Elden C. "Buster" Bailey
by James A. Strain
Elden Chandler "Buster" Bailey says that his induction into the PAS Hall of Fame "is one of the thrills of my life! I am humbled by the letters of recommendation written from colleagues, and very proud to be selected. It has been a very emotional experience. It made me weep."
The only child of Albert C. Bailey and Eldena Bailey, Buster was born on April 22, 1922 in Portland, Maine. At the age of nine, he began drum lessons with Howard N. Shaw and later studied clarinet, piano and music theory with Frank J. Rigby. Shaw, who studied with Harry A. Bower, owned a drum shop in Portland and had performed as a vaudeville artist. Bailey remembers him as a very good teacher who gave him the foundation for his technique based on the "Bower system."
His first public appearance as a xylophone soloist occurred at the age of twelve, at a church function in Portland. As a teenager, he played with numerous and varied musical groups including the Portland Symphony and the championship Deering High School Band. He estimates that he played over 100 performances, mostly as a xylophone soloist, before graduating from high school in 1940.
After graduating, Bailey attended the New England Conservatory of Music from 1941-42 where he studied with Larry White. Then, during World War II, he served in the 154th Army Ground Forces Band, playing clarinet in the concert band, snare drum on the field and serving as arranger, conductor and pianist with the jazz band.In 1946, after his release from the army, Bailey entered the Juilliard School, where he studied with Saul Goodman and Morris Goldenberg, whom he was later to succeed on the Juilliard faculty. From 1947-49, Buster was timpanist of the Juilliard Symphony, freelanced in New York's busy recording and commercial industry and performed as one of the original members of The Little Orchestra Society. At Juilliard, Buster also met his wife, Barbara, a fellow percussionist, and since 1955, timpanist of the Bergen (New Jersey) Philharmonic.
In 1949, Goodman urged Bailey to audition for a percussion opening in the New York Philharmonic. After auditioning for Leopold Stokowski, he was invited to become a member of the orchestra, beginning a distinguished career that would continue for forty-two years until his retirement in September, 1991. These included the years during which the Philharmonic was under the directorship of Leonard Bernstein, an era that produced over 200 recordings and scores of live radio performances as well as the historic telecasts of the New York Philharmonic Young Peoples Concerts, thrilling and inspiring millions of viewers, many of them experiencing symphonic performance for the first time.
During his tenure with the orchestra, Bailey performed in virtually every major city in the world, performing in thousands of concerts with the greatest conductors and soloists of our time. Bailey says that he was there from Stowkoski to Mehta, and quickly cites the musicality and persona of Bernstein. He recalls a memorable performance in 1969, at which Dmitri Shostakovich and Andr Kostelanitz were present for the first trip to the Soviet Union. Other conductors of note include Pierre Boulez, who championed new music with the orchestra, and Dmitri Metropolis, who possessed a photographic memory. Bailey recalls that, "He could remember all the notes in an entire score - even the page number they were on!"
Zubin Mehta, upon hearing of Bailey's nomination, wrote to support him. He stated: "The 120% enthusiasm of my friend Buster Bailey, whether it was at a rehearsal or a concert, is the kind conductors dream about. I congratulate the [Percussive Arts Society] for having named him to their roll of honor and I congratulate him with all my heart."
When Bailey joined the Philharmonic, the other members of the percussion section were Saul Goodman (timpanist), Walter Rosenberger (mallets) and Arthur Layfield (bass drum and cymbals). Morris "Arnie" Lang soon succeeded Layfield, and this section remained intact for several decades. By the time Buster retired, Goodman and Rosenberger had been succeeded by Roland Koloff and Christopher Lamb. Bailey feels very fortunate to have worked with such great players, and is very proud that each of them became close personal friends. He is quick to point out that Goodman, whom he refers to as the "king of timpani," was his "mentor - a great teacher who encouraged me to teach, too."
The high esteem with which Bailey is viewed by his colleagues in the section is evident by their responses when describing Buster's abilities and contributions. Lang states: "Buster is without a doubt the best all-around symphonic player. People know his snare drumming but are not aware of his great mallet playing and artistry on the small percussion instruments. Playing alongside him was a joy because of his impeccable time sense and just plain enjoyment of music."
Lamb, the current Principal, explained: "When I was learning the repertoire, I studied every recording that Buster did in order to learn how he interpreted each phrase. There is always such a musical shape and subtlety to his performance. The recordings are a wealth of information available to every student worldwide. Imagine the thrill I experienced when hired by the New York Philharmonic. After studying his recordings as a young player, I was able to perform with him side by side!"
Bailey still considers Walter Rosenberger his best friend and happily remembers the time they teamed up as original members of the famous Sauter-Finegan Orchestra in the early 1950s. The "orchestra" was actually a large concert band that included harp, tuba, a full section of recorders, several woodwind players who doubled, and a full percussion section. The band performed advanced arrangements of popular and jazz-styled music.
In 1969, Bailey joined the faculty of the Juilliard School, where he remained until 1993. He is the author of the highly acclaimed method book Mental and Manual Calisthenics for the Modern Mallet Player and is presently completing a book of exercises for the development of advanced snare drum technique. Based on exercises he created especially for his students over many years of teaching, these studies became affectionately known as Buster's "Wrist Twisters." The collection is scheduled to be published in the fall of 1997.
As a teacher, Bailey is fondly remembered by his many students who occupy positions in orchestras all over the world. Three of the four members of the St. Louis Symphony were students of his, and one of them, Tom Stubbs, remarks that, "I have no problem saying that Buster is the best orchestral snare drummer I have ever heard." Glenn Paulson, former timpanist of the Barcelona Symphony, says, "He was a great teacher, especially at addressing each individual player's needs. Buster's 'Wrist Twisters' were different for each student, depending on what they needed."
Many percussionists have learned by observing and listening to Bailey. Gerald Carlyss, formerly timpanist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and now Chair of the Percussion Department at Indiana University, recalls that, "Between 1963 and 1965 I actually got to play in the Philharmonic right next to him. His snare drum playing was even more impressive up close. Even though I was still a student, Buster treated me like a colleague and made me feel very comfortable - no airs, just being himself."
When asked what advice he might have for a young player, Bailey laughing responds, "Hang in there and watch the left hand!" Then, with more sage advice, he says, "Always do your best."
When questioned about memorable events in his long career, Bailey relates the following incident. "When I was a student at Juilliard, and after I had been offered a position with the New York Philharmonic, Saul Goodman called me into his studio and told me to do everything he asked without any questions. He then led another gentleman into the studio and instructed me to play through all sorts of literature on every instrument available. When I had finished the workout he asked the gentleman if I would be okay. The man said I would do just fine. Goodman then responded that I was no longer available, but that if I would do, then he had another student that played even better! As it turned out, the gentleman was Vladimir Golschmann, the conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, who then gave me a note to pass along to Walter Matson, a friend of mine in school, offering him a position with the orchestra! So, Walter actually got a position based on how I had played the audition!"
As a circus enthusiast, Buster is an avid collector of circus posters, books, music and memorabilia. One of the highlights of his life occurred in the early 1960s when the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus was in New York. Their drummer, Red Floyd, became ill and suggested to Merle Evans, the director of the orchestra, that he use Buster as his substitute. Bailey eagerly agreed and performed all the shows for three days. "It was the biggest thrill of my life!" says Buster.
Perhaps no one sums up the way so many people feel about Buster Bailey better than Ben Hermann, timpanist and percussionist for the American Symphony Orchestra. He says, "I was fortunate to have studied with him at the Juilliard School and played next to him in the New York Philharmonic. His grace as a player and a person affect me today. Buster belongs in the PAS Hall of Fame as surely as Joe DiMaggio belongs in Cooperstown."