An Old Blueprint Made New 

With his Talking House debut, Donald Bailey migrates from the margins to the center.

Seventy-five-year-old drummer Donald "Duck" Bailey has an anomalous presence on the artist roster at Talking House Records, which otherwise includes prominent indie bands like Loquat and the Lovemakers. Bailey is, in fact, a living legend, known both for his musical accomplishments (he backed organist Jimmy Smith and singer Carmen McRae for many years) and his eccentricities (he came to a recent interview with a necktie fastened around his waist). But for one reason or another, he spent most of his life dwelling in obscurity. Only recently did a startup record company "rediscover" the old drummer and begin documenting his work.

It's a weird twist of fate. Bailey moved around a lot — from his birthplace in Philadelphia to Los Angeles in 1965, then to Japan before finally settling in the Bay Area — so it was pretty easy to lose track of him. He doesn't use the Internet and he never bothered with self-promotion. Thus, it was kind of surprising when Talking House producer Marc Weibel thought to recruit him for a noble — if unprofitable — project called Blueprints of Jazz, meant to highlight older musicians who never quite got their due. (The series contains three records; the other two feature saxophonist Billy Harper and drummer Mike Clark.) It marked the beginning of an odd popularity streak for Bailey, who is now one of the last remaining specters of the be-bop generation.

"When we talked about doing this project, he was blown away," said Weibel, who found Bailey four years ago when he was leading the house band at San Francisco's Savannah Jazz club. "He was like, 'Here I am, an old man, and this is the first time anyone's asked me to do an album.'"

Apparently, Bailey recorded one other album as a leader while living in Japan. But he didn't play drums, he played harmonica. Called So In Love, the joint dropped in 1977, got a fine reception in the rarefied world of harmonica players, and fizzled out. In the meantime, Bailey eked out a living as a sideman. "These jazz musicians scrape by their whole lives," Weibel said. "It's amazing they're able to do what they're able to do."

Born in a working-class neighborhood in South Philly, Bailey came from a musical pedigree. His older brother Mars played saxophone and collected jazz 78s. His father also played drums, but retired at the behest of a religious mother who thought jazz was "the devil's music." At a young age, Bailey started listening to swing drummers like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Papa Jo Jones, mostly on a radio program called "Danceland," and sometimes live at the Earle Theater in north Philly. He would clean his grandmother's house on Saturdays, earning just enough money to ride the 23 trolley downtown and catch the Saturday-night variety show for 75 cents. "Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, whoever was there — you would see 'em on this one show," he said. "We used to hide behind the seats, trying to duck the ushers so we could see the second show. I get excited just thinking about it."

Bailey started playing drums as a preteen by practicing along with his brother's records. His timing couldn't have been better: Be-bop had become the avant-garde, and Philly was a veritable hotbed of it. John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Lee Morgan, Stanley Turrentine, Buster Williams, Jimmy Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker all lived in Philly at some point in their careers — and that's only a partial list. Unknowns like Bailey would hobnob with these elder statesmen at places like the Blue Note Club and get whatever they could get. At that time, the scene was more of a meritocracy, said Bailey. "Nowadays, anybody can get up on the bandstand and play. We couldn't do that when I was coming up," the drummer said. "You just couldn't do it. You would either be too embarrassed or they would embarrass you. They would take you by your pants and throw you out the door."

It took strong guts and musical genius to withstand that trial by fire, and Bailey apparently had both. He was good enough to apprentice with pianists Bud Powell and Hasaan Ibn Ali. Ultimately, he was good enough to back Jimmy Smith for eight years. Bailey got his big break while working in a brass factory at age seventeen. He had narrowly avoided the Korean War draft because he had asthma. "I was making ashtrays and stuff like that," said Bailey. "I got a call from another drummer named Zip. He said, 'I think Jimmy Smith needs a drummer like you.'" Bailey wound up drumming on all of Smith's classic Blue Note records: Home Cookin', Back at the Chicken Shack, Prayer Meetin', The Swingin' Shepherd Blues, and The Sermon (where he traded off with Art Blakey). He would later wind up on the liner notes of many famous albums, including McRae's You're Lookin' at Me, Sarah Vaughan & the Jimmy Rowles Quintet, and Esther Phillips' Confessin' the Blues.

Which was how Weibel found him, years after the drummer had flickered off the scene and fallen prey to health problems, including seizures and severe memory loss. Weibel had just devised the Blueprint series as a way to highlight some of the older, unknown jazzmen in his record collection. It was a risky venture, indeed, but one that would help establish Talking House as a label that cared about something besides paper returns. As he was scouring his own record collection, Weibel kept coming across the name "Donald Bailey." "I couldn't find any info on him, but I didn't find any info that he'd died, either." One day, Weibel saw a newspaper listing for a session at Savannah Jazz, led by a drummer named Donald Bailey. Weibel went down and watched the set. The drummer was obviously in his early seventies — a little stooped over, with a gray mustache and narrow, fine-boned face. "I'm like 'Oh, that must be him,'" said Weibel.

The actual recording session didn't happen until March 2008, after Talking House secured a distribution deal with Fontana and gave Bailey enough time to choose a band and get his set list together. The drummer recruited saxophonist Odean Pope, one of his old friends from Philly, and let Pope bring the rest of his regular quartet — bassist Tyrone Brown, pianist George Burton, and trumpeter Charles Tolliver. They recorded nine tracks over three days in a Fruitvale studio. Several were written or cowritten by Pope, a couple by Brown, and one by Donald's brother Morris. Bailey also included a blues number by Hasaan Ibn Ali and closed out with a delicate interpretation of the ballad "Blue Gardenia," on which he played harmonica. It's a very modern-sounding jazz album, but the drumming is heavy bop. Bailey's zig-zaggy rhythms recall the style that Max Roach popularized back in the 1950s.

So far, the album has sold about a thousand copies (roughly commensurate with the other two Blueprints), which means Talking House is still in the hole financially — for that project, at least. But Weibel doesn't regret doing it. He's proud to be the one who really consecrated Donald Bailey, an unheralded legend who — to this day — still earns his keep as a sideman. "He's just eking out a living," said Weibel. "He's on all these great Jimmy Smith records, and Jimmy Smith was a groundbreaker. Donald was right there with him the whole time."

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