Nutmegging This Up

Hunting vintage jazz vinyl records in the Nutmeg State

Benny Bailey – Big Brass (1960, Candid)





Benny Bailey – Alison


Benny Bailey – Please Say Yes


Benny Bailey – A Kiss To Build a Dream On


If you had been even a casual reader of this blog before I took an eight-month hiatus, you may notice that a big aim of mine in these new posts is to use these records that I collect and covet (not to mention the music found within them) as a catalyst for deeper reading and research. I really couldn’t care less if most of what I do here is somewhat of an aggregation, or even a regurgitation, of what’s already been written. I invest a lot of different things into this hobby: time, money, patience. Heck, before I could even dig deeper into the music itself, I had expand my knowledge on how to spot an old record compared to a newer one. At this point, not only do I feel like I can get back to the music, but it almost seems blasphemous to listen to these records without at least scratching the surface of who these people are, why the results came out as they did, etc.

Take Benny Bailey for example. Even at the height of his powers as a player, he was a relatively unknown figure, to the point where those writing of him cite the iconic tribute song that Quincy Jones wrote about him as much as they try to evoke memories of his best known work. Nat Hentoff, the author of the liner notes for this record, mentions from the very beginning that Bailey was “the most individual player” on the trumpet in recent years. It’s hard to take his word for it, but not because Bailey isn’t a distinctive musician. His approach to improvisation is certainly exciting, especially in the way that he boldly slams high notes from out of nowhere, often at the openings of lines. The reason this must be taken with a grain of salt is because it is a statement coming from a piece of writing that must sell a recording, one that happens to have come about just after Miles Davis, who obtained at the very least the most individual tone and timbre of any jazz trumpeter in history, had just cut Kind of Blue in a hazy modal/bluesy atmosphere that still wafts through the jazz world. From here on out, many trumpet players got brighter and more bold, perhaps in order to evade Miles’ influence, as he alone was and is considered the Prince of a Darkness. Miles embraced the cracks and folds of his tone, while many other trumpet players were so strong on the technique of sound that they muscled through even the most acrobatic of lines.  The curves of bebop became angles and slants in hard bop, and while Bailey’s style eschews the direction most players were headed in, it never created for him a sense of notoriety. That’s probably because Bailey never sought any notoriety.


Early on in the 50s, Bailey was playing with Lionel Hampton’s band when he used a European engagement as an opportunity to leave the band and seek residence outside the United States. Hentoff cites the busy schedule and high demand of the US jazz scene as the reason Bailey sought to leave the States, that the trumpeter preferred to live life at his own slower pace. While there is truth to this, it’s impossible to ignore that many African American jazz musicians were drawn to the way black folks were treated overseas. This would prove to lure many jazz musicians to become expatriates, including fellow Hampton trumpet section member Art Farmer, who also desired to emigrate, relocating to Vienna in 1968. In an interview with Whitney Balliet, Farmer explained his life in Europe:

“I have not had a single bad racial experience since I have been in Europe. No one has been rude, no one has ignored me, as people will do [in the US] if they don’t want to serve you or sell you a ticket! or whatever…Sometimes people stare at you in remote Austrian towns, but they stare at you the same way they would stare at a car they have never seen before. It is always something of a shock to come back [to the US], because nothing has changed much. The same hangout are there. A person who plays jazz can go anywhere else in the world and never feel like a stranger…I can play the tiniest European town and be recognized. In an American town of the same size, or even a good-sized American town, I would be unknown.”

Another member of Hampton’s trumpet section at that time was Quincy Jones, who went on to form his own band and go down in history as a composer and arranger of great talent. Jones recognized Bailey’s ability and coaxed him back into the fold of a big band, consistently featuring Bailey’s powerfully brassy solos. It was at some point while Jones’s band was stateside that Bailey cut Big Brass for the Candid label, featuring a group the majority of which had ties to Jones’s own projects.  Phil Woods’s Rights of Swing, a record made in the same year and that has also been featured on this blog, has a very similar front line.  While the Woods record features the alto saxophonist’s burgeoning talents as a composer and arranger, Jones and other writers transform Bailey’s record from bloated jam session to lively small group exposition.  Even Bailey’s closing original, “Maud’s Mood,” is handled by Jones’s deft pen, rather than being dictated to the septet by its leader.   Les Spann switches from guitar to flute a handful of times in order to add variety to the front line.  Phil Woods even picks up the bass clarinet for the closer to further expand the color palette for Jones’s arrangement.  And then there’s the leader’s beautiful work with the harmon mute, which is a baffling median between your two typical styles of muted playing:  throaty head voice, or searing, straining, piercing.  Its finest moments come on “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” a famous Louis Armstrong vehicle that is taken as a scenic cruise.  Perhaps the choice of mute, while also avoiding Armstrong’s loping, two-to-the-bar approach, were key to erasing any doubt that this particular take were in no way an attempt to pay tribute to one of Bailey’s earliest influences (though Bailey would go on to record a Pops tribute album 40 years after Big Brass).

Anyone listening to Bailey’s improvisations can sense the moments of detour the trumpeter takes from typical bebop navigation, but it’s those wide leaps and sudden darts to the upper register that really give the impression of exuberance that seems to be in contrast to his actual personality and lifestyle.  They are ultra accurate, the result of a trained ear and a bit of courage, but they aren’t planned more than a moment ahead of time. Like a power hitter, he takes pitches until he finds what he likes, and then he can really crank.  It would be a stretch to say that it makes your typical Dizzy Gillespie run up into the stratosphere sound gimmicky, but I do know that it’s clear for me which style of upper register playing I prefer.

Big Brass is not Benny Bailey’s biggest claim to fame, even amongst those who know his playing beyond its fringe-of-unknown status.  A 1969 appearance at Montreux, sitting in with soul jazz stalwarts Les McCann and Eddie Harris, remains the example of his exciting style that has reached the most ears. The record of the performance, Swiss Movement, isn’t hard to find – I’ve passed over it many times without even realizing that Bailey played on it – but to me it’s a drastically reduced example of what Bailey is capable of. What’s most puzzling of all is the juxtaposition of his reclusive tendencies and his demonstrative playing on Swiss Movement. Bailey reportedly didn’t care for this kind of music but he seems quite at home, relying on rhythmic idiom and plenty of the blues to truly stand out in this setting. Bailey remains a bit of a mystery in the sense of whether his voice on the trumpet was his outlet for his true self, or if playing the trumpet were simply what felt most comfortable for him, even sitting in amongst strangers and playing music unknown to him.  Big Brass is certainly a record worth enjoying.  Puzzling over.  Jumping off past the point of the notes hitting your ears to find out more about the musicians that played them.

For more on Bailey, including a video of “Compared to What” from the McCann/Harris concert, visit this well done tribute over at Curt’s Jazz Cafe.



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This entry was posted on March 30, 2014 by .
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