Sheryl Bailey is a wonderful working Jazz Guitarist out of New York who shares with us her formidable background experiences as well as her thoughts on what it takes to be a major player in this industry. A great read!
Interview by Lyle Robinson via email 2004
“A good jazz melody should have harmonic clarity. Be-bop is similar to Baroque music in that way. In the Bach inventions, the counterpoint is not only melodic, but outlines the harmony of the piece. A good jazz solo can stand on its own, without chordal accompaniment. I’m really fanatical about harmonic clarity in lines.”
JGL: How old are you?
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for?
SB: 28 years
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
SB: I begged my mother for a Harmony Strat from the JC Penney’s catalog now I play a pygmy sized 335 that Yamaha gave me, and a Parker Fly.
JGL: At what age did you first get into guitar playing and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?
SB: I started the guitar at 13, but came from a family of musicians, so I started on piano at age 7, then trumpet at 10 I wanted to be a rock star, so guitar seemed the fastest way to that route.
JGL: In an earlier interview you mentioned that when you were younger you were into bands like Deep Purple and Humble Pie (their live at the Fillmore album was and still is a killer album in my opinion, but I digress). Did you play this style of music when you were younger and what was your band experiences like?
SB: I had my own basement bands and I would teach all the other kids the tunes and sing Black Sabbath, ZZ Top, AC/DC. I loved Eddie Van Halen and would learn his solos and call up my friends on the phone and play them for them.
JGL: Did you have friends who were involved in music as well or did you have to search for people to play with?
SB: There was a kid up the street who played drums, and my guitar teacher would hook me up with other kids my age to play in my bands.
JGL: Can you talk a little about your experiences attending Berklee as a student?
SB: I was like a kid in a candy store at Berklee, because I wanted knowledge, and there were so many heavy cats there that could just lay out what I wanted to know. I wasn’t very social, and would just shed 8-10 hours a day transcribing a lot, and working on the cool stuff I would ask my teachers about.
JGL: How did it prepare you for the monumental task of being a working jazz musician?
SB: Mainly it was the knowledge and step by step approach that kept me inspired.
JGL: You are a major exponent of jazz education and have published instructional materials which interested students can purchase from your website, along with teaching at Berklee and other fine institutions like the National Guitar Summer workshop, The Stanford Jazz Workshop, and more. Apart from the obvious, which is gaining knowledge and facility on ones instrument, is there anything else you hope that the student of Jazz guitar gets from studying with you?
SB: To feel and love the music. If you don’t listen to it and live the sounds of jazz, it will be merely a science experiment. Jazz is soulful celebration music, it is complex, yes, but it should never loose the bounce and joy in it.
JGL: Do you give private lessons and if so, how does one go about studying with you?
SB: I teach from my home people can email from my web-page, if they live in NYC, or might just be passing through.
JGL: Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
SB: I am happy to teach the curious and sincere that’s all that is required.
JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?
SB: Jimmy Raney, Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, Grant Green is still the greatest!!
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
SB: I really love horn players Kenny Durham, Hank Mobley and pianist Horace Silver the 60s-70s is my favorite era of jazz, but I love all kinds of music Klezmer, Indian music. etc.
JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did to make this choice work for you?
SB: Everyone in my family is in the arts, so I never even questioned it as a small child I would say I want to be a poet or great artist I never even thought of it as a career, its just how you were.
JGL: You are considered predominantly a Bop guitarist, yet there is obviously much more to your personality and guitar prowess. How would you describe yourself and is their any one style you feel more attached to than the other?
SB: Those who have followed my recordings know that my first disc, Little Misunderstood is a fusion record, done shortly after leaving Berklee. I have recorded/toured with David Krakauer, playing his modern form of Klezmer, and Bassist, Richard Bona, playing his afro-pop jazz Ive worked a lot with singer-song writiers and currently with pop diva, Irene Cara good music is good music, it defies style. I would describe myself as a hybrid.
JGL: Coming from a musical family where the women in your family, from your great-grandmother down to your mother played piano professionally, were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice or did they try and steer you towards other career choices? And did you find that you had a legacy to fulfill to keep on the tradition so to speak or was that never really an issue?
SB: As I said its who you are, not what you do so no issues at all. I wasn’t brought up to be a die-hard capitalist, so it never entered my mind happiness has always been more important to me.
JGL: Your facility on the fret-board is a joy to listen to. What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now?
SB: Hours of scales, arpeggios, chord solos, transcribing, ear training, etc.
JGL: Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?
SB: I like to work on perpetual motion studies finding a motive and keeping the motive moving through the changes through different tempos and keys. I have a 2 hour technique workout that keeps me in shape on the road everything else I do on top of that is icing on the cake.
JGL: You recently did a recording in France followed by a small European tour with David Krakauer who is one of the worlds leading exponents of Eastern European Jewish Klezmer music; and at the same time a major voice in classical music. How did your association with David come about and where do you fit into this particular style of music?
SB: Like most of the cool gigs Ive been involved in, they all came to me from my reputation or being seen in a club playing. David is working to keep the Klezmer tradition modern so he uses electric guitar. I lend my jazz ear to what he does, and the passion of screaming guitar. Hes a virtuoso, so keeping up with him is fun.
JGL: Now that you are established as an International artist, is it easier to get gigs or do you still have to work at it?
SB: That’s the whole game of being a professional musician when you get home from a tour, you still need to have work at home. Its always a balance of looking ahead to keep your calendar going.
JGL: As an international artist do you have a favorite place to play or are you just as happy to hang out at Bar 55 which is home to a great many established guitar players, like Mike and Leni Stern, Wayne Krantz, and you?
SB: I, of course, love the 55 for its hominess and sound, but I love playing Paris, the audiences are excited about music and let you know it!
JGL: Could you describe some of your best musical situations or experiences and the worst?
SB: There have been so many of both. I can remember a gig I did with Gary Thomas in Washington DC at Twins jazz club one of those nights where everyone was listening, the band and the audience there was so much focus, it was incredible. All of the recent gigs with my trio have been amazing, because we’ve been playing so long together, its getting deeper all the time. Id rather not think about bad stuff, so Ill skip the other question.
JGL: What type of musical situation do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.)
SB: Duo and trio. I play duo with Jack Wilkins, Id like to record us, actually we’ve got a crazy, kooky rapport its very infectious to the audiences. I love the immediacy of smaller groups, and playing at low volumes is great you can hear the wood of the instrument!
JGL: You have 4 CD’s now as a leader. Three straight-ahead and one that is funk-fusiony. How did the conditions come about to record your first CD and do you have plans for any future projects?
SB: At the time of Little Misunderstood I was playing with Baltimore fusion drummer, Larry Brite and Gary Grainger we used to do power trio clinics for Larry’s drum companies also, the bass player on Little Miss, Vince Loving, who is now past he was a genius, and we used to jam for hours. Id love to do a more electric project. Maybe there’s a producer out there that would be into putting it out Id be psyched to do it, its definitely part of my thang.
JGL: How have you grown from that first recorded CD both in your writing style and playing? And do you have a favorite CD or are they all near and dear to your heart?
SB: Without a doubt Ive grown in all ways. I’m proud of them all they’re all snapshots, really.
JGL: Almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature, has their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you face on your instrument and how do you work at getting over them?
SB: I have lots of gaps in certain abilities playing solo would be #1 definitely not my strong card, but its also something I don’t really cultivate in my practice time someday Id love to have a better concept and abilities with it.
JGL: In the introduction to your book The Chord Rules you state The biggest step to understanding the jazz line is to develop a chordal approach, understanding how arpeggios create melody and how they are the framework of harmony. The emphasis on scale thinking no longer works in the jazz setting The Chord Rules! Could you please expand on this
SB: A good jazz melody should have harmonic clarity. Be-bop is similar to Baroque music in that way. In the Bach inventions, the counterpoint is not only melodic, but outlines the harmony of the piece. A good jazz solo can stand on its own, without chordal accompaniment. I’m really fanatical about harmonic clarity in lines.
JGL: You have an interesting approach to picking. Please talk a bit about how you came to adopt this interesting approach?
SB: I took a few lessons with Rodney Jones when I moved to NYC in 1995, and he picks with the 90 degree angle, which he got from Benson. He gave me a series of technical riddles to figure out, which helped me switch my hand into that position. For me, its incredibly relaxed and gets the best tone, because its impossible to overplay the string which is that pingy sound, that I, personally cant stand on a guitar. The 90 degree attack lets the string ring to its truest vibration, the lighter the touch, the faster you can play, and the more dynamic you have to work with, articulation-wise.
JGL: From what I have read about you, your guitar tone seems to be a very important part of your musical identity. Could you talk a bit about how you get the tone that you do and what are the key factors that students of the guitar should be thinking about when working on this topic?
SB: Always practice with an amp if you don’t, you will pick to heavy-handed. The amp and your guitar together are your instrument, so if you practice, listening to yourself through the amp, you’ll develop the right touch for your desired tone.
JGL: How has technology played a part in your success as a guitarist and how have you taken advantage of technology (ie: computers, the Internet, etc.)?
SB: It has opened it and created an independent artist scene, because the big corporations aren’t interested in quality or art, they just want to sell more Coca Cola and toothpaste so Ive been able to connect with people that are seeking out the real deal from all over the planet to take it to the people.
JGL: You play a lot with your The Sheryl Bailey 3 group which is an organ trio. What is it about this musical configuration that gets you excited and are the members consistently the same or do you rotate players?
SB: The Sheryl Bailey Three is myself, Ian Froman on drums and organist Gary Versace I write for these musicians in mind. Occasionally I need to find subs, because both of these guys are monsters and in-demand, so sometimes Brian Charette plays Hammond and Vince Valega plays drums. I’m really picky about personnel because the music is written to played with a certain sensibility.
JGL: In your bio, it states that you were awarded third place in the 1995 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Guitar Competition. That is really wonderful. Would you mind talking a little about what it took to get you there and what kind of work did you have to go through to get to third place? The competition must have been fierce.
SB: The main thing was following the very strict rules about repertoire and arrangements. To be honest, I never expected to be in the finals, so I wasn’t so prepared for that, but to prepare the Monk pieces, I tracked down as many recorded versions of the songs that I could, and just lived them for the 3 weeks before the competition. It was a great experience to get inside of the tunes, and to this day, I follow the same pattern when learning standards or jazz tunes.
JGL: What tunes did you end up playing for the Monk competition and how did you go about choosing the tunes that you did?
SB: I played Ask Me Now solo, Pannonica, and Evidence You had to choose a ballad, medium and up tune I love the melodies and quirky forms of these tunes it was hard to choose though he is one of my fave composers you have to really study the melodies to be able to solo on the tunes, which to me, shows true genius as a composer.
JGL: In another honor, you toured South America on behalf of the US State Department as a Jazz Ambassador, honoring the music of Duke Ellington. Wow! That must have been incredible! How did this come about for you and what experiences did you take away with you?
SB: The only program our very own US government sponsors that aids jazz musicians is the Jazz Ambassador program you can check the Kennedy Center Website about the themes and audition guidelines. You submit a complicated form and recording they pick about 10 groups to audition in person, then pick 5 groups from that bunch to do the tours. I loved the people and audiences I met there. Many had never heard Ellington played on electric guitar. I went back on my own for a concert in Chile in 2001 I think I was there in a past life!
JGL: Where would you like to see jazz guitar go in the coming years?
SB: I hear a lot of exciting stuff happening teaching at Berklee, I hear a lot of experimenting and fusing of styles I hope audiences will have an open ear for many of these sounds.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
SB: Fall in love the with music, then follow your heart. Jazz is a soulful music, follow that path and you’ll find your way.
JGL: Apart from music what other pursuits do you enjoy tackling?
SB: I enjoy running, and video games not too deep, I guess.
JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.
SB: I would be a lawyer and work for social justice.
JGL: Thank you Sheryl for participating on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated.
SB: Thanks for this great opportunity to share my thoughts with your audience! peace – s
Learn more about Sheryl at her website www.sherylbailey.com