonically you go in another direction…Maybe you’d be better off with a drummer instead of me.’ Lennie would chuckle, ‘No, Billy, I don’t want drums. Just keep on doing what you’re doing. It’s just fine.’”

In 1950 Bauer was hired to replace guitarist Johnny Smith at NBC. He was and is a security-oriented family man, and it made sense for him to move in that direction. “For the first time in my life I had a secure job. I could get references. I could get a mortgage on a house.”

Bauer continued to do free-lance jazz work, however, over the next 10-plus years. He recorded with Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Tony Pastor and Herman. He made several dates with Konitz on Atlantic and Verve. He played on a Cootie Williams/Rex Stewart Jazztone album, backed vocalists Beverly Kenney and Holiday, worked with Charlie Parker on Bird’s last LP, and with a number of fine New York-based modern-jazz artists including Al Cohn, J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Seldon Powell and Tony Aless. He also cut his first 12-inch LP as a leader, Billy Bauer—Plectrist, for Norman Granz’s Norgran label in 1956. (Bauer had made a 10-inch LP in 1953 with Aless, Fishkind and drummer Don Lamond for Music Minus One.)

Bauer usually employed a straight-ahead bop style on recordings with the more modern musicians after about 1952, even with Konitz. Many of the artists he did work with after becoming a studio man were swing or bop players. Some were excellent, but they did not provide Bauer with the challenge Tristano had. Consequently, Bauer did not stress originality as much during his later recorded efforts; instead he concentrated on playing with polish, exhibiting a burnished tone and producing pretty chordal work along with his usual melodic improvisations.

Prior to working with NBC, Bauer had picked up a lot of his musical education on the job. His studio work required that he improve his sight-reading. “When I got on staff I met trained instrumentalists. I was confronted with precise reading. You have to know your instrument to be a spontaneous sight-reader. Mr. Vicari was the banjo, mandolin and guitar player for the Broadway show Hello Dolly. I went to him for sight-reading,” Bauer says. “We’d open the sheet and read single lines. He’d say, ‘What are you looking at like that? Can’t you see that’s a triad?’ He opened my eyes.” Bauer also studied commercial composition at NYU for three and a half years. He was picking up knowledge and skills he hadn’t had a chance to absorb as a kid.

Bauer worked at NBC for about nine years, but was let go during a personnel purge. He then free-lanced in clubs, shows and the studio for 10 years. In 1963 he began working with Ice Capades, and toured with them for five years. In 1970 he established The Billy Bauer Guitar School in Albertson, N.Y., and he’s still running it today, at 86.

Bauer frequently belittles his accomplishments, saying that he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to get what little recognition he received. Barry Ulanov once wrote about him, “There’s a marked difference of opinion about Billy’s playing; just about every musician who’s worked with him thinks he’s ‘The End!’…Billy isn’t sure he’s begun yet.”

Bauer has plenty of reason to feel good about his career. Those who know his work realize that he’s a superb guitarist no matter the style of the music.

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