Donald Bailey: Philly Soul

It’s undoubtedly an understatement when Donald “Duck” Bailey refers to the Philadelphia music scene of his youth—the Philly of John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, the Heath Brothers and so many others—as “exciting.” But it’s probably just as much of an understatement when the next word the 75-year-old drummer uses to describe that period is “prejudiced.” He believes, however, that the one atmosphere fueled the other, with innovation being born of hardship.

“The times, unfortunately, brought out that musicianship,” Bailey said over the phone from his home in Oakland. “Whatever happens in the world, musicians or poets will say something about it. Now, people are at least trying to get along better, so the music has changed. I don’t like what happened before, but I like the way the music felt before.”

Though his name may not be as instantly recognizable as those of his more renowned peers, Bailey played an essential role in the feel of that music. He assumed the drum chair in Jimmy Smith’s trio in 1956, when he was only 22 years old. His nine-year stint coincided with the organ legend’s fruitful period with Blue Note, which made Bailey a key player in defining the sound of the modern organ trio.

He spent the following decade in Los Angeles, where he worked with a number of musicians including Carmen McRae, Hampton Hawes, Blue Mitchell and George Benson. After five years in Japan, Bailey settled in Oakland in 1982, where he continues to play on an almost daily basis, frequently performing on the street in a tourist-frequented section of town. He says little about these intervening decades, partly because he considers his years with Smith the highlight of his career, and partly due to memory issues brought on nearly a decade ago, he says, by a traumatic divorce and medical problems.

Bailey is getting at least some long-overdue attention via his forthcoming CD, to be released March 17 as the third volume of Talking House Records’ “Blueprints of Jazz” series, which shines the spotlight on several lesser-known innovators. For his session, Bailey enlisted tenor saxophonist Odean Pope, beside whom he spent his teenage years studying and playing at YMCA dances. The two had lost touch for decades, but their shared formative experiences apparently forged quite a bond, as they make for a fierce, muscular pair throughout.

Pope brought along two fellow Philadelphians to round out the quartet, bassist Tyrone Brown and pianist George Burton. Trumpeter Charles Tolliver also appears on two tracks, including the ballad “Blue Gardenia,” on which Bailey lays down the sticks and picks up his second ax, the harmonica. The jarring change in instruments is just the last of many surprises on the record, which finds a drummer noted for his soul-jazz grooves charting an edgier course.

“I wanted to try to highlight dissonant music in a more melodic fashion,” Bailey said of the disc, which does find him skirting the fringes of straightahead jazz, swinging hard but charged with a raw inventiveness. He cites Tony Williams and Thelonious Monk as influences, but perhaps the chief architect of this approach for Bailey was the obscure pianist Hassan ibn Ali, a figure shrouded in mystery who recorded only one session, with Max Roach and Art Davis, but who Bailey insists casts a very long shadow.

“All the great musicians who came out of Philadelphia had some association with Hassan ibn Ali,” Bailey explained. “And my opinion is that whatever advancements they made, he played a big part in them. When Coltrane started playing outside, I knew that Hassan had something to do with that. I met him when I was very young, and I was really scared of him. I’d never met a person that looked or acted like him. But he approached the music in a different kind of way, and he allowed me to have certain kinds of freedom I couldn’t get with other musicians.”

That freedom led Bailey to this more dissonant approach to playing, which in turn allows him to express the full range of his emotions through the kit. “You have sweet melodies to play for lovers, you have a certain kind of music to play for war, and if I blend dissonant music with melodic tones I’m able to interject my feelings about life. If there’s no room for me to play dissonance, then I don’t feel as comfortable.”

Despite the social changes that have occurred over his half-century in the music business, Bailey still finds plenty of fuel for his own impassioned playing in the day’s headlines. Speaking back in September of last year, the morning after John McCain gave his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he was alarmed at what he saw as the event’s hypocrisy.

“There’s an election coming up, and all this stuff about the flag and liberty is played out, but it’s not true for a lot of people,” Bailey said. “Barack came out and made this statement about change, and now the Republicans came out and took his words, like they started it. That in itself makes me feel a little upset and I want to jump on my drums and play a little different. Because of the fact that I’m a musician, I’m not going to be violent. I have the opportunity to do whatever I have to do in love or anger from the drum chair.”

Originally published in March 2009

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