10 Questions with
Saxophonist Ray Bailey has been on the Chicago jazz scene for many
years and is still performing and releasing new recordings. And recently
he just turned 80. We thought we would catch up with him and ask him
how he first got interested in jazz, what the jazz scene was like when he
was coming up, his 19-year gig at the Art Institute and much more.
CJM: Where did you grow up and how did you first get interested in music?
Bailey: I was born in Oklahoma. When I was 8 years old my mother, who was a great
piano artist, decided she wanted to go to Chicago Conservatory to study pipe
organ so she decided to leave me with my grandmother for a while and send
for me later, which she did four years later. So, I arrived in Chicago when I was
12, growing up in the Robert Brooks projects on the West side of town. By this
time my mother had remarried to a soldier when I saw his picture holding a
saxophone—I thought it was so cool. It was not the piano that my mother was
pushing me to play. How stupid was I!
CJM: What was your first instrument? Was it saxophone?
Bailey: First piano, and then she finally bought me a Martin alto sax, which I
CJM: Did you grow up with music in your house as a child and was that how you
got into jazz?
Bailey: When my stepfather came home from the Army, he and my mother both were
music lovers, especially gospel and jazz. So I suppose that is when I first heard jazz music.
CJM: How did you decide that becoming a musician was something you wanted to pursue
on a professional level?
Bailey: I played in the band in high school and college and then I got married and had two children. After eight years of marriage we decided to go our separate ways. She packed up the kids and decided to move to California. After that happened, I decided it was time to get serious about my music.
CJM: There are so many saxophone players coming out of Chicago. Was there one or two that you used to hear perform who inspired you and/or helped to shape your concept of jazz playing?
Bailey: There were a lot of good saxophone players around town—Eddie Harris, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Von Freeman, just to name a few. However, whenever long, tall Dexter Gordon came to town and James Moody, I was thrilled to see them. Eddie Harris helped start me on the electric saxophone (Ecoplex). I still think about using it sometimes, however I don’t know where I would find tape for it.
CJM: You studied at both the Chicago School of Music and the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Who did you study with and how did the schools help you to expand your knowledge and help you grow as a musician?
Bailey:There were some very good teachers at both of these schools, however I don’t recall any of their names. Although I do remember there were some very good classes that I should have paid more attention too!
CJM: You traveled and performed throughout the world with several different groups. Tell us about the jazz organ trio that you performed with. Who were the members and how did that group come about?
Bailey: After going to many jam sessions, I finally met an organ player, Lloyd Wallace. He and I started playing with a drummer that I grew up with us on the West side, Al Green. We added vocalist Lenny Lynn and formed a group that would have us traveling and playing throughout the country. One of the highlights toward the end of our tour was when we ran into George Freeman, who was part of Groove Holmes organ trio. We met in Minnesota; Holmes was playing downtown in Minneapolis and we were holding a jam session in St. Paul. So Groove Holms and the trio came over and joined us. After that, we continued traveling and ended up in California. There was a club called the Parisian Room, where everybody had played. When we sat in at the club we lit it up with that “Chicago fire” in our playing. The club owner said he wished he had known we were coming. For me, that was the fork in the road. If we had got the gig (instead), I would have moved out there, however life is great. When we got back to Chicago, Al and I formed a group called the Counter Points, where we worked around Chicago and the suburbs. The group included myself, Erma Thompson (piano), Walter Harped (bass) and Al Green (drums). After three years of gigs things started to dry up and I started looking for a day job, which I found at the Art Institute as an art handler. Within five years, I was moved up to manager of installation—it was the best job a musician could have. I noticed that we had one of the most beautiful gardens right there in the museum. So I talked the restaurant manager into letting me try to create a jazz set for one month. We started out with myself on sax, Glory Morgan on piano and vocals, Marlene Rosenberg on bass and Sunny Turner on trumpet. We ended up playing 19 years (1980–1999) with many different members of the group. In 1987, Glory Morgan passed. I remember that because my mother also passed that year. We brought in Erma Thompson (piano) and Rachael Lee (vocals). When Rachael would take off she would call vocalist Everett Green or Joan Collaso. Marlene ended up leaving the group to join Joe Henderson in New York and become a superstar, so after a lot of different bass players John Bany ended up joining the group and closing out our 19-year run.
CJM: In 2007, you were part of the tribute to the late great bassist Eldee Young at the Chicago Jazz Festival. How did you know Young and what stories can you share about him and you performing together?
Bailey: Eldee was born in January 1936 and I was born in November 1936; we both attended McKinley High School on the West side. He would call me for a gig if and when he was in town, and vice versa. He was full of life and would keep you laughing. So when Red Holt called me for the memorial tribute I was only too happy to comply.
CJM: You recently celebrated your 80th birthday and you’re still performing and playing live throughout the Chicagoland area. How do you keep the music fresh and creative after all of these years of playing?
Bailey: I worked with a lot of young cats, and for my birthday I told everybody to forget about the cake and ice cream. As long as I can blow air into this horn I am happy.
CJM: Do you have performances or recordings coming up where our readers can see you?
Bailey: I have two CDs, Making Tracks and Tracking the Sly Fox. I am working on a third CD, and I will call it Trackology. You can purchase the CDs at CD-Baby and Hyde Park Records. Also, you can check me out on Facebook. The name of my new group is called Bailey Bryson Project. We had a good time a few weeks ago performing at Room43. The group consists of myself on sax, Leandro Lopez Varady on piano, Clifford Griffin on bass, Cortez Bryson on drums and special guest Dr. Odie Williams on flugelhorn.