Drums and Cymbals by Donald Bailey

Donald “Duck” Bailey was authentic Philadelphia Afro-American mystery. He styled everything: his home-painted clothes, his unusually angled drum set, his inimitable beats.

The organ trio was great for drummers wanting to let loose. With an acoustic piano you had to keep it on the quieter side, but all that voltage coming out of the Hammond B3 meant you could leave your brushes at home. Indeed, much rock and fusion comes straight from the classic organ trios of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Don Patterson, Baby Face Willette, John Patton, and others. It’s significant that Tony Williams got an organ trio with Larry Young and John McLaughlin for his innovative Lifetime group; also, John Bonham played a lot of “organ trio + vocal” onstage with Led Zeppelin.

Donald Bailey was the first person to put the hi-hat (with foot) on the skip beat. A good place to hear it is on Jimmy Smith’s “Back At the Chicken Shack,” which has the skip hi-hat, a snare smack on two, and “uh huh!” on tom-tom in mid-bar.

He couldn’t have played that beat with a piano trio of the era: it would have been too noisy. Surrounded by organ and guitar, it fits perfectly. What really makes it work is the feel, which is casually undulating and “local” in intention. You can’t take that beat, put in the hands of anyone else, and expect to get the same situation.

A few years later Bailey moved out to the West Coast and starting being the odd man out on various record dates. The best of them that I’ve heard are four marvelous records with Hampton Hawes: Here and Now and High in the Sky are experimental studio records with Chuck Israels or Leroy Vinnegar; The Seance and I’m All Smiles are in the club with Red Mitchell.

Here and Now is really “my” record. At one point it was my favorite disc. After all these years of collecting Donald Bailey records, I still haven’t heard another that features Bailey so well.

A big part of Bailey’s sound is his china cymbal. He rarely rode on it, but dropped soft bombs up there in what seemed like almost a random fashion. It’s like an obscure, staggered china cymbal clave.

The left hand and bass drum can be somewhat like Elvin Jones, with rolling triplets that bounce back and forth. When it’s a waltz, like “Fly Me to the Moon” or “Rhonda” on Here and Now, someone might even guess it was Elvin for a moment.

However, the rumor is that Bailey did the triplets first or at least on his own. I’ve heard many times that John Coltrane tried to get Bailey for the quartet early on or when Elvin couldn’t make it, and that Bailey — for some obscure reasons, including not wanting to travel — usually refused.

The other Philadelphia drummer going in the same direction with the 6/4 language in late 50’s was Edgar Bateman, who also may have turned down the Coltrane gig!

Certainly Elvin is playing some triplets on 50’s recordings, and a Bobby Jaspar article from The Jazz Review in February 1959 talks about the triplets in detail. However, without taking a thing away from Elvin’s striking original genius, it can be conclusively said that John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner both knew and played with Bailey and Bateman in Philly. When Trane and McCoy had to face down Elvin, they had been prepared.

There are a couple of Coltrane bootleg tunes from Montreal 1963 with Bailey subbing for Roy Haynes (who was of course subbing for Elvin). “Impressions” is fast and hard to hear, with a long piano solo and no tenor solo. More telling in terms of the 6/4 language is “Up ‘Gainst the Wall” with no McCoy, just Trane and Jimmy Garrison. It’s obviously not Elvin, but it sounds like it someone who knows their Elvin — unless, of course, they had arrived there by a separate route.


What Bailey had that wasn’t Elvin-esqe was something intentionally square in the phrasing. (You can hear it all over “Up ‘Gainst the Wall.”) I love the clunky drummers: Frankie Dunlop, Ed Blackwell, Paul Motian, Tootie Heath, the cats who play some sparse, corny stuff on the snare a bit too loud and look over, daring you to make something of it.

But that above paragraph may give a wrong, amateurish impression. Listening to Bailey now I think also of how all four limbs move in a consistent dance all the time, just like Elvin or Billy Higgins. (Or indeed, almost all the greats, including Dunlop, Blackwell, Paul, and Tootie.) Clave really is the right word: the patterns just keep falling into place. It’s hard to imagine any of these playing just the cymbal beat without automatically generating appropriate accompanying patterns in the three other limbs.

So that “clunk” I love is still always part of a pattern. Another good place to hear the “clunk” is the out-chorus of “Rhonda,” where Bailey plays a surprising, almost too-obvious tom part. It’s incredibly swinging, but it also takes Hampton’s little Bill-Evans-ish waltz and puts it in a different place. The drums help create a complex emotion.

Bailey brought that complex emotion to any of those West Coast dates. Jimmy Rowles, a natural surrealist himself, loved Bailey. For some reason the several Rowles-Bailey albums I know haven’t struck me as Rowles’s best, but there’s a least one tune from from Stacy Rowles’s Tell it Like it Is that should be known. The surreality that both Jimmy Rowles and Donald Bailey understand so well was given to jazz by Duke Ellington, and on Duke’s obscure 1937 “Alabamy Home” Bailey honors the original mad drummer, Sonny Greer.

Of course this is just my speculationm a fan of the music drawing intellectual conclusions. I met Bailey once, and it must be said that he was put off by my perpetual “state of inquiry.” Whatever Bailey did, he did it his way, for his own reasons, and he let me know that I wasn’t going to be initiated.

Given the obscurity of people like Bailey and their unique magic, I don’t mind being an un-initiated academic then, today, and tomorrow. But it’s only fair to warn the reader that what I’m writing here might not please Donald Bailey.

The same day we interacted a bit, Bailey gave a masterclass. The highlight began as a gaffe: someone asked Bailey to play the beat on Jimmy Smith’s “The Sermon.” Unfortunately Art Blakey is on that tune, not Bailey. But rather than being offended, Bailey said that of course he played it live.

“This is what Blakey played.” It was a reasonably conventional shuffle with the main movement on the snare and four on the floor.

“This is how I made it my own.” Bailey took the shuffle and put it in the bass drum. It stayed on the snare too (naturally, with an accent on two and four). What was especially astonishing was that the snare and bass drum patterns, while moving along at the same time, were not played exactly together. There was some mysterious desynchronization that created a thick rumble, like a subway was passing below us.

Probably the word “desynchronization” is wrong; however Bailey got to what he did, an intellectual word suggestive of mathematics was not part of the process. It was more “cultural” or “mystical.”

Bailey’s version of the “Sermon” beat was incredibly swinging that day. It might have been the most swinging thing that happened all week at that workshop. And I expect most of the Bailey obits and mentions will say something like “a real swinger of the old school.” That’s not wrong, but when Bailey came up, everyone could swing. There wasn’t even a question about that topic for that powerful Philadelphia peer group.

What Bailey had that was really different was the strangeness and the willingness to take a chance. He delivered a dissonant counterpoint that could immediately re-contextualize any given situation. It was — forgive me, Mr. Bailey, if I’m way off base here — redolent of sacrifice, of facing down fear, of unnameable ritual.

Donald Bailey didn’t work as much as he should because most cats aren’t willing to deal with those topics. And maybe he hid out on the West Coast because there he wouldn’t ever have to change and become more “New York professional.” He could hang out in California and play his crazy drums and harmonica and no one would give him any grief. Certainly everyone who got to see him on a good night in the last 50 years has never forgotten it.

Unlike Edgar Bateman, at least we have a decent-sized amount of Donald Bailey on tape — although still not enough, and he’s not always alongside musicians worthy of his genius. But I guarantee that on each and every album, Bailey plays something that only Donald Bailey could play.

Selected discography:

Jimmy Smith A New Sound, A New Star (1956) The Incredible Jimmy Smith at the Organ (1956) At Club Baby Grand (1956) The Sounds of Jimmy Smith (1956) Plays Pretty Just for You (1957) Jimmy Smith Trio + LD (1957) Groovin’ at Small’s Paradise (Blue Note, 1957) House Party (1957) The Sermon! (1958) Softly as a Summer Breeze (1958) Cool Blues (1958) Six Views of the Blues (1958) Home Cookin’ (1959) Crazy! Baby (1960) Open House (1960) Plain Talk (1960) Straight Life (1961) Plays Fats Waller (1962) I’m Movin’ On (1963) Bucket! (1963) Rockin’ the Boat (1963) Prayer Meetin’ (1963) The Boss (1968)

George Braith Two Souls in One (1963)

Hampton Hawes Here and Now (1965) I’m All Smiles (1966) The Seance (1966) High in the Sky (1970)

The Three Sounds Live at the Lighthouse (1967) Coldwater Flat (1968)

Harold Land The Peacemaker (1968)

Esther Phillips Live at Freddie Jett’s (1970)

Jimmy Rowles Subtle Legend Vols. 1 and 2 (1972) Some Other Spring (1972) Looking Back (1988) Sometimes I’m Happy, Sometimes I’m Blue (1988) Trio: Jimmy Rowles, Red Mitchell, Donald Bailey (1988)

Mundell Lowe California Guitar (1972)

Sarah Vaughan And the Jimmy Rowles Quintet (1974)

Red Norvo Vibes ala Red (1975)

Carmen McRae And Her Trio (1975) Everything Happens to Me (1983) You’re Looking at Me (1983) For Lady Vol. 1 and 2 (1983)

Sam Most Flute Flight (1976)

Richie Kamuca Charlie (1977)

Benny Powell Coast to Coast (1981)

Charles McPherson The Prophet (1983)

Stacy Rowles Tell It Like It Is (1984)

Frank Wess and Johnny Coles Two at the Top (1985) (The Uptown issue with live tracks)

Bebop and Beyond Plays Thelonious Monk (1990) Plays Dizzy Gillespie (1991)

Pete Christlieb and Bob Cooper Mosaic (1990)

Greg Cohen Moment to Moment (1996)

Chuck Israels The Bellingham Sessions (1998)

Donald Bailey’s last record was his debut as a leader, 2006’s Blueprints of Jazz, Vol. 3. It’s definitely got some prime drumming on it but frankly it is a bit hectic and noisy overall, partly due to the compressed and unattractive fidelity. I’ll keep listening, though: the intention of this group of Philadelphia stalwarts is honest, clear, and admirable.

A better listen for late Bailey is Greg Cohen’s Moment to Moment, which has deep blowing from West Coast stalwarts Teddy Edwards and Gerald Wiggins alongside some rambunctious Bailey. Kudos to Greg for making this important document happen!