Obscure Trumpet Masters #5 – Benny Bailey

 Benny Bailey (1925 – 2005)

“His sound is very personal and he completely avoids clichés. Above all, he is thrillingly himself. He is totally uninhibited and will get all kinds of sounds out of his horn to get his message across. He combines fantastic breath control, remarkable range and a flawless technique…” – Quincy Jones on Benny Bailey

I’m breaking the alpha order rule that I set when I started, but what the hell. Benny Bailey deserved to be on this list.

Born in Cleveland in 1925, Benny Bailey started out a pianist and flutist before switching permanently to the trumpet.  Early in his career he gigged with Scatman Crothers (Chico and the Man, The Shining and a bunch of other stuff) before landing a gig in 1947 with Dizzy Gillespie’s legendary bop based big band.  Bailey stayed with Diz for a couple of years before moving on to Lionel Hampton.

In the Hampton band, he met another young trumpet player/composer/arranger named Quincy Jones. “Q” so dug young Bailey’s chops that he was moved to write a bouncy show piece for him. The title was “Meet Benny Bailey”.  It became a staple in Q’s band book (and the books of many others) long after his time with Hampton. Years later Jon Hendricks put lyrics to the tune; the Manhattan Transfer recorded it on their legendary Vocalese album and “Meet Benny Bailey” became a minor classic. Ironically, people know more about the tune than they do about the man in the title (Truth – I’ve met folks who didn’t know that “Benny Bailey” was a real person).

When the Hampton band was passing through Sweden on tour in 1953, Bailey abruptly quit the band and decided to remain in Stockholm. He immediately found work there and spent the next few years shuttling back and forth between Europe and the U.S., before settling in Europe permanently in 1961.

Bailey worked steadily through the years, recording mostly with European groups including notably, the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band. He was well-known in Europe, but hardly registered on the American jazz scene, with two notable exceptions.

The first was an album he recorded for Candid in 1960, on a trip to the U.S. after finishing a tour with Quincy. It was called Big Brass. Aided by a septet that included Phil Woods, Julius Watkins, Tommy Flanagan and Art Taylor; playing charts by Jones and Oliver Nelson among others, this group laid down some tracks that epitomized cool bop-swing.  Though he would record for another 40+ years, Big Brass is arguably the best date that Bailey recorded under his own name.

The other exception was one of those jazz festival “accidents” that took place in July 1969, at Montreux. Pianist Les McCann was there to perform with his trio and a couple of horn players sat in with them: saxophonist Eddie Harris, who was a regular McCann partner and Benny Bailey, who had never played with McCann before.  Said Bailey: “I didn’t know any of the tunes, and there was no rehearsal: they had to call out the changes for me.” The results, as we now know, were electrifying; as Bailey’s soaring, stabbing and growling solos are indelible parts of that set, the live album that resulted from it: Swiss Movement and of course, two anthems of the soul-jazz canon “Compared to What” and “Cold Duck Time”.

Years later, Bailey admitted that he did not much care for the funky, R&B laced music that they played that night but like it or not, he is known more for that slice of “shotgun wedding” jazz, than he is for anything else he did before or after it.

Bailey kept up his active performing and recording schedule into the 21st Century, putting together a nice Louis Armstrong tribute disc (The Satchmo Legacy) in 2000.

The circumstances surrounding Bailey’s April 2005 death are bizarre, confusing and undeservedly sad.  He died, apparently alone, in his Amsterdam apartment.  He was found on April 14th. He had been dead for as many as ten days. Neighbors knew nothing about him and musician friends had assumed that he was somewhere on tour.  His body lay in a local morgue for another two weeks before a death announcement was placed in a local paper. A Dutch drummer who had remembered Bailey once mentioning a sister in Cleveland, contacted a Cleveland based jazz journalist, who then was able to contact Bailey’s family in the U.S., who saw to it that Bailey received a proper funeral; almost a month after his death.

Would Benny Bailey have received greater acclaim if he had remained in the States? Who knows. What we do know is that he was a master of his instrument who left us some brilliant music to remember him by. Every serious jazz fan should take the opportunity to “Meet Benny Bailey”

Recommended Recordings:

  • Big Brass (Candid) – CD in print; mp3 also available 
  • Grand Slam (Storyville) – w/ Charlie Rouse, Richard Wyands, Sam Jones CD OOP, but available; mp3 also available 
  • I Thought About You (Laika) – CD in print (on demand); mp3 also available
  • The Satchmo Legacy (Enja) – CD in print, mp3 also available;

4 Responses to “Obscure Trumpet Masters #5 – Benny Bailey”

  1. Very nice Blog, Curt!
    Here a photo of mine of Benny Bailey at the Village Vanguard in June, 1977.

  2. […] For more on Bailey, including a video of “Compared to What” from the McCann/Harris conce… […]

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