Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

September/October 2012: The Bad Plus

Craig Bailey: Inroads

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In the fall of 1993, I decided to move to New York City. I had done a lot of research and had some target spots for jam sessions which produced gigs. On top of my list was the Dean Street Café in Brooklyn. I didn’t know who was running the session but I knew the routine: go down there, talk my way into playing, then hang out at the bar talking to people to get a gig. That’s just how I thought it worked.

When I got to the Dean Street Café, it was a little dive, and people were stacked outside waiting. Inside it was thick with people. I edged in the door, worked my way through the mobs of people, and stood next to the bass player. I listened to a tune or two, then this sax player comes over to me and says, “Hey, you wanna play bass?” He goes to the mic, thanks the last bass player, asks my name, and puts me on the bass.

The first tune they called was “Cherokee.” I had just learned that tune but hadn’t played it, so I didn’t really know it. It was upstairs (which is jazz-speak for crazy fast), and I think there were about twelve sax players and trumpet players, and the piano wanted to solo. Everybody took multiple choruses so I played “Cherokee,” upstairs, for maybe half an hour, on my first jam session in New York City. I was Worn Out! Then they changed the drummer and called another tune—and it went on like that for seven or eight tunes. I was on the bass for three hours that night, and I was mad because I wanted to schmooze and meet some people and get some gigs.

I think now that he was throwing me a break by not letting me off the bass, but I wasn’t sophisticated enough then to know it.

Fast forward to this spring. Craig Bailey, this veteran saxophonist from New York, is being interviewed for this year’s Artist-in-Residence gig in the Jazz Studies faculty. He tells this exact story! So now I know that the hotshot running that jam at the Dean Street Café was none other than Craig Bailey.

I’m thrilled that Craig is joining us this year. What’s special about him, besides his deep love for the culture and tradition of jazz, besides his high level improvisational skills—he’s a monster player!—and besides his accomplishments writing and arranging for large and small ensembles, what’s special is that this guy is a naturally gifted nurturer of musicians. He’s the kind of person who is always in that position of helping young musicians learn things, doing outreach shows, sharing his love for the music. As I saw all those years ago at the Dean Street Café, he loves a jam session—he wants to see young people dig in and find their voices.

He’s going to be a great addition to our faculty this year. He’s a brilliant player—you can hear Cannonball Adderley in him, and Sonny Stitt, and of course Bird’s language, but also some Johnny Hodges. He’s got some modern language too. His experience with Ray Charles has taught him the value of entertaining—he’s got deep pockets in the blues area.

I’m especially looking forward to having him down at The Cool Wednesday Night Hang each week. We always have a great time over there, but I’m sure adding a jam master to the ticket will heighten the experience a few notches. I hope all of you will find yourself free on a Wednesday evening and come down to enjoy the music and the repartee, and support our young musicians as they get ready to fly on their own.

Check out Craig Bailey, then welcome him to our city…

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