27 October 2015
Judy Bailey and the taste of creative freedom
© Jim Rolon / Australian Composer Polaroid Series
'When one has tasted creative freedom, it is only natural for you to want to help other people have a taste of that creative freedom.' This is how Judy Bailey - pianist, composer and mentor of generations of Australian jazz musicians - explains her energy and determination in helping young musicians to find their feet. The 80-year-old pianist is interviewed here by a former student, saxophonist Jeremy Rose. Read also: a companion article in which Australian jazz musicians talk about playing and learning about music with Judy Bailey.
You can hear Judy Bailey at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Monday 23 November (with Steve Barry) and at Camelot on Saturday 12 December. Bailey's current projects include plans to record a set of new compositions for jazz orchestra with strings and release a live concert recording of her trio performing the music of Richard Rodgers.
Jeremy Rose: What an incredible honour it is for me to interview you today. You have been a mentor to not only me and my colleagues, but several generations of musicians in Sydney.
Judy Bailey: That's very lovely of you to say that, thank you.
JR: It would be impossible to imagine the Sydney jazz scene without acknowledging your contribution to mentorship and performance. However there was a time when you weren't a jazz musician and you made a decision to follow it as a career. Can I take you back to that moment and ask you what informed that decision, and whether you would have gone down a different path?
JB: There wasn't any one particular moment, I have to say. It was more a gathering of thoughts and ideas about what pursuing a classical career would mean - for a start, having to be at the piano practicing, saying 6-8 hours a day. Because, as you are probably aware, the concert circuit is immensely competitive, as most things have become these days. But even then, it was really a hard slog. But more than that, I felt the pull of this 'other music', this naughty-type jazz music that allowed players to basically play what they wanted to play, rather than what I later came to realise, and to call, being tied to the tyranny of the dots on the page. That's how I came to feel about classical music. And don't get me wrong, I've retained my absolute love of classical music and I can't imagine hearing music in my head that isn't, if you like, an amalgam, a synthesis, of both classical and jazz music - that seems to have always been there. The important thing with jazz, as I saw it, because of the improvisatory element, it allowed players to play what they wanted to play, from the heart, rather than, in the case of classical music, what the composer intended.
JR: So jazz music provided a creative freedom that you were searching for?
JR: Did you ever consider pursuing any other career paths?
JB: At one stage I toyed with the idea of designing - just design in general. In particular, fashion design, but that was a fleeting thought. No, I think music, even though I didn't deliberately set out to make a career of it, it sort of grabbed hold of me, and still hasn't let go!
JR: You've done a lot of composition for orchestra and jazz ensembles - does the term 'third stream' have any resonance with you, and what were your motivations to put jazz into an orchestral setting?
JB: My reasons for attempting what you just described were purely because of my love of both genres. That's all. And third stream, sure, I'm aware of what that represents, but I can't say I pursued that in any shape or form. It has just been a case of going ahead and dealing with making music, either performing or writing, making that music out of the genres that I love. Very simply - classical and jazz (laughs). I know it sounds boringly simple, but that's the way it is.
JR: A representation of your own aesthetic and influences?
JB: Yes, definitely.
JR: In your practice would you consider there is a particular sound to a Judy Bailey composition or performance? I've noticed on a few of your compositions you have used nationalist titles such as the Australiana suite. What were some of the movements? 'Walkabout', 'Red Desert', 'Shuffle off to Bendigo', which I recall all performing in Jazz Connection years ago when I was still at the Con [Sydney Conservatorium]... 'White Waratah', 'Where's Matilda'.
JB: You've left something out, which should tell you something - 'What Goes Around Comes Around', and people can read into that however they wish.
JR: So do you think your music personifies any particular Australian traits or is it simply a representation of Judy Bailey, the individual experience.
JB: The latter (laughs).
JR: One thing I learnt from you was the idea of stream of consciousness in performance - the idea of having a conversation with yourself in improvisation, and creating a sense of flow, and, more importantly, an idea of compositional design in the improvisation.
JB: Gee did you really? Good grief, that's wonderful!
JR: Is that a way that you practice?
JB: I don't practice that. You think it, you feel it. It's not something that I have deliberately striven for as far as practising is concerned. And you know what - I don't really like that word practice. I much prefer the word playing, and play. To me the word practice contains a sort of rigorous, almost punishing aspect, just the sound of the word and the context in which it is usually used. And when I say rigorous and punishing, that's from one end of the spectrum to the other. You ought to understand that. And I think practice, true practice, can be all of that entire spectrum. I do think that when one is seriously applying oneself to one's instrument, it behoves one to be entirely ruthless with oneself, to, in fact, I like to use the term, to be one's own watchdog, to work at something from a technical point of view that you want to get right, so there's no chance of stumbling over it. So I think when one is working over a particularly difficult passage, one should learn to focus in such a way that the task is handled to the point where one accomplishes what they set out to do. And if that means that you have to go over it sixty million times, then you do that.
One of the things I discovered, way back, when I was studying for my letters in classical piano, if I started the piece that I was working on that contained a somewhat difficult passage, rather than just work on that passage to the exclusion of all else, I found that if I started the piece right at the beginning and went right through to, hopefully the end, but generally speaking, when I reached that difficult part there were the errors that had occurred. So instead of going over and over just that difficult passage, I found that if I made myself go, and this took some doing, but if I made myself go back to the very beginning of the piece every time I stumbled, I soon found that I became so bored with this, that that in itself helped me to deal with the problem and fix it. So having to, oh (sighs), so painful to go back to the beginning to plough through all that stuff, and sure it's great practice but you get so tired of that, that you make yourself get it right. I found that worked for me. But that of course was with the classical music.
JR: So when you learn tunes in a jazz context, would you say that you practice improvising over them or were there melodic ideas that you've put through various keys etc?
JB: No I've never done that and I'll tell you why. Because it's my feeling that - blow it, I'll go ahead and say it anyway. Look, we are human beings, we are creatures of habit, it becomes natural for us to work on something so that it becomes, after a period of time, a habit, and no matter how lovely that habit might be, if one has gone to the trouble of working on that habit, as you suggest, in every key, then it goes into the memory bank and then further down the track you find that particular pattern or idea that you've slavishly practiced in every key, starts popping into your everyday improvisation. And I know there's a lot of players that work this way, and good luck to them, but what I've noticed is that as a musician accumulates a whole series of practiced patterns and ideas, on one hand they can become, if you like, a resource, for the player. On the other hand, they can become something that is repeated so many times in various improvised solos that they start to sound like, well, 'licks', and no matter how skillfully or how fast those licks are delivered, they are still just licks, and they become very boring. And, unfortunately, also 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 after a while, with these licks appearing here, there and everywhere, 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. And I love that, it's just another way, another concept that you can attach to improvisation. I hear a lot of really young players doing that thing of practicing those patterns and ideas over every key, thus creating a whole library of licks for themselves. That's fine for the time being if that's the way they want to work, but it seems to me that they need to have it pointed out to them that that type of work or application should only ever be considered a means to an end. Unfortunately it becomes an end in itself, and too many players never get past that stage. That's why so many, and pardon me for saying this Jeremy, but that particular type of playing seems to be prevalent amongst saxophone players (both laugh). And they get to a stage where some of them are immensely proficient from a technical point of view. And so all these licks get whizzed out one on top of another, at sometimes frenetic speed, which causes me to, one day I thought to myself, what does that remind me of, all that frenetic speed? Not what I would call music making, but just frenetic successions of notes that have been practiced diligently. And I asked myself one day, what did it remind me of - have you ever seen babies with projectile vomiting? That's what I call projectile impro (laugh). It's very clever and dazzling for people who don't know anything about music, but I think it's just a shame. But that's fine if they want to achieve that, as long as they learn to eventually get past that point and start making some real music. You know what I'm saying?
JR: It seems you've been articulating how important it is to use melodic development rather than pre-determined lines in improvisation. Let's discuss mentorship…?
JB: Mentor or mental…? You know its mental health week… (laughs).
JR: You've played an important role in mentorship to several generations in Sydney. Why is mentorship so important to you and what motivates you to continue to share your knowledge?
JB: I just like to help people. Sorry I can't be more verbose.
JR: You were named in the top 100 influential people in The Sydney Magazine. Do you feel influential in anyway?
JB: I've never understood why, truly, I was gob-smacked when that happened and still am.
JR: You've been directing Jazz Connection and of course teaching here at the Con. Could you expand on what has been your idea of providing a good education and being a good influence on younger generations?
JB: My idea of providing a good education and influence - that's a very big question. But really, it still comes back to the same thing. I like to help where I can. And why do I like to help? Because it is an absolute magical thing, I think, when you see another human being who is maybe starting out in music, when they start to see that spark, that love of the music in them, you start to see that grow. And you start to see a growth in the person themselves, and a growing delight on their path as they start to learn more, as they start to discover more of this amazing thing that we call music. And because I consider that music is basically language, and language is music, if you like, then to help somebody learn the language of music is… Have you ever helped someone learn the English language, Jeremy? Well that should give you a pretty good idea of what I'm trying to explain here. Because I'm sure you would have started to get excited and thrilled when the person you were teaching, or helping with English, started to get a grasp on what you were teaching them. Did you ever have that feeling of excitement, and pleasure and satisfaction when they started to get that grasp on the language? Well that's how it feels in music for me with students. Because, and you might say, 'Well why is that?' Because what is happening, is you are helping open a door for them to go through which allows them to start to experience the same sort of creative freedom that we talked about earlier.
When you've got something yourself that you've discovered, experienced and nurtured, and it's been a tremendous thing in your life, then it's natural for you to want to help other people who are exhibiting the same need to experience what you've experienced. And of course, everyone experiences in different ways. But when one has tasted creative freedom, it is only natural for you to want to help other people have a taste of that creative freedom also. It's like when you are having a good meal, something that is really good, and if you are dining with friends, quite often you will say, 'Hey try this, have a taste of this, it's fantastic!' So you will offer a little bit of what you are eating over to them so that they can try it. Because you want them to experience the same sort of pleasure that you are having with your meal.
JR: It sounds like this really boils down to the question of the importance of music and what music means to you.
JB: Well I would have to go back to what I was saying before - there is music, and there is language. How are we going to communicate with each other if we don't have language. Sure we can use body language, but that's not going to give us the same depth and breadth of expression that we get with the spoken word. It's the same with music.
JR: And you've seen music change people's lives?
JB: Oh yes. I think whether we are aware of it or not, we are all affected emotionally by music. The ancient Greeks used the modes, as we know, to treat all types of human conditions. I think that music is an immensely powerful force - I don't think that we've yet discovered just how incredibly powerful it is. You know, this is nothing to do with what you've asked me, but the other day I found myself thinking - it all stemmed from a thought about Roger Frampton, which happens quite often because we all miss him so much. And I remember a friendly argument I had with him about acoustic instruments. He claimed that, eventually, there would be none left in the world. I argued against that. And then, for some reason, I found myself thinking that that's right - the other thought was that a student had been working through a composition, and they were saying that these sounds that they got on Sibelius weren't very pleasant. And I found myself thinking that I wouldn't find it at all surprising if an application went in one day from, who knows, anyone, an application for funding from the Australia Council, and it would be for this type of project where you needed funds to be able to really research and develop acoustic instruments that were capable of faithfully emulating digital sound.
JR: Well it's funny, have you heard drummers try to emulate the rhythms created by hip-hop producers such as J-Dilla where the beats aren't quantised and have a rolling motion with the time feel?
JB: Yep, a lot of the jazz players would do that naturally (laughs).
JR: Yeah, so I guess what goes around comes around, with technology trying to emulate humans and vice versa.
JB: Yes - art mimicking life and life mimicking art.
JR: What about in your role as curator for the Bennelong series at the Sydney Opera House - what did you think was the goal of music in that context. Were you there to entertain, educate people, inspire people?
JB: Hopefully all of the above. The organisers used to target schools and bring busloads of kids into those performances, as well as including the general public.
JR: What keeps motivating you as a performer and mentor after so many years?
JB: Just the love of what I am involved in. I really just love it! And I am so grateful that I am able to continue being involved like this. It's a life-long pursuit.
JR: Well, I hope I can still be going at your age! (laughs)
JB: Look, I think people owe it to themselves to try and take care of themselves. But I think we're lucky being involved, I think all musicians are lucky doing what they do. If it happens to go on year after year, so be it, it's a wonderful thing.
© Australian Music Centre (2015) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Subjects discussed by this article:
- Judy Bailey (Interviewee)
Jeremy Rose's new Quartet album Sand Lines will be launched on 12 November in Sydney and 15 November in Melbourne. See also homepage at www.jeremyrose.com.au, Jeremy's label Earshift Music and @jeremyrose on Twitter.
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As well as being a "mentor of generations of Australian jazz musicians" she has been an inspiration for all kinds of Australian musicians. Though I didn't study jazz, we had Judy for an improvisation class and it was one of the most remarkable classes I took in four years at the Conservatorium. She was also one of the most outstanding teachers I encountered there. She is an extraordinary human being, and such an inspiring musician. I am completely unsurprised to hear Judy describe herself as wanting to help other people find their "creative freedom" - this is exactly how I felt about her class.
That's a very important point to make, thanks Chris. For the record, Jeremy didn't write the intro, I added it...