Eldon "Buster" Bailey

Buster Bailey was a close family friend of the Engfords dating back to at least 1964. More on the family friendship can be found here.


Published: Sunday, June 13, 2004

eldon bailey

Elden Bailey’s professional life was spent as a musician with the New York Philharmonic, but his heart was with the circus. Before his death in April at 81, Mr. Bailey made his reputation as a percussionist with the Philharmonic, specifically for his buoyant snare drumming, and as a faculty member at the Juilliard School. But Mr. Bailey, who was known as Buster, also had a lifelong love of circus music. While others went to the circus to see the clowns or animals or the man on the flying trapeze, he went to hear the band. Once, for several performances, he even sat in for a drummer who was ill at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, with little advance notice and without missing a drumroll.

So perhaps it will be no surprise to some 100 family members, friends, colleagues and former students at a memorial service Saturday in the Second Reformed Church here that the musical selections will not be limited to classical pieces and hymns, but that the stately, tan stone Gothic church opposite a little tree-lined green will also pulse to the earthy refrains of circus songs like the familiar "Entry of the Gladiators," or "Thunder and Blazes."

"First of all, it’s optimistic," said his wife, Barbara. "It’s cheerful. And that was Buster. It reflects his personality, really. He loved and understood classical music but his real love was traditional band music and circus music," she added. "He liked to play a good galloper."

Mr. Bailey, who retired in 1991 after 42 years with the Philharmonic, died in Sarasota, Fla., former winter home of the circus, which he and his wife visited annually to see the retired circus band members who had become their friends over the years.

"One of the things he said he wanted was circus band music at his funeral," she said.

Mr. Bailey was born in Portland, Me. His love of the circus began when his mother took him to one when he was 4 or 5. It grew as the father of a friend took the boys each year to watch the circus set up. His classical studies at the New England Conservatory of Music and Juilliard were leavened by his interest in jazz and the experience of playing marches with a championship high school band and the 154th Army Ground Forces Band during World War II.

In the early 1960’s, through a colleague at the Philharmonic, he met Merle Evans, the director of the Barnum & Bailey Circus band, and Red Floyd, its drummer, and they became good friends.

For years thereafter, whenever the circus was in New York, Mr. Evans arranged for him to get circus passes and Mr. Bailey attended whenever he could, absorbing what the band did to support the circus acts. He became so knowledgeable that when Mr. Floyd took ill one day in the mid 1960’s, Mr. Evans turned to Mr. Bailey to take his place.

For performances on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, there sat Mr. Bailey, joyfully playing a drum roll at the dangerous apogee of an act and climaxing it with a rim shot, only to show up on Thursday to play white-tie-and-tails concert music. "He was exhausted but he was thrilled to bits," Mrs. Bailey said.

Mr. Bailey’s last recording, for Angel Records in 1993, was a collection of circus songs, "Under the Big Top," with a group he formed called the Great American Main Street Band. Chris Lamb, principal percussionist at the Philharmonic, said that Mr. Bailey’s eclectic knowledge of music mixed with a sense of fun that was contagious and that they often improvised on an Irish jig or jazz song together in the practice room at Philharmonic Hall while waiting to perform during a concert.

"There were so many things he was interested in, and he put it in his music," Mr. Lamb said. "And so it had so much life to it."

Mr. Lamb will play a song by Mr. Bailey on the xylophone, "Two Sticks in Search of a Waltz," which appears in one of two important books Mr. Bailey wrote for percussionists, "Mental and Manual Calisthenics for the Modern Mallet Player" (Adler Inc., New York, 1963).

There will be no clowns jumping out of little cars in front of the church, but there will be a 28-piece brass band called Gramercy Brass -- augmented by musicians from the New York Philharmonic -- playing "Thunder and Blazes" and "Barnum and Bailey Favorites," according to Lee Ann Newland, a friend of the Baileys who helped organize the service, and whose husband, John Lambert, is leader of the band.

Asked what the service will try to capture, Ms. Newland said: "His fun nature. He was a fun person, and he knew how to enjoy himself. He wouldn’t want people to sit around being sad. He would like people to remember him how he was."


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