By: Matt Warnock
Jazz, like many genres of music, is defined by its classifications. Is this artist a Beboper? Is this artist a Modern Jazz performer? Do they play Modal Jazz, or Latin Jazz, or Fusion? It seems that everyone from record companies to festivals to radio stations to fans are constantly trying to figure out how to categorize artists and their musical output. This is a great way to help fans figure out if they will like a new artist, being able to compare them to an artist they already know, but it also leads to problems because some artists just don’t seem to fit into any one category of classification with their music.
Virtuoso guitarist Sheryl Bailey is just such an artist. Her music possesses elements of classic Bebop vocabulary, but there are also elements of Modal and Modern Jazz mixed into just about everything she does. Because of this, it’s hard to call Bailey a Bebop guitarist or a Modern Jazz guitarist, as she straddles the fence between the two realms. So, maybe we need to come up with a new term to describe her music, as well as other artists who blend classic jazz with a modern sensibility, how about Modern Bebop? Seems to describe Bailey’s music well, and maybe it’ll start a whole new category of jazz in the future.
As she launches her new album, hits the road for another successful run of shows and releases a new online instructional video at Mike’s Masterclasses titled the Family of Four, Guitar International caught up with the talented guitarist to talk about her current and upcoming projects. So, without further ado, let me introduce you to Sheryl Bailey, Modern Beboper.
Matt Warnock: For your new album For All Those Living, I was just wondering, what’s the thought behind the title? Is there a special meaning behind it?
Sheryl Bailey: Yeah, part of the focus of the project is that it’s a partial benefit for the Ronald McDonald House. I guess that title song is directly related to my experiences there.
I can’t comment on what happens when we leave our bodies, but while we’re here we have to celebrate life and be there for each other. So I guess the sentiment behind it is that music is a healing force for them.
You know, working with the kids through the music program there, I saw how important that experience was to their life while they were going through some really heavy stuff. And also the family, the parents know their kid can go to a space and get away from the heaviness of what they’re going through. That’s really what it’s about. The sentiment behind it is about celebrating now, being alive and what music can do for us.
Matt: You mentioned that some of the proceeds from the record sale will go to the Ronald McDonald House in NYC. Is that something you’re going to continue to do on future projects? What plan do you have working with that organization going forward?
Sheryl Bailey: You know it’s kind of an experiment. I actually received a grant while I was making the recording from the Bronx Council for the Arts. I guess my thought was that since someone helped me with the project partially, maybe I could give some of that back. So I’m not sure yet how it’s gonna work. When we do the actual concert record release, 100% of the sales are going to go to the House. You know, its an experiment. [Laughs]
Matt: Just sort of see what happens.
Sheryl Bailey: Yeah! My hope is that if I could give back at least what I received in terms of the grant, that would be hugely successful.
Matt: All the songs on the record are original material that you wrote. I was wondering do you feel that there is a need today for jazz musicians to be writing all originals, or mostly originals, to stand out and to be accepted in the jazz community? Are the days of only playing standards over?
Sheryl Bailey: I don’t know. I find that in the States I get more resistance to performing a concert of original music than I do in Europe and other places. I mean, I just feel strongly that for me, playing my own music helped me develop who I am as an artist.
I’ve known lots of standards and I love standards, but if you’re gonna play a Wes Montgomery tune, there’s an expectation of what that should sound like. So I felt like in terms of me developing what I do as a guitarist, I felt like to play my own music, I can only expect myself to come through there. You know what I mean?
Think about Art Blakey’s band. Everybody in that band wrote, and those are what we call standards now, part of the jazz repertoire. I do feel strongly that people should write and develop the repertoire for the future.
Matt: That leads me to my next question, and it comes up a lot when I interview jazz guitarists and jazz musicians. Do you feel that jazz needs to sound a certain way for it to be called jazz? You mentioned Art Blakey and that comes from a certain generation, the hard bop, Blue Note era of jazz. Is that what defines jazz to you or is jazz more of a feeling, a cutting-edge approach to improvising? How does that definition fit for you?
Sheryl Bailey: Hmm, I don’t know, that’s a hard question. I mean I’m not a person to go around and judge, like “This isn’t jazz or this is jazz…” I think you have to understand the tradition, the language that was passed down, but that doesn’t mean you have to treat it like a museum piece and that we can’t add new harmonic and melodic ideas and song forms into it.
Obviously it has to revolve around music that’s improvised or that has an element of improvisation to it. I mean you’re not gonna call Lady Gaga jazz. [Laughs] There’s obvious reasons why musically you wouldn’t call that jazz.
Matt: It seems that in previous years, jazz musicians would go to the pop music of the day to find inspiration and to improvise on, and that froze in time a few decades ago. There are very few musicians who have ventured into post ’80s pop or rock music. Do you feel that there’s a reason for that? Have you thought about delving into that and exploring new pop or new rock for inspiration?
Sheryl Bailey: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, I have that band Jazz Guitar Meets Hendrix, and we do Hendrix tunes. But you know in that case, I think what makes a tune a worthy vehicle to improvise on is that there’s a strong melodic shape to it, and there’s something compelling harmonically about it.
In terms of Jimi Hendrix’s music, there are tons of melodic hooks, and I don’t really change the chord changes that much. Maybe I tweak them a little bit to be more “jazzlike.” There’s a sense of harmony there that makes the song intriguing. I know some people have tried to do Green Day and stuff like that, but I don’t know if there’s enough meat there. There’s gotta be some meat there to dig in to to make it a vehicle to improvise on.
The Hendrix thing comes pretty easy. I’m sure there’s tons of Beatles tunes as well but that’s still pre-’80s. [Laughs] To be honest, I didn’t really listen to pop music from the ’80s. I’m sure there’s some good tunes.
Matt: You mentioned the jazz Hendrix group that you have with Vic Juris. What is it like to be in a group with two guitars? How do you approach that, in terms of blending with him, trading solos, and who plays what melody?
Sheryl Bailey: Actually I’ve done tons of guitar duos. I love to play with guitars, and Vic is sort of a good foil because we come from the same place harmonically but we’re really different. And he’s totally open to playing free and playing with sound effects.
I don’t know, Vic always reminds me to color outside the lines. [Laughs] It’s a lot of fun. And he doesn’t have a big ego. There’s none of that going on, so I think its kind of cool ’cause we’re really different. There are a lot of ways that we approach improvising differently that keeps it interesting, and of course people are into guitar, so people come in whether they know what we do or not. It kind of brings a lot of people into the audience that might not walk into a jazz club to hear a band.
Matt: It seems like jazz is having a tough time like a lot of genres are right now, but is this something that you thought about purposefully, to play stuff that appeals to jazz fans but also to people who just like the guitar?
Sheryl Bailey: No, I think that kind of just happened naturally with that project in particular. We played at the Blue Note a couple of times, and people would say “I just saw that there was a Hendrix band playing,” and they’re really into it. They don’t understand the harmony necessarily, but they dig the whole feeling.
It’s not a cover band, and I try to keep it in the spirit of improvisation and freedom, so sometimes I’m a little worried that people have their sacred cows about things. I’m always pleased that people are like total rockers, probably never heard a jazz record in their life, and they come in and are digging it. That’s important to me to kind of cut through those barriers and get right to the audience.
Matt: I wanted to ask you about a couple specific tracks on the record, getting back to your new album. There’s a song called “29-11” and you write in the liner notes that its an autobiography about your soul numbers. For our readers, can you tell us what a soul number is and why these are your soul numbers?
Sheryl Bailey: I’m not really into Numerology, but in Numerology if you add up all the digits of your birth date…well there are different kinds of 11s. Mines a 29-11. And Barack Obama is a 29-11 too. I actually wrote the song because I heard about that, but I didn’t want to put that in there cause I don’t like to offend people. [Laughs]
Matt: Politics and jazz [Laughing]
Sheryl Bailey: Exactly, I want even Republicans to like my music, believe it or not, [Laughs] so I didn’t put anything about Barack Obama in there. But yeah, it’s kind of just silly to me.
Matt: The other track I wanted to ask you about is “A Muse Sings,” which you dedicated to Jimmy Wyble, who passed away this past year. He was a phenomenal guitar player out in L.A. who not a lot of people heard or knew about. He was kind of like the guitarist’s guitarist. I was wondering if you could briefly talk about your relationship with Jimmy and why you decided to write this song for him.
Sheryl Bailey: I wish I’d met Jimmy sooner in my life. I only met him in the last few years of his life. At the time I was going through some rough stuff and I wanted to quit playing. I was looking for jobs at FedEx or whatever.
So I was out in L.A. doing some shows and he came to my gigs. We became friends, and I never told him any of this actually, which is amazing because he’s just that kind of guy, that kind of being.
That guitar that I play actually was a gift to me from him. Just the timing of that in my life… He came to New York, and he went to my luthier Ric McCurdy and bought this guitar for me. And originally he said that after he passed he would give it to me. So of course I was like, “I don’t ever want that guitar. Don’t give me that guitar, I don’t want it!”
When he left town, he just instructed Ric to give it to me so I couldn’t argue with him. [Laughing] Before he left, before I even knew that, the night I said goodbye to him, he just embraced me and said “Don’t ever quit. You’re in a family and you’re never alone. There’s so much love in what we do, and you’re supposed to do what you’re doing.”
It came out the blue, you know what I mean? It was like an angelic intervention or something. And then the next day of course Ric calls me and says, “Here’s this amazing, beautiful guitar, and Jimmy insists that you have it now.” That was just really powerful.
We would talk to each other weekly and write letters ’cause he’s an old-fashioned gentleman. I really miss him. He was such a positive, incredible being. Everybody says that, too. There isn’t a person who has met Jimmy who would disagree. So on so many levels, as a musician as a human being, he opened my life to a lot of inspiration.
Matt: To hear you say you were at the point of almost quitting music, for someone like me or who will read this, that sounds hard to believe. You’re a professional guitarist, you’ve accomplished a ton, this is your seventh album under your own name, you teach at Berklee, you’ve toured all over. How does one like yourself, an artist, get to the point where you’re thinking about walking away from music?
Sheryl Bailey: Well, I was going through a breakup, and my life just seemed to fall apart. I suppose you get in places in your life where you feel like everything falls apart. So, I think that’s where I was at that moment. And you know, I’m an all-or-nothing kind of person, so I was like “Alright, I’m out of here!” [Laughing] But just in the same way, I get spun around in exactly the opposite direction by coming across someone like Jimmy.
Matt: I think that’s important, especially for younger readers who are in school or are struggling, trying to become a professional musician. They might think that people like yourself have it made, but you’re struggling with the same sort of issues that a lot of other people are struggling with who haven’t reached your level. Those things never really go away.
Sheryl Bailey: Yeah, and the other thing that’s important about that is… For instance, Jimmy’s thing was that the love of the music and the guitar in particular make us a big family and we have to look out for each other. And sometimes people at a certain age or point in their career they lose sight of that.
When I was young I used to hang out with older musicians and they were always so open and kind to me and let me in on the story and to be part of the family. I think sometimes people get competitive and they forget that we have to look out for each other. It’s not like we’re at Coca Cola or some big company or something and the CEO’s gonna give us a raise. [Laughs] We really have to look out for each other, and I think that was what was important to Jimmy. That was always something that has always been important to me, and I think maybe I had forgotten that and Jimmy reminded me about it.
Matt: Do you get the feeling that that is getting more ingrained in the jazz community and the guitar community? In my experience traveling around, going to a lot of different countries and meeting a lot of different people, it seems like there’s a disproportionate amount of competition in the U.S. amongst jazz players that should be trying to help each other out, especially now when the economy’s down. People are really fighting for gigs. That level of competition rises, and people forget what you were just talking about. Do you see that coming back, being more compassionate to each other, trying to help out the younger players, that sort of thing?
Sheryl Bailey: Right, right. And the older players too. We’re all looking for a gig [Laughs].
I think if you get caught up in that, being competitive or being jealous of other people’s accomplishments, that only hurts yourself. That negativity comes back on you and creates more of it. I think that you should be supportive of each other and share what you can whether its a musical idea or a contact or whatever. I’m happy if I see my friends gigging ’cause that means we’re gigging. [Laughs] The musics being played, you know what I mean? You can sit around and sulk, but that doesn’t make the situation better. [Laughs]
Matt: Absolutely. I’m not sure you want to talk about this because you seem kind of averse to politics, but I was just reading that while you were at Berklee you started the college’s first LGBT student group. I was just wondering if you wanted to talk about that experience and what that was like, trying to do that in a school of music. Was it easy, was there resistance?
Sheryl Bailey: That’s actually not true, I don’t know how that got on Wikipedia. I was involved in it but I didn’t start it. But you know, Berklee is and was a very homophobic place, and unfortunately the jazz world is incredibly homophobic, which always mystifies me.
But I think it’s probably worse for men than for women. I know several fantastic male jazz musicians and they can’t come out. They’re scared to death to come out. I think its so stupid because I always thought that jazz was about freedom and rebelling and stuff. That always mystified me, but its still an issue.
Matt: Have you continued to be involved with that community and organization after you left school?
Sheryl Bailey: Definitely when I was in college, in that time, I was discovering who I was, so it was important. I mean obviously I’m involved in that. I’m always supportive. I’ve been in The Advocate and I’ve been in other magazines. Whatever, it’s not something I don’t discuss in my public life at all, but I’m not really politically active, per se.
Matt: There’s all sorts of stories, historically, of famous jazz musicians who were too afraid to ever come out and never did.
Sheryl Bailey: Yeah, yeah, true. What’s interesting is that I was playing a gig in Boston, and I did an interview for the Bay Windows paper there about the show. We had this discussion about that whole thing. I actually made a friend who’s a musician who’s here in New York, a fantastic musician who had come across that article. We didn’t know each other, but we’ve become very good friends. He’s a very prominent player and he contacted me and said, “What you said was so true. I wish I could come out.”
I just think its absurd that there’s all these issues about it. The fact that it’s 2011 and we’re still talking about it. Sometimes the jazz community is like in 1950.
Matt: Just to finish up, I’m wondering if your next album will be back in the studio, or are you looking at another live album? What are your thoughts going forward on your next project?
Sheryl Bailey: Pending, there’s a live release of the Hendrix band from Sundazed Records that apparently its going to be a real vinyl record. I’m not sure when that’s gonna hit the streets. They’re sending me artwork to review and stuff, so I hope that comes out soon.
I’ve been thinking about doing another live album. I’ve been working with Ron Oswonski, who’s been in my band as an organist, and I’d really like to document that group. Maybe do another live… I don’t know if it would be a DVD or an actual CD.
And then there’s gonna be a followup to A New Promise, an MCG project, but we’re still working out the details about exactly what it’s gonna be. I don’t think it’ll be another big band project, but it’ll be typical MCG flair, some sort of big event. So yeah, there’s some stuff brewing for sure.