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Meet Sheryl Bailey…Brilliant Guitarist, Performer, Recording Artist, and Assistant Chair of Guitar at Berklee College of Music

Beth Marlis

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Jazz Guitar Today’s Women in Guitar Higher Education series continues with guitarist Sheryl Bailey, Assistant Chair of Guitar at Berklee College of Music.

JGT’s Women in Guitar Higher Education Series continues, Beth Marlis interviews Sheryl BaileyAssistant Chair of Guitar at Berklee College of Music

Beth: Could you briefly give our readers an overview of your career to date? 

Sheryl: I’ve toured as a bandleader throughout Japan, China, Australia, Canada, Europe and the US. I have 11 releases as a leader/composer, and as a side-person, recording and touring worldwide: the Anat Cohen Tentet, David Krakauer’s Ancestral Groove, Abraham Inc., Richard Bona, Lea DeLaria (musical director), US Jazz Ambassador. I’ve been a Professor at Berklee College of Music since 2000: teaching private lessons, Harmonic Considerations for Improvisation and Bebop Lines lab, and on the faculty at the Collective School of Music in NYC 2005-2019: teaching private lessons, ear training, and ensembles. I also have an extensive online catalog of courses with Truefire.com, Mikesmasterclasses.com, JazzGuitarSociety.com, and JamPlay.com covering a wide array of topics related to jazz improvisation.

What initially drew you into higher education leadership?

It felt like the natural direction after amassing an extensive canon of pedagogy. After spending 20 years of my performing career on the road, the position to be in service to the artform, to advise and counsel students and support and encourage the pedagogy of my colleagues on the faculty seemed to come at the right time in my career, as I felt I was finally in a position to give back and share the insights I’ve gained through my years developing my musicianship and freelance career. I have been blessed to go beyond goals I could have imagined in my time on the road and on the scene in NYC, so it feels great to be able to share those rich experiences in the role of mentorship and leadership.

Can you talk about the emergence of women into guitar education leadership roles? What are your observations about why and how this paradigm shift took place; and do you see it continuing?

It’s often been said that a woman has to be twice as good to be seen as just good enough, so that means women are engaged in developing highly effective skills of organization, self-discipline, communication, flexibility, virtuosity, and an incredible sense of humor! But perhaps women are finally being recognized as great guitarists and educators in their own right, as gender concepts are slowly starting to open up and society is more willing to recognize merit and give credit to excellence without the blinders of gender bias.

College level Jazz and Contemporary Guitar Program enrollments still tilt strongly towards a majority male student body. You’ll also find this same disparity among the guitar faculty and senior leadership positions.  Has this situation evolved at your institution? 

As a student at Berklee in the 80’s, I was one of two women students in the guitar program, and there was very little support for us at the time, in terms of assuring a learning environment free from sexual discrimination and harassment. Basically, you had to “suit up” to head to class and concentrate on the guitar and music and do your best to ignore sexist comments and actions. Now we are seeing at least 10% of the incoming classes to be women, all of them playing at a very high level and very serious players, and I know we will be seeing a higher percentage moving forward, as this is just the beginning of a sea change. We have a very active Equity Partners program at Berklee that makes Berklee a supportive institution for women musicians, and I feel that having myself and Department Chair, Kim Perlak setting the standards and atmosphere of the department creates a positive environment of inclusion for everybody. 

As college educators, most of us go about our day-to-day responsibilities without thinking about gender; we do our jobs with utmost professionalism and work to support the growth of our programs, students, faculty, ourselves as leaders and our impact in the community.  Nonetheless, you are a powerful and visible role model for everyone under your purview and far beyond.  Do you have any comments you’d like to share about encountering and successfully overcoming institutionalized sexism or misogyny as an educator and/or professional musician?

Our presence is not only important for young women, but for young men. As we are also mentoring young men, we are ushering in a generation of young men that will go out into the industry and scene with a greater respect of women on the bandstand, as leaders and artists: so, we are creating important changes in perceptions and behaviors for all members of the next generation. 

Tell us what are your go-to guitar(s) and amp(s) these days?

All my guitars are built for me by luthier NYC Ric McCurdy, I have two solid bodies, since I do a lot of shredding type gigs still: one is a tele style and one resembles a jazz master, and I have a Signature Mercury model that Ric designed for me: a small 335-type body. They all have the same neck profile, so if I’m moving back and forth from solid body to hollow body, they all feel the same.


What are your goals and plans for the future? Is there anything you might want to share with our readers about upcoming gigs, projects, sage advice or final words of wisdom?

Kim and I are publishing a book for Berklee Press on the history of the guitar department and a guide to the curriculum.  Once we are free to travel the world again, I intend to continue my work with Anat Cohen’s Tentet, my organ trio, The Sheryl Bailey 3 and my quartet The Sheryl Bailey 4.

Advice: Find your audience and trust your muse, have a sense of humor (you’ll lose your mind otherwise)

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