The six-month stay that became 60 years

She was used to hearing classical or pop music humming from the cream-coloured Bakelite radio that hunched on the Whangarei kitchen’s Formica bench. But on this particular afternoon her 13-year-old ears heard something new. She recognised the song, East of the Sun, yet after the melody the band seemed to be making the music up as they went. In three years of studying classical piano with the local nuns they’d never mentioned improvising.

Judy Bailey. Photo: supplied. Top photo: Edmond Thommen.

Judy Bailey was instantly enthralled, and when what turned out to be the George Shearing Quintet had finished, she dashed to the piano, and worked out that the made-up music was happening over the song’s chords. A week later the Stan Kenton Orchestra gave her an even bigger thrill, the thought of which still gave her tingles decades later.

At 14 she began regularly accompanying a singer on Radio Northland, through which she met the Newbury twins, Peter and Paul. When they weren’t helping their father prepare bodies for burial, they ran an acrobatic troupe – yes, really – for which Judy, 10 years their junior, became musical director.

So music was already tugging her in different directions when, at 18, she began studying classical piano more seriously in Auckland. Once, when her teacher asked to hear her homework, and could tell she hadn’t really practiced it, he stopped her and said, “No. Play me the stuff you’ve been working on. Not the stuff I gave you.” So Judy came clean with her jazz, only to find the teacher intrigued and supportive. Her parents, who’d assumed her future as a classical pianist was a given, were less thrilled, but Judy was not to be swayed.

Photo supplied.

At 20 she left Auckland for Sydney – originally intending a six-month stopover on her way to London. Instead she was waylaid by a welcoming jazz scene and constant work as a pianist/arranger in the TV studios. Her jazz work centred on Kings Cross’s El Rocco – impossibly small to be the crucible in which Sydney’s hip, modernist, 1960s jazz was forged, with the likes of John Olsen or Clive James listening on. Her debut album, You & the Night & the Music, was recorded there (with bassist Lyn Christie and drummer John Sangster), and it sizzles with the energy of youth and adventure, while also being sensuous, playful, heartfelt, effortless and lithe. Bailey turns in a solo ‘Round Midnight that’s as desolate as any you’ll hear, and her own Deep Night signalled the start of an august parallel career as a composer. Such LPs became collectors’ treasures in Japan, reportedly fetching four-figure sums.

She’s continued to compose, perform and record to the present day, meanwhile receiving an OAM for services to music and education in 2004 and the Sir Bernard Heinze Memorial Award in 2018. She began teaching and mentoring at Sydney Conservatorium with the inception of the Jazz Studies course in 1973, and among her plethora of students along came one in 2009 with whom she shared an instant musical rapport. This was fellow Kiwi Steve Barry, who, having started playing at five, was torn between the piano and competitive swimming. His discovery of jazz swung the deal, and by 15 he had a trio gig at an Auckland restaurant.

In 2018 the pair recorded Elements, a live album of free improvisations on two pianos, a context in which some people’s interaction can amount to little more than finishing each other’s sentences. Bailey and Barry’s exchanges, by contrast, are as organic as verbal conversations between two erudite friends. They generally eschew density for a spaciousness into which streams of new ideas may spill, and you hear their delight in expanding each other’s options. Drama and whimsy both feature on the twists and turns of The Witching Hour, and just as startling is their use of silence and extremes of pitch on Tane-Rore, named for the personification of shimmering air in Maori folklore. Even 60 years on the connection to the Land of the Long White cloud is not easily broken.

Elements streams on Apple Music and Spotify; on disc from Birdland Records.