The Rhythm Man: Drummer Colin Bailey Has Played Jazz With (Fill In Just About Anybody Famous Here)

December 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Colin Bailey

By Lars Trodson

The first track on the album “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus” begins simply enough: a bass line and the rythmic beat of drums. The tune, “Samba de Orfeu”, was written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa for the film “Black Orpheus” and on this record was being interpreted by pianist Vince Guaraldi, bassist Monty Budiwg and drummer Colin Bailey. The drum-bass combo lasts about a minute, and then the piano kicks in. The music hits a beautiful, easy stride. It’s got that bossa nova beat.
“Jazz Impressions” was a big hit, and it spawned a monster single called “Cast Your Fate To The Wind”, which won a Grammy for composer Guaraldi in 1963. This isn’t music that gets a lot of airplay today, unfortunately. Guaraldi’s stature as the creator of the iconic music for the Charlie Brown TV specials has overshadowed, to a very powerful degree, the fact that he was a hugely respected jazzman. And he had a rhythm section, Budwig and Bailey, that was peerless.
Drummer Colin Bailey is the only member of that trio still living. Budwig died almost ten years ago and Guaraldi passed away in the 1970’s. Bailey is still active, playing drums in jazz bands and teaching. He’s written two hugely influential books on drumming, and he’s adapted his teachings to DVD.
And he’s played with just about every major jazz figure in the 20th century – and then some. This is the only guy who may have played with Miles Davis and George Shearing and nightclub comic Woody Woodbury and Roy Clark. Bailey’s done it all.

Drummers occupy a unique place in the panorama of music history. They can be outsized and outrageous (think Buddy Rich or Keith Moon). They can be underestimated (think Ringo Starr). Bailey seems to defy these stereotypes. He’s made a career by staying true to his sterling artistry – a craft that he’s been able to adapt to the unique demands of big band swing to jazz to movie soundtracks to the crazy versatility that’s required for in-house TV studio bands. He’s also never stopped learning.
Bailey sounds as easy-going on the phone as he does on his recordings. He has an even, gentle tone to his voice, and perhaps his English accent isn’t as strong as it was when he was growing up near a little town called Swindon just before World War II.
Bailey has been around long enough to have met his wife when she was working in a record store where they were still spinning 78’s for the customers to being able to see an old video clip of him sitting in with Ben Webster that’s posted on YouTube.

But we have to go back to where Bailey started learning his art: Swindon, in the UK. After all, he knew he was going to be a drummer from the start. 

“My parents were with me all the way with the drums, you know. We had a good-sized house and I had my own room with my drums to practice. It was very pleasant,” Bailey said. His grandfather and his father were butchers, they had their own shop, and Bailey’s mother used to help out in the store doing the books. He was not yet 10 when World War II started blazing across Europe, but he remembers that time in the more fractured, compartmentalized way a child sees huge events – a war is not seen as sweeping and gigantic to a child, but is experienced in small personal ways.
“I met some GI’s, which was great. I met one who gave me a bass drum pedal and they gave me some V-discs,” said Bailey. V-disc was short for “victory discs.” These recordings were made specifically for military people, and they were meant to boost morale by bringing to the soldiers the sounds of home.
“These discs had some great stuff on them. All I listened to was jazz, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, those bands and some of the smaller groups, although it’s hard to remember who those were,” said Bailey.
Bailey had his first lesson on the drums when he was seven. “It was with a guy that worked in a local vaudeville show. My dad said this guy had a ‘nice, crisp roll’, and I went to this guy and he had the worst left-hand grip,” said Bailey. “He had a terrible grip, but he taught me about arrangements so he was very good for me at the time. Then when I was 10, there was a man named Peter Coleman who was with a band called Johnny Styles, which was one of the better semi-pro bands in England. They won contests and things like that. Peter was the drummer for them and he used to come over to my house and he taught me how to read drum parts.”
As for the quality of the music that the band played, Bailey says now that he’d “love to hear that on a recording. It must have sounded like hell. There were two accordions, a banjo and drums,” he said. “The band was called The Nibs and we all wore blue velvet vests. My uncle was in the band. Then later I played with a band called The Firecrackers that had the most ridiculous lineup – two trumpets, a violin – I mean it was just ridiculous. We played dances all the time. I played pretty much all through my childhood. I was playing with these terrible groups but it was wonderful. I was learning.”
While his schoolmates were doing their homework, Bailey was down at the Savoy Theatre in Swindon playing with the big bands that travelled through the area. “I was like a boy wonder, that kind of crap,” said Bailey, not arrogantly, but rather confidently, because he was sitting in with the big boys.
“The only thing I ever wanted to be besides a drummer was a footballer, a soccer player. It was the only thing apart from the drums that I was ever any good at. When I was fifteen, there was talk of the local name team and me going to their farm team, but my parents said that by my mid-thirties I’d be through,” Bailey said. But he caught a lucky break. Instead of having parents that discouraged his artistic leaning, they supported his decision.
“They knew what I was going to do, or hoped to do. I left school at 15. In those days, if you weren’t going to college, you could leave school at 15. It was the happiest day of my life when I walked out of those gates, I’ll tell you. The headmaster said, You’re making a big mistake,” said Bailey. “Well, I’ve done okay.”
Okay, indeed. When asked if his parents saw him achieve success, he said, “My father came to the London Palladium in 1974 when I was playing with (pianist) Victor Feldman.”
Winifred Atwell

About the time Bailey turned 18 he received an invitation to audition for a pianist named Winifred Atwell – a name that may not be familiar today, but who was a rising star at the time. Bailey joined her band and she would go on to become quite famous. There’s a lovely clip of Atwell being hosted on the Australian version of “This Is Your Life”, during which the host tells Bailey to sit on the couch with Atwell because “you’re her family.”

“She was like a boogie woogie, ragtime player. There were two drummers (auditioning) and the other guy was probably better but they liked my sense of humor,” said Bailey. “That was the start of everything for me. From that, we went to Australia on a tour in 1955 and we were on tour for 15 months in Australia and New Zealand.”
Bailey said he and his wife Jan decided not to live in England and they emigrated to Australia. “That’s when I started playing more jazz,” he said. Atwell’s manager arranged for Bailey to start playing with the house band on Australia’s Channel 9 in Sydney, and as a side gig he would sit in with the big jazz names that came through the continent
“I also played with some of the bigger names in concerts, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Al Hibler. We hung out with Sarah and Dizz. Sarah was great. Dizz was nuts. He was out there,” said Bailey. “When they went back to the States it was like they deserted me.” 
Bailey also got a gig playing with the Australian Jazz Quintent, which opened for, of all groups, The Kingston Trio when that popular folk group toured Australia in 1961.
“That was bizarre,” said Bailey. “(The members of the Kingston Trio) were great guys, despite the corny, crappy music. Oh, God, cornball stuff. But they were jazz guys and they loved our music and we got along so well. So they said to us, we have a tour in the States and we’ll pay your expenses and good wages. My wife and I got a Green Card, and we had to sell everything in 10 days, our car and all the other stuff” to go on tour.
Joe Morello

A turning point in Bailey’s evolution as a drummer came in 1956 when he heard drummer Joe Morello play on a Dave Brubeck record. There is always someone, in the career of any artist, who plays the important role of mentor – the person who makes the artist want to be better all the time. For Colin Bailey, that person is Joe Morello. Morello is known for his unique time signatures like the ones that can be heard on such legendary recordings as “Take Five.” 

“He played this stuff with the left hand and I couldn’t see how anybody could play this stuff with the left hand. I thought it was some kind of trick recording but of course back then they didn’t have trick recording. I was amazed by it,” said Bailey. “So Brubeck came to Australia, and I was in another group that opened for Brubeck and the promoter asked if I could help Joe with his drums because Joe was almost blind. He showed me this finger control technique which is a really difficult thing. There aren’t too many guys that do it because it requires so much practice. I’m still trying to get it right.”
Bailey explains the technique like this: “Most people use the wrists for their stroke, and that’s fine but with the finger, the index finger, the forefinger, you control the rebound – you’re utilizing the rebound – you’ve got the stick and you keep it going with your fingers. It’s such an intricate technique that requires so much practice,” said Bailey. “I’ve been practicing my ass off on this for a long time. When Joe came to San Francisco I always got a lesson from him then. He’s an important part of my life. He’s a dear friend of mine.” 
What we tend to forget now is that there were music scenes throughout the country that had their own distinct styles and culture. There was music coming out of New Orleans and Chicago and New York and San Francisco that was identified by its place of origin – Chicago jazz or West Coast jazz. And the scene in California, in L.A. and up in San Francisco, was hot – and in the early 1960s Vince Guaraldi was as hot as anybody.
Guaraldi was not yet nationally known, but he was highly respected by his peers. He had his own signature style. 
“Vince heard me play at a concert in San Francisco with the Kingston Trio and the Australian Jazz Quintet. Afterwards he said, I like the way you play. He said, would you like to come in and sit with us at the Jazz Workshop on Monday night,” said Bailey. “Of course I did and afterwards we’re in the men’s room and Vince said, You sure do have a lot of talent, man. I remember these words vividly, you know? So three days later I was in the drum shop hanging out and the guy said, Vince is on the phone and he wants to talk to you. So he offered me the gig and fired his drummer and got me. Talk about heaven, to play with him and Monty (bassist Monty Budwig) on a regular basis, it was unbelievable.”

Guaraldi was not a prolific writer, but he made his mark. “Vince wrote great – what I call ‘catchy tunes’ that people could get into. They weren’t complicated. “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” and all these things, we were playing every night,” said Bailey. Guaraldi had a contract with Fantasy Records (which was based out of San Francisco) and we went into the studio at midnight and did the whole thing in four hours. I absolutely love that record.”

“The whole thing” was “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus”, which was produced, in part, to cash in on the Latin craze that was sweeping the country. The record caught on, as did the single, “Cast Your Fate To The Wind.”
“The people who were doing the Charlie Brown specials heard that record and a couple of other tunes and approached him to do that,” said Bailey. “I had never even heard of Charlie Brown. I was from England! All the Charlie Brown stuff, the Christmas special, “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”, “The Great Pumpkin – that was all way back in 1965, 1966.”
Of the West Coast music scene, Bailey said “Oh, it was beautiful. There’s absolutely nothing now. Nothing. I never even play there now. I was playing at the Trident with Vince, and there was the Jazz Workshop, The Black Hawk, Sugar Hill. There was a club in Berkeley we played – I forget what that was called. The Black Hawk is where I first saw Jimmy Cobb, who’s my favorite drummer. God, there used to be so many jazz clubs. When I was playing with Victor Feldman there must have been ten jazz clubs off Sunset Boulevard.”
Bailey played with the legendary Ben Webster during this time.
Ben Webster

“It was an honor – what an honor – to play with Ben Webster. Ben was an original. No one sounded like Ben. He had come to the Jazz Workshop with Jimmy Witherspoon and we played a three week gig, six nights a week, and Sunday afternoons,” said Bailey. “I got to hang out with him a little bit. He was playful. It would be like 3 o’clock in the morning and he would eat this big bowl of chili. He had an cast iron stomach. He was a beautiful person.”

Bailey said there were two incidents in 1967 that signalled to him that jazz as the prevailing national music was coming to an end. “Ray Brown had to learn how to play electric bass. When that happened, I thought, shit, Ray Brown is the greatest bass player that ever lived,” said Bailey. “The other was when Joe Pass’s band was playing for a popular country singer and Joe Pass was asked to play some cheesy pop phrases. He didn’t know how to do it. He didn’t want to know how to do it. I said: It’s all over when the great Joe Pass has to play this crap. That’s the end of jazz.”
Not quite the end, but the heyday was over. The defining jazz records from the 1940s through the 1960s had been recorded, and rock and roll, such as it was, had completely taken over the airwaves and the great jazz clubs started to close down. Gone were the days when a single like “Take Five” or “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” – jazz instrumentals – could top the charts. The bossa nova craze – epitomized by “The Girl From Ipanema” – had also come and gone by the late 1960s. 
Bailey also believes that “jazz has turned a lot of people off. It’s turned me off. When John Coltrane played with Miles, that was great. He was a fantastic player. The last great record he made with Miles, “Some Day My Prince Will Come” – he cut a solo on that that was fantastic. It was harmonic. But now all these guys want to play outside the changes and its not harmonic,” said Bailey. “Then (Coltrane) went into” – and here Bailey breaks info a late-Coltrane sounding atonal jazz riff – “well, he lost me. And then everybody tried to play like that. I think that’s what killed jazz.”

But Bailey played on the Francis Albert Sinatra/Antonio Carlos Jobim album that was released in 1967. It may be the last great album Sinatra ever made – not that he didn’t record some beautiful singles, but the great Sinatra concept albums were all behind him by the late 1960s. While Sinatra’s later records as a whole tended to try too hard to be current, the beauty and clarity of the Jobim record is undeniable, and Sinatra may not have ever sounded better.

“I was on four tracks. (The Brazilian guitarist and songwriter) Joao Gilberto recommended me to Jobim. Jobim had asked Joao if he knew anybody who could play on some good Brazilian tracks. So that’s how I got the call,” said Bailey. “They let me do the Monday night recording – we had Monday night’s off. The tracks I was on were ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads’, ‘Change Partners’, ‘I Concentrate On You’ and ‘Dindi.'”
These four tracks may be among the most beautiful Sinatra ever recorded. 
During that time, Bailey also played for such diverse people as Chet Baker, Victor Feldman and George Shearing. 
“One of my favorite players was Chet Baker. He was one of the most beautiful players who ever played. I played with him in 1966, and part of 1967. In 1967 I went back to George Shearing. It was a shock playing with George Shearing after playing with Chet. George was a great player but he was very organized,” said Bailey. “In fact, I’m playing now with a group called ‘The Sounds of Shearing.’ The sound of the quintet was piano, vibraphone and guitar playing the tunes in unison. That’s why he got a nice sound, beautiful sound when the three instruments play in unison.”
Bailey called Feldman “a genius. One of the most underrated – but not amongst the guys. Everybody knows what a great musician he was. The hottest piano player I ever heard.”
There was one last bastion of jazz left on American television, and that was with the Tonight Show band headed up by Doc Severinson. So it may come as no surprise that Bailey subbed for the band’s regular drummer, Ed Shaughessy, for about six years.
“I used to do a lot of traveling with Doc on the weekends, too, we used to do a lot of symphony jazz pop concerts,” Bailey said. “That was a great band, a great band. The horn section was amazing.”
When Bailey looks back now, over a long and fruitful career, the one that started out in the dance halls of post-war Swindon, and the one that took him from Sydney, Australia to the NBC studio where The Tonight Show was filmed to the famous jazz clubs in San Francisco, he remembers the people that helped and influenced him along the way.
“I was influenced by all kinds of people. I mean, for instance, I was influenced by a drummer named Joe Daniels in England when I was about seven years old. He had a Dixieland band. There was Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Shelley Manne. Shelley was one of the great drummers. He was wonderful to me. He gave me so much work. I used to sub for him at the club (Shelley’s Manne Hole) with his group. Max Roach – he just blew me away, that was in 1950, 1951,” said Bailey. 
But Bailey doesn’t always play jazz. All you need to do is check out his sessions with guitarists Joe Pass and Roy Clark from 1993 to see how diverse Bailey is as a player.
There has been sorrow over this long career, of course, over a long career. Friends and colleagues pass away, the scene changes, but Bailey said he suffered a blow in February that he is still reeling from.
“My wife passed away in February after 56 years. It’s hard to get over that. I’m trying to keep as busy and occupied as I can, to take my mind off it. Her name was Jan, Janet, and we met when we were 16 in Swindon. Her sister used to work at the local record shop playing these 78 records. I had a crush on the sister, she was a couple of years older than me. But on Saturdays Jan started to go in there to help, they were busy on Saturdays, and that’s where we met,” said Bailey. “She used to go hear me play when I was playing with a dance band in Swindon. We just knew we were meant for each other, you know? We were just so damn close. I miss her terribly.”
Bailey’s two books on drumming, “Bass Drum Control” and “Drum Solos and the Art of Phrasing” have both been influential and are still available, and a new DVD based on “Bass Drum Control” is now out. Bailey also stays busy playing with jazz bands and on pleasure cruises. 
He has a lot to show for the kid of 15 who first stepped outside those school gates knowing he was going to be a drummer.
“I’ve had a great life,” Bailey said. “A really great life.”

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