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William C. "Buster" Bailey (July 19, 1902 – April 12, 1967) was a jazz musician specializing in the clarinet, but also well versed on saxophone. Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Bailey was one of the most respected session players of his era.
Buster Bailey was a master of the clarinet and was educated on the instrument by classical teacher Franz Schoepp, the man who taught Benny Goodman. Bailey got his start with W.C. Handy’s Orchestra in 1917 when he was just fifteen years old. After two years of touring with Handy, Bailey quit the orchestra while the band was in Chicago. In 1919, Bailey joined Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra and remained with Tate until 1923 when he joined up with Joe "King" Oliver. As a member of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Bailey met and became friends with Louis Armstrong, who was also a member of the band at that time. In 1924, Armstrong left King Oliver’s Jazz Band to join Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in New York. Within a month Armstrong extended an invitation for Buster Bailey to join him as a member of Henderson’s band. Bailey accepted and moved to New York City.
In New York during the late 1920s, Buster Bailey became a highly respected sideman with Perry Bradford and others, and appeared on numerous recordings playing both the clarinet and the soprano saxophone. Most notably Bailey performed on a number of Clarence Williams albums. In 1927 he left Fletcher Henderson and undertook a tour of Europe with Noble Sissle’s Orchestra. After his return, Bailey performed with several other jazz greats, including Edgar Hayes and Dave Nelson. He rejoined Sissle’s orchestra in 1931 and continued with the group through 1933. In 1934, Bailey was back briefly with Fletcher Henderson, but by the end of the year he had settled down as a member of the John Kirby Band. Bailey remained a member of Kirby’s band until 1946, but that didn’t stop him from performing with other artists. In 1934 and 1935, Bailey was playing with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band and in 1937 he was a session player for Midge Williams and Her Jazz Jesters. He also recorded music during this time as Buster Bailey and His Rhythm Busters.
In 1946, Buster Bailey went independent and led his own band, but his group lasted for only the year. In 1947 he joined Wilbur de Paris and performed with him until 1949. During the early 1950s Bailey was with Big Chief Russell Moore, but for most of the decade Bailey played with Henry "Red" Allen. From 1961 to 1963 he performed with Wild Bill Davison. Bailey was with the Saints And Sinners from 1963 to 1964, and in 1965 he rejoined his old friend Armstrong and became a member of Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars.
Buster Bailey died in April 1967 of a heart attack. He was living in Brooklyn, New York, at the time.
Buster Bailey appeared on film three times during his career. The first was in a film entitled That's the Spirit (1933) in which he played himself as a band member. The second was as an uncredited clarinetist in Sepia Cinderella (1947) as part of the John Kirby Sextet. His final film appearance was with Louis Armstrong in When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965), again as a musician.
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With Red Allen
- Red Allen, Kid Ory & Jack Teagarden at Newport (Verve, 1957)
- Kernfeld, Barry, ed. The New Gove Dictionary of Jazz, vol. 1. London: Macmillan Publishers, Ltd., 2002.
- Larkin, Colin, ed. The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, vol. 1. London: Macmillan Reference, Ltd., 1998.
- Panassie-Gautier, Dictionnaire du Jazz, 1972