Sam Bailey

I did piano lessons when I was about five and gave up, because they were rubbish,” says Sam Bailey, sipping on a latte in Canterbury’s Gulbenkian Theatre café. Not a promising start for a budding musician-, improviser-, and curator-to-be, then. “But when I was about fourteen or fifteen I got bought a keyboard for Christmas, and started making my own music up on that. I had keyboard lessons where you hold down a chord with your left hand, and a little beat goes” bumm-ticker-bum“, and you’d go, [hums ‘Ode to Joy’] with the right hand, you know…

Bailey has come a long way since his Beethoven-and-drum-machine days. He is currently completing a PhD in composition at Canterbury Christchurch University, and curates the weekly experimental music, film and poetry series Free Range, where he frequently performs — but he has had to work hard. “I was about sixteen or seventeen when I started piano, and other people that age, who were just about to do music A-Level, they’re normally quite competent. And I was really incompetent. And so that instilled a work ethic in me! I worked really, really hard to be good enough to do A-Level music.”

This new-found direction and determination brought Bailey to Kent, in order to study with renowned piano teacher Ronald Smith. “He was just a fantastic teacher,” he asserts. “Very old school. I mean, he played in one of the first Proms concerts under Henry Wood, he’s quite an eminent pianist and educator. But very, very strict, very disciplined.” I remark that such regimented discipline seems alien to Bailey’s fluid and wide-ranging improvisatory technique. “I don’t see rigour as being regimented,” he counters. “Ronald was actually a great improviser, he would sit down sometimes at the piano and just play. And he had quite bad eyesight, so his repertoire was mainly memorised. He always told me that if you forget a little bit, you know, make it up, or compose it, and then compose through to the end of the piece, and then compare your version with the composer’s version.”

Although a passion for improvisation would become central to Bailey’s practice as a musician, he and his tutor had somewhat different ideas regarding the direction of his future career. “My dad’s a trombone player, so I grew up hearing traditional jazz. In my year out one of the things I did was a jazz studies course, and I always played a bit of jazz. And then at the end of my piano studies with Ronald, he said,”What do you want to do then, Sam?“. He’d had this idea that I was going to become Head of Music in a private school. And I said,”No, I want to become a jazz pianist!“. He was so disappointed!”

After Smith passed away Bailey began to teach some of his mentor’s students, and became increasingly in demand as a piano tutor. One of his pupils was the son of Roderick Watkins, dean of Arts and Humanities at Canterbury Christchurch, whom Bailey credits “for kind of kicking me up the backside” and encouraging him to pursue further study. Initially things didn’t go quite as planned: “I applied for a postgraduate jazz course at the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity College of Music and Guildhall. And I failed two of them, and one they kind of screwed up the process so I didn’t get a yes or a no. So I wasn’t a very good jazz pianist! I was always quite a good improviser, but I wasn’t very good at the jazz language, if you know what I mean, like the core vocabulary. And I remember years later during my PhD coming across a quote from Steve Lacy, where he says”I just never had an appetite for the formula“. And all of things you have to learn. And I have a great appetite for improvising and for creative work of any kind, but the idea of learning another language to speak in somehow doesn’t work for me.”

At this point, knowing Bailey’s keen interest in the aesthetics and philosophy of music, I interject. I ask how learning the ropes of philosophy differed from learning an academic version of jazz, and whether he thought that there was more flexibility in philosophical thought than in traditional jazz training. He pauses for a moment, before answering: “The philosophy I’ve come across doing my PhD has all come out of my practice. So, I had a mock viva in January, before my PhD viva. And someone asked me a question I hadn’t heard before. And I said,”Whenever someone asks me something I don’t know about, I go back to thinking about me sitting at the piano, playing, and use that as the root of any further speculation.” So the philosophy comes out of that situation. The full title of my PhD is “A Practice-Led Investigation into Improvised Music in Contemporary Western Culture”. So ‘practice-led’ is the important bit.”

One example of practice leading thought can be found in Free Range, the weekly music, film and poetry series Bailey established in 2012. “I got a year’s extension on my PhD. And I thought, “Ok, I’ve spent five years doing some playing but quite a lot of writing. Now I just want to get back to regular playing.” And I’d been reading so much about the Little Theatre Club in London, and the Red Rose Comedy Club, where regular improvised music’s been happening for thirty-forty years. So I wanted to set up a place in Canterbury where I could play every week. There’s stories about [improvising legend] Derek Bailey lugging his amplifier up all those stairs to the Little Theatre Club, and finding that no one had turned up at all — and still doing the gig. And I was really inspired by that! You know, “I don’t care if anyone comes, I’m going to play music every week because I want to play it. And whoever comes along will play it with me”. Originally, we had this manifesto: we were going to free music from a market economy. People were going to play for free, and people would listen for free. And there was not going to be a commodification of the musicing. So I got a bunch of people together who I thought would be interested in putting this together, and I listened to all their ideas, and then booked musicians for the first series, which was January through till April 2012.”

Free Range is now mid-way through its third series, and every week fills the relaxed and unpretentious Veg Box Café to capacity. “I think improvised music has been reaching out to a wider audience over the last few years,” Bailey suggests. “And that’s happening on lots of different levels. When I started my studies in 2007, there were no conferences about improvisation, and there were very few journal [papers] — like maybe one journal issue would be about improvisation. In the last five or six years in academia improvisation has become much more widely accepted. There was a major conference in Oxford in the autumn, which would never have happened five years ago. So it’s become more accepted academically, and I think it’s become more commercially successful. Related to that cultural phenomenon is the kind of lionization of people like John Tilbury, Evan Parker and Derek Bailey as kind of authentic cultural figureheads for some underground movement. They’ve been quite convenient labels to put on this product, in terms of marketing. And so places like Café Oto, which are fantastic, are tapping into a kind of commercial vein which improvised music’s never tapped into before.”

I suggest that things have moved on from the modernist claim that appreciation of avant-garde art is inevitably limited to a small minority of people evolved enough to ‘get’ it. Bailey agrees. “You see it in the demise of the major record companies, you know, or the increasing focus of the major record labels, where the money is in the music industry. The middle ground is not provided by the mainstream music industry. And I think that young people are becoming interested in experimental improvised music because of that. Because of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’!”

Growing audiences is one thing, but funding a regular weekly performance series is quite another. The curator explains: “Free Range was originally supposed to all be free, and in the first series quite a lot of people did play for free, but there’s only so many mates you can ask to play for free. So the Knowledge Exchange Officer and the Music Department at Christchurch have helped make it happen. The plan in the short term is for Free Range to become partly funded by monthly audience subscriptions, which is a great way of taking ownership of it, and underwriting it.”

And what about long-term plans? Bailey is candid about the challenges ahead. “There’s the possibility of a Free Range festival in 2014,” he says, “but I’m faced then with the choice between basically trying to get myself gigs and work on a career as a musician, or make a festival. And if I was faced with that choice, I’d rather play music. Free Range will certainly continue to run as it is, and already we have AMM booked to play the first gig in the autumn, in October, so that’s all going to happen. And I get sent requests now from people all over the country, and sometimes from other countries, asking for gigs — it’s just a forty-seater café in Canterbury! It’s a really small scene, but it’s a burgeoning scene.”

Who would Bailey love to have perform? “Well, AMM! Evan Parker played a few weeks ago, and he gave me a couple of CDs, which was really lovely — his new electoacoustic ensemble, and a trio he’d done with Okkyung Lee and Peter Evans. And they’re both awesome [records], particularly the trio disc. So I emailed him and said, “Look, this is the best CD I’ve heard in ages. If Peter and Okkyung ever come to England, and you’re in the same place at the same time, I would really love to try to find funding to make this trio happen.” And he said, “Well, ok, let’s try and do it, maybe next spring we’ll do a little tour”. That is something I’d love to make happen, because it’s some of the best improvised music I’ve ever heard. Okkyung Lee is a cellist and Peter Evans is a trumpet player.”

In the meantime the current Free Range series has plenty of action left. “On 21st of March we have Dada Cinema 2 — me and Robert Stillman will be doing live musical realisation, and there’ll be poetry, costumes, and films by people like Man Ray and Fernand Leger. And then on the 28th of March [poet] Michael Grant is going to be reading, and I’ll be playing piano. The following week we have Robert Mitchell, who’s a really curious jazz pianist. He’s got the most astonishing technique. I once had a piano lesson with him, and we spent about two hours talking about mathematical structures of plant growth. He’s doing a tour at the moment of music just for left hand alone, and he’s got the Leftitude festival coming up in London, with a whole bunch of improvising pianists just using their left hand! Then we have Tony Coe, who’s one of Canterbury’s legends. He was asked to join the Count Basie Big Band, but he just couldn’t get his visa together in time to join. Then he played the tenor saxophone solo in The Pink Panther Theme Tune for Henry Mancini, and took the one-off payment rather than the royalty. So poor old Tony’s had a few dud moments! But there’s not many musicians who’ve played with Pierre Boulez and Derek Bailey and Dizzie Gillespie… I mean he’s an incredibly experienced musician. And he’s going to be playing his version of jazz standards on the 11th April.”

Throughout our conversation, Bailey’s passion for experimental music and his knowledge of its history and philosophy are obvious — another reason, perhaps the most significant one, for Free Range’s success. His piano playing is a regular highlight of the series: adventurous and exploratory, yet lacking the knee-jerk fear of lyricism and expressiveness that leaves many an improviser trapped in a uniform ‘free improv’ style. Canterbury’s cultural scene is all the more vibrant and distinctive for his efforts. (Free Range Recordings)

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