Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Billy Bauer: Plectrist and Reluctant Modernist?

Billy Bauer is normally overlooked in the history of jazz guitar which usually goes something like Eddie Lang to Charlie Christian to Django Rheinhardt to Wes Montgomery, etc. and some excellent musicians have been all but forgotten, ignored by everyone but hardcore jazz fans and fellow guitarists. Tiny Grimes? Why, he was only the next most important six-stringer (well, four-stringer since he played the tenor guitar, thanks Colm) in the creation of bebop after Christian. Arguably even more important since he made some of earliest bop recordings with Bird and Dizzy. So with Billy Bauer, First Herder, proto-free jazzer and educator. Bauer was the first recorded free-jazz guitarist and if you trace that lineage forward you have to wait a while before you hit the next one which would be, um, Derek Bailey? Sonny Sharrock, maybe? (Well, the guitar wasn't a favourite instrument of the jazz avant-garde until they started making some real noise in the 1960's. The electric guitar's noise-making capacities are unparelled, after all.) Billy Bauer was really a straight-ahead kind of player, though, judging from his post-Tristano work. His album Plectrist played side-by-side with another jazz guitar classic of the period, Johnny Smith's Moonlight in Vermont sounds pretty tame. Super swinging with impeccable playing but after listening to the Tristano records, pretty conventional. Makes you think, did Billy Bauer really want to play Tristano's music? As Bauer tells it in his autobiography Sideman:

“I didn’t get into Lennie’s scene. I don’t know why he kept me on. I went along with it. I don’t know how I did that.”

and Arnold Fishkin also from Sideman:

Bauer said to Tristano, “‘Every time I catch you harmonically you go in another direction…Maybe you’d be better off with a drummer instead of me.’ Lennie would chuckle, ‘No, Billy, I don’t want drums. Just keep on doing what you’re doing. It’s just fine.’”

It really seems that Bauer wasn't into the whole Tristano thing and his solo on the studio recording of Wow seems to point in that direction (please forgive my crummy handwriting and inaccuracies).

He sounds a little uncomfortable, a little unsure. There's a muffed note near the end and a couple of instances where he sounds a little tentative, certainly sitting between Konitz and Marsh and the two most striking things about this solo are the pedal-point phrases in bars 2 and 9/10. This recording was made in 1949 and Bauer had been recording with Tristano since 1946 so it would seem that he had enough time to get comfortable with Lennie's ideas. He just doesn't sound like he is here. But what a difference a year makes. Check out Billy's solo on this club date recording of Wow from sometime in 1950:


Wow, indeed! He sounds so much more relaxed, more integrated into the rest of the group. This is some pretty "out" guitar for 1950, no one was playing quite this way. Dig his opening phrases:

What a cool, weird little idea. And he plays slight variations on it at :39, :52 and 1:11. This is some pretty remarkable guitar playing for 1950. Who else was playing stuff like this?

Listening to Plectrist though, you really hear where Billy's heart is. He was as great a chordal player as Smith (check out It's a Blue World from Plectrist) and as great a single-line player as Farlow (see Lincoln Tunnel, also from Plectrist), two players who almost completely overshadow him, props-wise. In the end Billy Bauer's deepest impression was made more on his students than in the jazz history books through his work with Billy Bauer's Guitar School in Roslyn Heights, Long Island and his Guitar Instructor Series. Whoever studied under Billy has only fond memories and to end this post I'm going to include an obituary written after Billy's death in 2005 by Lane Steinberg, former Billy Bauer pupil and a prolific and quite awesome maker of music and Mustafio.

BB (That's What Bird Called Him)

I just read that Billy Bauer passed away. Many things going through my mind right now. I studied with Billy twice, once in my teens and later in my twenties. When I came to him the second time, I told him that I didn't care about becoming a virtuoso, just a better songwriter.

I was musically stuck. I was stale. I hated everything that was coming out of me. I needed some fresh perspective. Billy started me playing a C scale with a metronome. Slowly. Very slowly. I was, like, "What the fuck is this? I know the C scale", and he'd look at me and tell me to play it over and over again, in every possible configuration on the guitar, week after week. He was trying to clean me out, get me back to the beginning. He was trying to re-groove me. He told me I had to slow down my mind, that I was going too fast. I later read that Voltaire said a mind that goes too fast is diseased. I would hang out long after my lesson finished, just talking with Billy. He had a drug-like effect on me. I would feel altered after I left him. Calmer, but more aware. He broke down my ego and helped me rebuild into something more rooted in humility. He told me that I had to swing not just in music, but in life. I'd be playing that damn C scale and he'd reach over and grab my torso and push me forward on the "two" and back on the "four". "Swing, man. RELAX! Swing!" He had his bad moods. He could be cutting and blunt, especially if he saw that you were becoming impressed with yourself. He despised braggards. This was a guy who played with Miles, Billie, Bird, Lennie, and would never bring it up unless you did. But he didn't bullshit, either. He rarely gave out compliments, but when he did, they meant the world. He smiled once when I told him I was enjoying a Bobby Hacket record, and commented on his identifiable sound. He told me that was the key, finding one's voice. He said that was something that no one could ever take away from you. We studied Lester Young's solo on Billie Holliday's version of "Mean To Me", and had me sing it for weeks before we'd ever play it on the guitar. He'd put on the recording and we'd sing it together. He had a squeaky voice, but he'd be belting this solo out like Pee Wee Herman imitating Ella Fitzgerald. He said I had no right playing it until I could sing it. I fought him and questioned him. Why was I doing this, singing Lester Young
solos with this old guy in a stuffy room on Long Island? He was very patient with me. He'd look at me with all the tenderness of a parent, lightly poke me in the chest, and say, "I'm trying to get you to understand YOU". Many of his former students would talk about these "Billy Bombs", little bits of insight into music and life that you would barely notice at the time, but would silently explode in your subconcious and emerge later in the full flower of understanding. He said a lot of things both deep and funny. He once said that most drummers don't keep good time. "If you ever find a good drummer, chain him to your leg if you have to, but don't let him get away!" After a
time, I stopped studying with Billy formally, but we always remained in touch. We were working on a project together to re-master all these tapes he had lying around of these informal jam sessions, some of which were fairly amazing, but he wanted me to edit out all his solos because he said everyone was playing good except him! Not surprisingly, we didn't get too far. A few years later, I proudly sent him my first solo CD, and he said, "Jeez, there's so much music in this music!" It was the nicest thing he could have said to me. We talked often, about our families, about music. We talked after 9/11. Nothing seemed to really faze him. When Marion, his wife of many decades, passed away he said, "What are you gonna do? Everyone dies." But I knew he wasn't going to last very long without her, and he didn't even make it through the year. Two weeks ago I was driving home on the Long Island Expressway, coming back from IKEA. I was going to pull off exit 37 and go say hello, but it was 9:00PM and I felt it was too late. Little did I know he's past the week before. I'll miss and remember him always.

There's a great article written by Harvey Pekar from an old issue of JazzTimes (thanks JazzTimes!) about Billy as part if their Overdue Ovation series which is where I stole the quotes from, not the actual autobiography and here's two web sites about Billy:




Of course everyone even remotely interested in this music should go right out and pick up Sideman (myself included) and Plectrist.


Colm O'Sullivan "Red", jazzinreds@yahoo.co.uk said...

It's unfortunate that you call Tiny Grimes "the next most important six-stringer...", as he played 4 string guitar! (Exclusively, I think). And, in the chronology you give, running up to Wes, isn't Jimmy Raney the most important - or simply the greatest - modern jazz guitarist?
But I really enjoyed reading your transcriptions, thank you!

Tiny Iota said...

Damn, that's right, I completely forgot he played a tenor guitar that was a four-stringer. Thanks for the correction, I'll fix it right away.

Raney was great to be sure but I don't think he had the impact of even Tal Farlow though he was equally great and that's kind of my point, he's not discussed as much as the other guys, though he should be.