Being a jazz virtuoso is no easy task. But for Sheryl Bailey it’s all in a day’s work. Whether she is sharing the stage with jazz luminaries, or doing her much revered “day job” of being a professor at Berklee (one of the most esteemed music colleges anywhere), she exudes virtuoso….and jazz.
While rock stars are focusing on their tight jeans, for Sheryl it’s all in the genes – yes the biological ones. She explains it this way:
“I’m the 4th generation of professional musicians: my great grandmother and mother were classical pianists/organists and my grandmother published several books on an extremely important subject that has been discarded by recent trends, Eurhythmics. That’s always curious to me, since one of my main focuses as a player and teacher is on developing time feel and rhythmic phrasing.”
So with all that classical piano background what was it that drew her to the guitar?
“Rock music” Sheryl tells me. That and “being a rebellious youngest child, the guitar and rock music was about as far away as you could get from the piano and classical and American Song Book music.” Yet another potentially “productive” youth derailed by rock music! Yeah! So how did she blend all of those styles, and where did the early influences come from? “My mother influenced me as a professional musician, and then for guitar it was Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Peter Frampton. My influences as a jazz musician were Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt.
Many musicians come to a crossroads where they have to “face the music” and decide if they are going to try and make a go of playing music for a living or just do it as a hobby. So was there a specific time where Sheryl decided to make music her career? “When I was really young, my goal was to be a great artist or poet. You have to understand that in addition to my family’s musical footsteps to follow, my brother is a professional cartoonist, my eldest sister is an author and leader in Drama Therapy, and my other sister is a visual artist and graphic designer, so it’s just what we do, being creative, it’s just a way of life; I never thought of it as a career.” With Sheryl’s whole family there are even more creative genes involved than we thought…the pool is deep! Sheryl is well known as a great player in the Bebop style. When asked what it is about Bebop and Swing that makes her so passionate, she replies, “The rhythm, harmony and improvisation. Swing feels amazing, there’s nothing more fun and joyful to me than swinging! Except maybe lush and beautiful chord voicings, and the ability to create my own solo in my own voice. What’s not to love?”
Teaching is a big part of what Sheryl does. Being a professor at Berklee, and an instructor at TrueFire, she sees a lot of students. What would be the one bit of advice most of her students could benefit from? “By paying attention to your sense of time and groove and how you express your ideas rhythmically you can jump to the highest levels of artistry and musicianship. This is the universal issue with ALL of the students I see, no matter what style or experience.
Without rhythm, it’s all just a bunch of notes, and the notes themselves have nothing to say, because the messenger is time and the message is rhythm. That’s what makes a great player. Period.” Besides getting their chops and rhythm together, what is it that makes a good student of guitar? “Curiosity, and the willingness to suck. You can’t have an ego if you want to grow, you have to be able to look closely at yourself in the mirror and be honest and be willing to open your mind. The student/teacher relationship flourishes from trust, so to really advance, the student needs to feel comfortable asking questions. Students that ask the most questions get the most answers.”
That is GREAT advice! With all this playing and teaching and creating, what is next on Sheryl’s musical journey? “I have a brand new acoustic project with the amazing bassist, Harvie S. The project is called ‘Plucky Strum.’ I find playing the acoustic guitar extremely challenging, and the music we have both composed for the project is very challenging. Harvie was always one of my idols growing up (check out ‘In A Different Light’ – a recording he did with Mike Stern, Mick Goodrick, John Scofield and Gene Bertonicini!) so I’m really excited to play with someone of his caliber, and I’m loving the intimacy of playing unplugged and in a duo setting.
I have a quartet with pianist Jim Ridl, bassist Andy McKee and drummer Joe Strasser that I’d like to record next, probably a live setting at a club, and there is talk about a follow up to the ‘A New Promise’ project (MCG Jazz), produced by Grammy Award-winning producer, Marty Ashby. It’s still in the discussion and planning stages, but he’s dreaming up something fabulous with strings, which would be a totally new direction for me.
Besides that, I just got back from a month of touring with my organ trio in Asia, and I was really impressed by the excitement for jazz there, so I want to continue developing my career as a performer and educator in that region of the world.
And of course the instrument itself challenges me everyday, so my main goal each day is to be a better guitarist and musician.”
Judging from the generations of musicians and creative souls in her family that have preceded her, I am sure the musical ideas will not soon run out for Sheryl, and many tours and projects lie just over the horizon for her to explore and for us to enjoy as the fruits of these journeys.