Inside Story

Trusting the music

Judy Bailey’s long and distinguished career has contributed to an explosion in Australian jazz talent

Andrew Ford Music 10 January 2019 1983 words

“I still get goose bumps remembering it”: jazz pianist, composer and educator Judy Bailey. Renae Coles

There is no more widely respected or influential figure in Australian jazz than Judy Bailey. The respect comes from her work over six decades as composer, pianist and band leader. The influence comes from her teaching, both formal and informal. She’s now on her third generation of students, and they love her and they are loyal. In many cases, she is the reason they are jazz musicians.

When Andrea Keller, herself now a composer, pianist and band leader, heard Bailey play with her pianist colleague Roger Frampton in the 1980s, it was Keller’s first live jazz gig. “The music resonated so deeply with me,” she explains, “that it became the beginning of a new passion and intrigue that continues to this day. Also, at a vitally impressionable age I was seeing Judy — one of the most accomplished jazz pianists in the country, a rare female working in a sea of men, a mum — she showed me that all is possible.”

So we must add to Bailey’s other accomplishments her significance as a role model, not only for young women but also these days for senior artists who see no reason to retire — who might, in any case, be in the prime of their creative lives.

“I really believe that Judy is an unstoppable force,” Tim Firth, the drummer of Bailey’s trio, once said. “If a nuclear bomb was dropped on the earth, there wouldn’t be anyone left except Keith Richards, Judy Bailey and maybe a few cockroaches.”

That was in 2015, when saxophonist and composer Jeremy Rose put together a tribute to his former teacher on her eightieth birthday and asked friends and colleagues to share their thoughts. A few weeks ago, when I recorded a conversation with Bailey for The Music Show on Radio National, nothing seemed to have changed. Uppermost in her mind was the following week’s recording sessions of her new scores for Jazz Connection, the student big band of which she is musical director, and with whom she performs at Sydney’s Lazy Bones Lounge on the fourth Sunday of each month.

“We must mention the recording sessions,” she said with the air of a much younger composer given her first break in the studio. Her enthusiasm is boundless and infectious. She is also a detail person. My producer had asked Bailey for some suggestions of music to play during our interview. By way of reply, an email arrived with a list of excerpts from nearly twenty tracks, each with careful timings for start and/or fade points in the music.

Judy Bailey’s development as a jazz musician began with something of an epiphany. It was 1949, and she was a thirteen-year-old growing up in Whangarei, the most northerly city in New Zealand, and taking classical piano lessons. The National Broadcasting Service (now Radio New Zealand) was making test broadcasts ahead of the opening of its Whangarei studios.

Bailey remembers the moment vividly. “I heard — on the Bakelite radio that lived on the Formica bench in the kitchen — the George Shearing Quintet,” she told me. They were playing “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon),” a song she knew and a favourite of her father’s. But after the first chorus came “all this other stuff.” It was improvisation, of course, and Bailey had heard nothing like it before. Knowing the song’s structure, she found she was able to follow what Shearing was doing at the keyboard, and she was instantly beguiled.

The following week, her jazz education was ramped up a notch when the Stan Kenton Orchestra came on the radio. “I thought I was going to faint,” she said. “I still get goose bumps remembering it.”

When 1XN (later Radio Northland) announced open auditions for local talent, Bailey’s father drove his daughter to the studio one afternoon after school. She had no idea where she was going, but when she arrived she was ushered into a room with a grand piano. She’d never played such a fine instrument in her life, but she clearly impressed the producers. They booked her for an appearance on the station’s opening night. She duly performed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a song turned into a big hit by another Judy.

Perhaps more significantly, the producers gave her access to the record library, and her education began in earnest. In short order, she also landed her own show with a singer. “A Date with Judy and Wendy,” a half-hour program, was broadcast live each week.

By 1960, it was time for Bailey to spread her wings. She set off for London, but never arrived. Stopping in Sydney, she discovered a thriving jazz scene. Outside El Rocco in King’s Cross, the queues would stretch round the corner into William Street; inside they served what Bailey remembers as “the worst coffee” while bands played the best jazz.

“Don Burrows, Errol Buddle, George Golla, John Sangster…” Bailey began to reel off the names of the legendary figures of 1960s Australian jazz who appeared at the club. In no time she had joined their ranks. She also found herself in high demand on radio and television.

More than half a century later, this era of “light entertainment” is hard to recall, but in music the term generally implied some form of jazz, with swing still predominant but new forms of jazz by no means excluded. TV networks had their own bands and orchestras. The ABC, for instance, ran big bands in both Melbourne and Sydney in addition to its six state symphony orchestras. At Channel 7, Tommy Tycho had a band and a string orchestra. There was John Bamford’s orchestra at Channel 9 and Jack Grimsley’s at 10.

Bailey, who was quick, bright and efficient, and had a fantastic — and now legendary — ear, worked for one after the other, as pianist, arranger and composer. At the ABC she had a stint with the Don Burrows Septet.

But fashions change. Swing bands were already on the way out, even before the arrival of rock and roll. Gradually, live music disappeared from the TV schedules, and with it went the bands. Jazz clubs closed (and opened and closed again). A jazz paradox emerged.

In 1973, the jazz course began at Sydney Conservatorium with Judy Bailey a founding member of its teaching staff. Today, she is still showing up for work, and over the past forty-six years she has trained many hundreds of musicians. The talent pool in Australian jazz has turned into a lake — more, a lake district. But the work is no longer there. The jazz musician’s phone doesn’t ring as it once did. Without the bands and the TV and radio work, and with the existence of jazz clubs always in peril (they still open and close), musicians must be entrepreneurial. In order to work, they must first make the opportunities.

Bailey is well aware of the paradox of so much talent and so few venues, but she continues to believe strongly in what she’s doing, and argues passionately for music as part of the school curriculum.

“Sport fuels the body and school feeds the intellect,” she said, “but it’s music that nurtures the soul.” Moreover, improvised music, she believes, nurtures it in a special way. It’s to do with trust. Trusting others and trusting your instincts. But in order for one’s instincts to be free, not only must musicians absorb the technique, they must also learn to forget it.

“We are creatures of habit,” Bailey told Jeremy Rose in 2015, explaining that if a performer has practised hard, and learned to play certain melodic ideas in every key, then these will tend to go into his or her memory bank and surface in improvisation. When that happens, it isn’t really improvisation.

“I know a lot of players work this way, and good luck to them, but what I’ve noticed is that as a musician accumulates a whole series of practised patterns and ideas… they start to sound like, well, ‘licks,’ and no matter how skilfully or how fast those licks are delivered, they are still just licks, and they become very boring. And, unfortunately, those licks tend to make their appearance at moments that are not necessarily part of the actual flow that the player ideally should be trying to create. The licks appear at, if I can put it this way, disjointed moments, so that… the improvisation starts to take on a fragmentation.

“Now, there again, fragmentation in itself is not a crime, and in fact, if a player feels, say, in a quirky mood, then they can create a solo that is fully fragmented, full of little quirky ideas, jumping one on top of another, scattered here and there. But it is still possible to maintain an actual flow through that succession of quirky ideas.”

Bailey’s need for flow — for a through line, a sort of musical logic — has found her composing more and more, though she insists that improvisation and composition are “pretty much the same” for her. It’s all about “making stuff” and still comes down to instinct.

“I’m trying to allow the music to have its way,” she told me, “to have its head, to say what it wants to say without me getting in the way.”

I asked her about the compositional spark, the moment the light goes on, a piece of music comes sharply into focus, and a new piece suddenly begins to exist.

“Yes, I know that spark,” she replied. “That can happen when you feel you’re on a roll and it just happens. You make no attempt to stop it because it just feels right. It’s trusting in instinct. But then again there can be times when the intellect is saying, ‘I want the piece go this way’; and the music is saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no, forget that. It’s got to go this way!’ And the intellect says, ‘Yes but I didn’t have any plans for it to go that way.’ And the instinct is saying, ‘Tough! Just be quiet and go with it.’

“I’m more and more inclined to do that. When I’m aware that there’s a fight going on upstairs, I’m learning to trust that gut feeling. Going with the instinct rather than giving in to the intellect.”

“Giving in?” There was a pause as Bailey pondered my challenge.

“Succumbing,” she decided.

Trusting your instinct and trusting your ears, Bailey says, are the same thing. It comes down to trusting the music itself. But how do you teach such things? Perhaps the answer is to trust your students. One of them was bassist Ben Waples.

“Playing with Judy helped me to realise the absolute importance of using your ears,” Waples told Rose. “I don’t think we ever spoke about what notes/scales to play over what chord.”

Judy Bailey is very much a melodist. On The Spritely Ones, a solo album of original material recorded for the Tall Poppies label in 1998, her playing of the title track is unfussy and unselfconscious, but above all it is continuously melodic. The melody leads her — she allows it to provide that through line; the music is her guide, not the other way round. And note the spelling: “spritely,” not “sprightly.” They are variants, of course, the two words meaning much the same thing, but they are weighted differently — there’s a difference of emphasis.

“Sprightly” suggests what this eighty-three-year-old woman is, physically and mentally: down to earth and businesslike; getting on with things; heading off, a spring in her step, to the next lesson or rehearsal or recording session.

“Spritely” implies something otherworldly. Perhaps this is where the music comes from. Perhaps this is the instinct she trusts to override her will, rather than “succumbing” to her intellect. •