Jazz Guitarist Billy Bauer Was Happy in the Background

Despite backing everyone from Lee Konitz to Lenny Tristano, this quiet mid-century talent only recorded one LP under his own name. It’s one of jazz’s best guitar albums.

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Guitarist Billy Bauer browsed the record store’s Blues section for at least fifteen minutes before he saw his own record. It was shelved on the wall above the neighboring jazz section, displayed between a first pressing of guitarist Grant Green’s Am I Blue and a reissue of The Interpretations of Tal Farlow. Norgran Records released Farlow’s LP in 1955, the same label that released Bauer’s Plectrist the following year. Plectrist was Bauer’s only full-length studio album as a leader. It was what jazz collectors called “a lost record,” a masterpiece that got unjustly ignored, as did he. The price tag listed it at $130 dollars.

Wow, Bauer thought, staring at it from across the room. He might have made a thousand dollars from that whole session back in 1956. It was 1995 now. He was 80 years old. Had he become that rare a figure?

One of Bauer’s guitar students once told him that he’d spotted Plectrist for sale in a Tokyo record store for five hundred Yen. Farlow’s LP had gone in and out of print for decades, but it only cost $25 at this Manhattan shop. The problem with Bauer’s LP was that it had only fallen out of print, and Verve, which owned Norgran’s catalogue, hadn’t pressed it on CD yet. Maybe they never would.

Bauer walked around the rows of records and took the LP down from the display. He ran his wrinkled hand over the surface. The smooth plastic sleeve felt cool to the touch, and his face on the cover stared back at him like a stranger in another person’s photo album. He had a few copies of the Japanese reissue stored in a box somewhere at home, presumably buried under the stacks of transcriptions, books and journals that cluttered his home office. The Japanese company that licensed it from Verve had sent Bauer a few complimentary copies, and they sounded much better than the original. But seeing the original out in the world filled him with a different set of feelings.

For the fifteen years leading up to the Plectrist’s 1956 release, Bauer built a formidable reputation as one of jazz’s best guitarists. The equal of godhead Charlie Christian, as nimble as the famous Wes Montgomery and more distinguished than the popular Tal Farlow, Bauer helped bridge the gap between swing and Bop, bringing a cool reserve to the fast, challenging style that emerged after swing. But he wasn’t innovative enough to change jazz like Charlie Parker or Monk, and he wasn’t showy or digestible enough to get the public’s attention. He didn’t want it. He preferred his versatility. He experimented stylistically for his own satisfaction, and that made him less appealing to the mainstream white audiences who favored unthreatening soft jazz that didn’t challenge them anymore than it required going to black clubs to hear it. Brilliant and reliable in both his style and work ethic, Bauer always arrived at the studio on time. He always made the gig, stayed sober and played driving, supportive chords behind the other instruments. He worked as what you called “a sideman,” meaning someone who played a supporting role in other peoples’ bands, rather than leading his own. Sideman was his nature. It was going to be the name of his memoir, too, if he ever finished dictating it to his assistant.

Born in Manhattan in 1915, Bauer started on ukulele when he broke his leg and was bed-ridden at age 12. He learned mandolin and banjo and played so well he got his own weekly 15-minute radio spot at age fourteen. By age seventeen, he quit the others to focus on guitar and started working speakeasies and Borscht Belt resorts. In the 1940s, he played swing with Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden in an orchestra. He played in Woody Herman’s Bop-oriented big band, the First Herd, and played straight Bop with Bird and Diz. In 1949 he recorded two songs, called “Digression” and “Intuition,” with pianist Lennie Tristano and tenor Lee Konitz that historians now say are the first recorded examples of what became “free jazz.” None of them planned that. They were just improvising on challenging constructions, which to them was the whole point of jazz. Tristano would tell the band, “You start it! Play anything you want to play.” They didn’t use arrangement or keys, didn’t establish a tempo beforehand. They just went for it without pre-conceptions. Bauer’s playing was more rooted in swing and Bop than the avant-garde anyway. Other musicians would have used their reputations to form their own band. Despite his accomplished pedigree, Bauer preferred playing rhythm guitar in a group to playing lead in the spotlight.

Like today: No customers noticed that the face on the record cover matched the face of the man beside them. He’d made his entire career blending into the background. He liked that arrangement’s anonymity. Life as a sideman didn’t come from some generosity of spirit. It wasn’t humility. He loved applause as much as he loved the accolades Down Beat and Metronome magazines showered on him in the 1950s, how people complimented his original compositions. He wasn’t some benevolent promoter of other musicians’ careers. This was a stylistic decision. Guitarist Wes Montgomery played chords. Grant Green played notes. Bauer liked both approaches, but his preference for chords made him suited to playing behind other instruments. He also enjoyed comping rather than soloing. Playing behind people was exciting because it was risky. He enjoyed the tense thrill of listening to where the soloist was going and trying to keep up, constantly listening for those subtle shifts, the way a soloist changed keys, or sounded like he was about to but instead just went way out before coming back in. Playing behind Tristano always presented a challenge, and Bauer relished that. Solo improvisation was a terrifying process in its own right. It was like fumbling through the dark with a blindfold and one hand tied behind your back, so you couldn’t orient yourself. Comping behind a soloist was like fumbling through the dark blindfolded with your other hand tied to another blindfolded person. The difference was, fewer people noticed. While comping, you had more room for errors. Audiences mostly heard the soloist, not the support. He enjoyed that, just like he enjoyed sending the soloists chords that facilitated their own explorations, how what he sent them sometimes changed what they played, providing a frame through which they moved their melodic ideas. This was just how he was wired. Center stage didn’t suit his basic makeup. Even in his duet recordings with Tristano and Konitz, he was co-leading enough that he didn’t feel like he was leading. With Plectrist he made an exception.

In 1950 Down Beat recognized this about Bauer, calling him “an observer and a silent one.” “An unusually shy person, Billy’s usual between-sets habit is a shadowy spot in the corner of the room all by himself,” the article said. “He rather likes being a lone cat.” It was true he was the silent type. It was not as widely known that he felt self-conscious about his imperfect grammar. He dropped out of school at age 14, so he missed some essential lessons. Tristano, always the teacher, tried to help him. When Bauer would say “Them things,” Tristano would say, “Those things.” Bauer would say, “A bad write up don’t hurt me too much,” and Tristano would say, “Does hurt.” But the lessons didn’t stick, so Bauer chose to keep his mouth shut, unless you got him talking about music or guitar. Then he talked up a storm. Same thing with his supporting roles: get him playing with a band, and he would play up a storm. If he was being honest, playing sideman wasn’t strictly a “stylistic decision” as he used to say it was. It came from his disposition. He was shy, insecure. He also lacked the confidence that his friends the band leaders Bird and Goodman had. As he recently wrote in his memoir-in-progress, “I did very few good things and an awful lot of bad things. I’m not a real soloist.”

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Photo by Metronome/Getty Images

And yet listeners called the Plectrist a classic. They marveled at Bauer’s assured fingers. They loved the directness of his melodic lines and the warm harmonic sound he got from his Epiphone guitar. He played it clean, with no sustain or reverb. His fingers danced across the frets, and that tone let his fingering’s delicacy and confidence come through. Even though the set contained only four originals among the seven standards, his treatment of tunes like “Lullaby of the Leaves” and “The Way You Look Tonight” were, if not groundbreaking, at least endlessly listenable, because his style was singular. “No one sounds or will ever sound,” one reviewer in Metronome magazine said, “like Billy Bauer.” Norman Grantz asked him to do his own record, so he did. It’s what every musician was supposed to do. Not everyone got the privilege. He would have been a fool not to accept the offer. Grantz was one of the world’s most famous and connected promoters and producers, and he’d created Norgran Records and Verve as platforms for his interests. Bauer’s record still got lost in the torrent of releases that defined the late 1950s.

Jazz masterpiece after masterpiece flooded the market. The Genius of Bud Powell, The Jazz Messengers’ self-titled LP, Sonny Rollins’s Saxophone Colossus and Tenor Madness all came out in 1956, followed by Miles’ Birth of the Cool and Miles Ahead in 1957. America would never experience this concentrated volume of musical brilliance again. It was almost too much for one era to handle. It would take decades to fully assess and appreciate it all, and the flurry of musical activity drowned out the modest Bauer.

Performing jazz in Manhattan in 1957 was like screaming in an avalanche. 1958 and ’59 were worse. According to critics like Stanley Crouch and Nat Hentoff, ’59 was jazz’s most important year. “1959 was a phenomenon,” . “It was on another level. That’s all you can say.” Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Ornette Coleman’ The Shape of Jazz to Come and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out all came out in 1959. Bauer started teaching guitar, and liked to read that quote to his students ─ not to establish his pedigree, but to let young players know the proud lineage that all jazz musicians step into when they pick up an instrument. “We are not an island,” he always told them, “even if you only have one 12-inch record to stand on.” Students often laughed at that. It acknowledged the elephant in the room, and it confronted the gossip that surrounded his record, the idea that he had somehow failed to release a follow-up rather than chose not to. He smirked at how he’d become the one-record wonder ─ so wrong! Bauer hadn’t floundered and faded from view, because he’d never put himself in view in the first place. Also, the fact was, he’d quietly released a 10-inch record under his own name in 1955, called Let’s Have a Session. No one seemed to talk about that. He made numerous private recordings through the years that he’d mostly kept to himself, though in 1987, tiny Interplay Records released Anthology, containing solo studio recordings and a live trio performance from a Long Island club. No one seemed to notice that either. It wasn’t the same as a unified studio album. He was forever the Plectrist guy. Even jazz discographies failed to mention these other albums, which slanted the historic record. As a rhythm guitarist, he enjoyed supporting bands of various sizes, from orchestras to trios, which made his one full album as a leader a deviation from his norm. Anyway, he was proud of that album. It wasn’t perfect. He wish he’d play some things differently, but it featured some damn fine playing. He’d invited three friends to play on it. They didn’t rehearse once, and he regretted that. As he wrote in his memoir, “A person should plan if he has an opportunity like that.” But why not stop there? Did you always have to keep topping yourself? After Plectrist came out, jazz magazines like Down Beat and Metronome gave him annual awards. Readers ranked him high in Playboy magazine 1958 All-Star Jazz Poll; he beat out Bo Diddley and Les Paul! Bauer performed constantly, with bassist Milt Hinton and others, and doing a regular stint with a stream of famous musicians at The Sherwood Inn in New Hyde Park, Long Island, he recorded in other peoples’ bands like forgotten tenor Seldon Powell, but he never recorded with his own band again. Now half a century later, his sole record stood on the wall like a souvenir from a hobbyist’s musical dabbling, some rarified museum piece meant to be stared at instead of spun on the record player, something whose value derived more from scarcity than the humanity it contained. One time he’d joke to a student that someone should make him a souvenir t-shirt that said, “I survived the 1950s and all I got was this crummy t-shirt!” If Plectrist had remained in print, maybe more people would find it.

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The thing listeners didn’t realize is that musicians don’t just fail to record follow-ups. They get dropped by record companies. They get married and have kids, mount huge debts, end up in Riker’s for drug possession, lose their New York cabaret card and have to make money in ways other than performing, and they make tough decisions to survive. When rock and roll replaced jazz as America’s popular music, studio jobs dried up in the late 1960s. Other musicians waited around for work. It’ll come back, they said, hang tight. Bauer didn’t believe that, so he made a smart economic move and got work with the NBC Staff Orchestra and started teaching at the New York Conservatory of Modern Music. His friend Lennie Tristano had started teaching as far back as the 1940s and completely made the switch from performing to teaching by the time Plectrist came out. Unlike session work, Tristano told Bauer, students were a self-perpetuating resource. Demand was so high that in 1970, Bauer opened the Billy Bauer Guitar School in a tiny office on the second floor of a building in Roslyn Heights. He was its sole employee. He planned to work there until he died, which would likely happen with a guitar in his hand.

He studied his record. Despite a little edgewear on the sleeve, the store marked the album’s condition as VG / VG. No scratches, no fading, no bumps. It looked pretty good for nearly 40 years old, which wasn’t something you could say for musicians that age. Standing here between rows and rows of Blues, hip-hop, pop and rock records, he considered jazz’s place in the pantheon of modern music. It was huge. Sadly, its audience was not as large as its cultural contribution. This often saddened him while teaching. Reading about mid-century jazz in history books and scanning the pages of discographies was one thing, but you could really only appreciate the stunning amount of music that came out in his heyday when you stood in stores like this, surrounded by racks upon racks of LPs. Of course his record got lost. It was one drop in a musical ocean. Here among the collectibles, it was a relic from a lost world, though to the eye that scanned the walls, its striking black and red cover made it hard to miss.

He stood there staring at his record. He had to admit, the artwork held up over time. It had no gimmick, no corny play on words title like Donald Byrd’s Byrd’s Eye View or frilly mid-century font to date it. It featured a solitary shot of Bauer, wearing his usual collared shirt and tie, pressing his guitar to his belly, though it actually rested on his knee, which didn’t make it in the frame. In the pitch black studio where he laid these tracks, the camera’s flash had cast the details of his round face in an eerie way, showing his sleepy eyes turned to the side and a slight downturned grin. The photo aped the style of Blue Note’s album covers, using a studio action shot in place of a posed one, but Norgran hadn’t pulled it off as well as Blue Note’s Francis Wolff. Wolff had a natural photographic eye. Still, Norgran did their best. The way the designer tinted the whole image red made the crisp white “Billy Bauer plectrist” script pop along the top. It also gave Bauer a devilish quality, presenting him as a more sinister, solemn personality than he was. Back in his day people called him a ball of laughs. In a business filled with castaways, eccentrics and drug users, Bauer had always been known for his humor and optimism. That cover made him look evil. Too bad that didn’t help it sell.

He said the title to himself: Plec-trist ─ such an obscure word. Even in the ’50s it confused people. A plectrum is a flat pick, so a plectrist is a person who uses a plectrum to strum a stringed instrument. He could no longer remember where he’d first heard the word. Many debut albums back then used a formulaic “Introducing” title: Introducing Tal Farlow. He wanted something different. He’d meant to present himself to the world by answering the question “Who is this Billy Bauer person? and first and foremost, before he was a husband or a performer, before he became a teacher or a father, he was a guitarist, a strummer of strings, a plectrist. He’d fancied the word’s oddity, how it challenged listeners in the same way he and Tristano’s piano challenged them. He thought its obscurity would attract attention, but all it probably did was alienate and assure its obscurity, and he now regretted it. Sometimes he regretted not making other studio records, too. At least a second, possibly a third. He never told that to anyone, not even his son. Instead, he filed those feelings away for decades the way men do, and on this day, he slid the LP back onto the shelf on the wall and resumed browsing.

Unfastening the big buttons on his old tan trench coat, he paced between the rows of jazz records, dragging his green eyes across the names on the white, hand-written plastic dividers: Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins. All his old friends were still there, still standing around various smoky rooms and pianos in their photos, their smiling faces preserved on the album covers for generations to see, if future generations found them. Everyone was listening to this grunge music he heard so much about. His son William was too old for that, but William’s were not. They blared loud guitar music that had more screaming than the battlefield hospitals his grandfather worked in during WWI. He’d always hoped that all the jazz records he played them as children, and all the songs he’d shown them on guitar, would move them in the right direction. They still might come around.

Some aggressive metal band blared from tiny speakers mounted on the store’s walls, something the store clerks were either promoting or trying to impress customers with. How could they actually like the sound? he wondered. The chugging guitar stressed him out. He preferred the guitar on old country and soul, R&B and Django-type gypsy music, but he could never warm to metal, yet he loved all the things musicians had managed to do with the guitar since musicians first plugged in, all the sounds, styles and imagination, even in metal. It was like late-Coltrane: he appreciated that it existed, but he didn’t listen to it.

He wasn’t shopping for anything in particular here, just browsing to get that good feeling that seeing friends’ names put in him. He knew these Manhattan streets as intimately as the neck of his guitar. After spending the 1940s and ’50s living in tiny lofts and shared Manhattan apartments, he’d moved to a house on Long Island in the late 1960s, enjoying a piece of the good life with kids and a yard and a dog to play in it. He’d lived on Long Island for decades but took the train into the city today on business. He was meeting a few music students from Julliard to discuss helping them with a school performance ─ something about arrangements, charts for octets. It wasn’t clear. Manhattan visits had become rare for him at age 80, especially alone, but every time he visited, he liked to pop into a few record shops. One of his old favorites in the Village had closed, but this one on the Upper West Side remained. He always bought something and gave it to a student or neighbor. Not his record, someone else’s.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives-Getty Images

As gifts, he wanted to buy the Julliard students each a jazz record whose arrangements or ambition might benefit their own. Like Dizzy Gillespie, people always told Bauer he was a natural teacher: kind, patient, encouraging, wise, mixing experience with book-smarts and theory, and always offering his time. With his white hair combed flat over his forehead, smile lines spreading around his eyes, students now thought of him as their grandpa, and like a grandpa, he always bought students things. His attention kept returning to his record. It hovered on the wall like a lighthouse at sea. What a shame jazz listeners had to pay so much to access his music. He made a mental note to explore ways to rerelease the album in a low-cost form, maybe rerelease it himself or finally get Verve to digitize it. When it came to music he was a socialist at heart, or at least a populist. He believed in access. He’d created his own publishing company in 1958, called William H. Bauer Inc., to publish he, Tristano and Konitz’s songs and transcribed solos for other musicians.

He paced past more familiar names on the hand-written dividers: Milt Jackson, Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly, Artie Shaw, Jack Teagarden. When he reached the bins with the T’s, he found his friend Tristano’s slot empty. Not one Tristano record in there, none. This place had ABBA records and Ozzy Osborne for god’s sake, but no Tristano. That saddened him. In life, his friend had always been obscure, a musician’s musician to some, cold and distant to others. Was Lennie falling further into obscurity? Tristano died in 1978. His empty bin made him feel even deader, like he’d been erased. Bauer tried not to get angry. Maybe one collector had bought up everything the store had. Maybe things were on reorder.

From the end of the jazz alphabet, Bauer turned around to survey the room, mapping the path he’d just walked through decades of music, what amounted to thousands of crystallized statements of human feeling and self-expression, a catalogue worthy of a time capsule. And he was a part of it. He had walked among giants. It was kinda fun to think of it that way. Other customers probably thought he was nuts. When he glanced around, nobody noticed him. People browsed. Two kids looked at hip-hop CDs. The two clerks leaned over the counter, flipping through magazines and pricing guides, passing their time.

As he gathered some used records to buy, he tried to remember all the thoughts he’d had earlier so he could include them in his autobiography. He’d started jotting notes for it years ago but had only recently hired a writer to help transcribe and edit his story with him for print. He’d reached that age where he had to take stock. Actually, he’d waited too long. If he didn’t record it quickly, all that info could get lost. It looked like he would have to publish the book himself. No commercial presses expressed interest in a jazz musician with one album and who hadn’t performed publically since the 1970s. Never mind that he’d played on some of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s most famous recording sessions. To the bean counters in commercial publishing, he was a nobody, certainly not anything that would generate money for them. Literary agents suggested he contact university presses. He preferred printing the book himself. He’d always done things his own way. He knew his story was important to the few people who still cared about jazz, all ten of them, and he had a great deal of wisdom and anecdotes about the jazz life to offer. That was why he was writing it: he wanted to leave knowledge for future generations. As he wrote in the forward, “This is how you contribute to civilization. What you did might be of some interest to someone.” That was his teaching philosophy, too: jazz was living music. It needed to be taught face-to-face. Students needed books and needed time alone to practice, but they needed teachers, and he loved to teach. As one of the last guys around from the swing and Bop eras, he considered it his moral obligation to keep this music alive and pass the tradition on to the next generation of players.

Jazz historians looked at his tiny oeuvre and they considered him a musician who didn’t get the recognition he deserved, one whose humility insured that he got overshadowed by lesser talents, a player who should have produced more records than he did. They said that about a lot of jazz people, Bauer thought, like his friends Lennie and Tiny Grimes. He was satisfied with the way things had gone.

He came out the end of the jazz aisle holding a few records to buy. He still couldn’t get his own album out of his mind. The cover hovered in the corner of his eye like a red lamp outside a bar, beckoning him to come in. Curious, Bauer brought it up to the counter to see what he could learn about it.

The young clerk had a long pointy goatee and thick framed glasses. Wearing a blue flannel and some sort of bird tattoo running up his forearm, he appeared to be in his late twenties.

“Hi,” Bauer said, “I’m wondering what you can tell me about this. Is it a rare record?”

The clerk turned the LP over in his hand, reading the fine print on the bottom to see what it could tell him. “Hmmmm,” he said and turned around. He typed something into his computer and read a bit on primitive collector websites, then he flipped through a thick pricing guide they kept behind the counter. “Yeah,” he said, “looks like the guy only put out one full-length in his lifetime. Not sure anything else about him other than that. Back then those jazz guys came and went like that. There was just so much stuff coming out.”

Bauer took the record in his hand and gave a little nod. “Yes there was,” he said. “Thanks.”

The clerk said, “Do you want to buy it? If not I can put it back.”

Bauer shook his head. “Not today. I still have a few copies left at home,” and paid for this other purchases.

The clerk cocked his head, unsure if he’d misunderstood the old man, though wasn’t that always the way with the young?

Bauer lovingly set his record back between those of his fellow plectrists, and with his purchases tucked under his left arm, he pushed open the front door and slipped back into the cold Manhattan air, stepping lightly down the familiar city sidewalks, the same inviting ones Lady Day sang about in “Autumn in New York,” streets that still ran below “shimmering clouds in canyons of steel,” as Bauer sunk his well-traveled hands into the lined jacket pockets that had warmed them so reliably, steadily, silently, through the decades.

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.

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