Chamber musicians’ bucket lists most likely include performing at places like Carnegie Hall, collaborations with world renowned symphony orchestras and a Grammy spotlight. Acclaimed cellist Zuill Bailey can cross all those achievements off his list.
He’s up for multiple Grammys at next month’s ceremony. He’s performed on top of an inactive volcano, collaborated with the Chicago, Moscow, and Israel symphonies and last year alone, he recorded four albums. Yet despite his tremendous success and innumerable accolades, this world-class cellist remains humble and calls El Paso his home.
“I’m on the road constantly, surrounded by magnificent, inspiring people,” Bailey said. “I live in the amazing community of El Paso, with the people who’ve entrusted me to bring all the treasures of the world that I experience in my travels, back here to inspire our region.”
As the artistic director of El Paso Pro-Musica, he does just that. The organization’s chamber music festival will culminate this weekend with Bailey’s collaborative performance alongside pianist Yuliya Gorenman. They’ll perform at the El Paso Museum of Art on Jan. 26, at New Mexico State University’s Atkinson Recital Hall on Jan. 27 and at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Fox Fine Arts Recital Hall on Jan. 28.
Late last year, Bailey received word that his work on award-winning performer and composer Michael Daugherty’s “Tales of Hemingway” was up for three Grammys. The nominations are for Best Classical Instrumental Solo, Best Classical Compendium and Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
“Everything’s been a complete vacuum since December,” he said. “I don’t quite know how to process it because it’s such a big deal.”
“Tales of Hemingway” was written for cello and orchestra and is an exquisite rendition of the tempestuous life and work of one of American literature’s greatest authors, Ernest Hemingway. Bailey’s contribution to the work is a cello concerto written expressly for him.
“What makes this piece so special is that it was written for me. It has my fingerprints all over it,” Bailey said. “The first performance on earth of it is on the CD, and I’ve been premiering it around the world.”
Bailey plans to attend the Grammys with his 14-year-old son, Matteo.
“I’m flying into L.A. on the red eye from Alaska, meeting my son there and going to all the receptions and parties and then to the Grammys the next day,” he said. “The Grammys are definitely on that lifetime list, so it is going to be a neat moment, and to share it with my son makes it really special.”
Bailey’s cello is his usual traveling companion. In fact, the instrument occupies its own seat on each flight he takes to ensure safe handling and arrival at each destination.
“It’s definitely a conversation starter on every flight I take,” Bailey said.
Aptly christened “Cello Bailey,” the 324-year-old cello made by Venetian cello maker Matteo Goffriller has traveled to countless locales.
Bailey is also the artistic director of the Sitka Summer Music Festival in Alaska. For community engagements there, he uses a fiber carbon cello that is impervious to the elements – a fortunate quality considering the instrument was played atop a 32-foot tall dormant volcano in the Southeastern part of the state.
After completing the more than seven-mile trek up Mount Edgecumbe on a scree-covered slope, Bailey performed Bach on his cello.
“It was everything I thought it would be,” Bailey said. “On that day, it wasn’t particularly clear, so I basically played Bach in the clouds.”
An alumnus of the distinguished Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University and the Juilliard School, he fell in love with the cello at age four and quickly discovered he wanted to travel the world and perform. He revealed that when he was 12 years old and already an accomplished performer, a man offered a prophetic piece of advice: “If you can find what you love to do and make that what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
He’s been “not working” ever since. When asked about hobbies and what he does in his free time, he confessed sitting around and reveling in the serenity of his home are what he enjoys most.
“I travel hundreds of days throughout the year, so vacation for me is being at home,” he said. “I work at night, and to have a rare night off typically means silence. But when I’m in different cities, I go to different restaurants and jazz clubs and I love it.”
Bailey began his life as a traveling performer in his late teens. All that time on the road sparked the idea of impacting communities by making chamber music more accessible.
“I’d already been traveling for a decade, and I started realizing that being a performer and going into different cities for a couple of days and leaving didn’t make me feel like I was making the kind of difference I was destined to,” he said. “In a lot of the places I traveled to, the arts were very dry and not focused on, and I could tell they needed help.”
A series of serendipitous events culminated in a perfect storm. Upon stopping in El Paso for a performance 16 years ago, a Pro-Musica board member approached him after hearing him practice and spoke to him about becoming the organization’s artistic director. The offer came at a time when Bailey was reevaluating his career goals.
Through his years with EPPM, Bailey has sculpted the cultural landscape through his experiences. He, along with Pro-Musica executive director Felipa Solis, have been pivotal in creating opportunities and venues for critically acclaimed artists to enliven the arts in the region.
Events including the free Bach’s Lunch concert series and ongoing collaborations with UTEP and the El Paso Symphony Orchestra help Bailey realize his goal of fanning the flames of the community’s creativity.
Local musician and composer Daniel Rivera recently saw Bailey’s string trio performance at UTEP.
“It’s great to have someone like him in the community, who’s spearheading these events and exposing us to this music that otherwise we just wouldn’t experience,” he said. “He’s so excited about Beethoven and Bach and he really believes this music should be shared with the world.
“Through his events, he’s helping preserve the legacy and history of this music, making it a thing not just of the past, but of the present.”
One of the ways Bailey is maintaining that history is through the Young Artists Development Series, a partnership between Pro-Musica, the Peabody Institute and the Mesa Arts Center in Arizona. The program focuses heavily on strengthening performer-audience engagement.
The program is now in its third year. Bailey and Solis travel to the participating schools to audition potential participants.
“We’re looking for people who have that natural instinct to want to impact the community and make a difference,” Bailey said. “We teach them it’s not just about going and playing; it’s about connecting to the people in the audience and finding out why they’re there.”
Chosen artists spend a week in El Paso giving performances, school concerts and master classes at venues like the art museum and UTEP.
Bailey is also involved with the El Paso Symphony Orchestra’s afterschool program, Tocando. The program was designed to provide music education and a performance opportunity to elementary school students in some of the city’s underserved areas.
Cristobal Colmena, director and coordinator for the Tocando program, praised Bailey’s commitment to promoting accessibility to music and the arts.
“You can tell he’s deeply rooted in El Paso,” Colmena said. “He goes all over the world and brings back what he learns, and I think that shows he’s committed to the area.”
Bailey recounted stories of people approaching him after performances.
“I’ve been in El Paso 16 years bearing this torch, and the work we’ve done is affecting a generation,” he said. “Some of these kids I approached in first grade, who are now in college, come up to me and thank me for bringing them the arts and music. That’s a full circle.”
Bailey’s appeal extends beyond his musical prowess and he’s considered somewhat of a heartthrob. Women have been known to fawn over him after performances, showering him with flowers and other tokens of their affections. On that front, however, Bailey remains humble.
“I love what I do and I think people are attracted to what I’m trying to do,” he said. “It’s a special, magical moment in concerts when everyone in the room is one, and when that happens, it really moves people.”
Solis had a somewhat different take.
“He doesn’t realize the attention he commands when he walks in a room and plays his cello,” she said.