Paul Bley

ECM Records



History is hardly kind to honorable men. Thinking about the sheer number of examples would only serve to make me frustrated. Paul Bley has always held onto his art. The pianist has been perceived as a loner because of his individuality. And that is a black-eye for the writers of this music, whom have conveniently pigeonholed what they may not understand. But no one wants to look like a fool, so here is a lesson from Bley on Bley, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

PAUL BLEY: I'm from Montreal originally. I grew up with Oscar Peterson and Maynard Ferguson. Being a piano student at the time, I attended all their performances. When Oscar left to go to with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, he asked me to replace him at the Alberta Lounge in Montreal for a year, which was my final year in high school. After a time, I went to New York and went to Juilliard and started making recordings of which there are now a hundred and twenty.

FJ: You were so young when you played with Charlie Parker, how challenging was it for you to play alongside one of the most charismatic enigmas of the music?

PAUL BLEY: Well, we ran an organization up there called the Jazz Workshop, which was a musician's collective. We collectively performed together, twelve or fifteen bands and took the profits and used it to import American musicians. They sent me down to find Charlie Parker and to bring him back to Montreal. I had heard that he lived in a basement on 72nd Street in Manhattan with this saxophone player, Joe Maini. I went to visit him there and the story I tell is that I knocked on the basement door and asked to speak to Bird and Bird came to the door and I invited him to play the concert. He was very much of a, he reminded me of my dad, a short man with a deep voice and very, very nice guy. I was told that I had to watch him carefully because he tended to wander off and I did. But musically, he was a revelation. It was necessary to leave home and go to New York and give up my family and friends because playing with him was so informative that I realized that I could no longer live in Montreal and I'd have to go to New York. My ambition was to work with Bird, which came to fruition about four years later.

FJ: Charles Mingus was an enthusiastic advocate of your playing and was instrumental in the culmination of your debut record, Introducing Paul Bley.

PAUL BLEY: When I went to New York, I was a member of the New Jazz Society, an organization of jazz fans as opposed to the Montreal organization of musicians. At the meetings, Mingus played and I got to meet him. I was just a Juilliard student conducting composition and so forth and he was experiencing problems realizing some of the small band work and would I help him conduct and orchestrate some of his pieces and I said I would be happy to. So he formed a record company, Debut Records and when I went back to Montreal for a visit, he called me up there and invited me to come to New York and conduct a piece, conduct an album called Weird Nightmares , a piece on an album of weird nightmares and to make a trio record with Art Blakey, which for me is, I think it had to have been 1951, was a very big opportunity for a teenager. I was nineteen at the time. I realized right away, I had a lot of professional experience playing in Montreal, but one thing one has to realize is that when you get in professionally, you have to ascertain what the problem is going to be and in the case of Art Blakey, the problem was volume because he was the world's loudest drummer at the time. So I divided this routine of looking like I was playing, but not playing and he had to play soft. He would play softer and softer, trying to find the piano in the mix. That was helpful because he did manage to play quiet enough so that we could play together. Problem solving has been my forte ever since then. That's pretty much what you have to do when you play is to look at the individuals personally and to find out what the worst case scenario is and go with that.

FJ: Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Giuffre, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Gary Peacock, Don Cherry, Mingus, Blakey, Bird, Evan Parker, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Jacki McLean, that's just a short list of the many pivotal figures you have played with. Are there any musicians you would like to play with, but you have not yet had the opportunity to do so?

PAUL BLEY: Well, there are a lot of downtown musicians, downtown New York musicians, who I'm looking forward to recording with. People like Dave Douglas, John Zorn, and so forth. These are people in the last decade and I'm looking forward to recording with them.

FJ: As a composer who has worked with some of the most progressive composers in the music, what is the essence that a composition must have to reach an audience?

PAUL BLEY: Well, the compositional aspect is an interesting one, Fred. In fact, so much of the music is improvised that the line between improvisation and composition pretty much disappear, so that the goal in improvising is to sound like it is composed. From the audience's point of view, they are not really supposed to know whether it's written or improvised, so what you're really talking about is spontaneous composition, which is often called improvisation. The audience responds not so much to composition or improvisation, they respond to the individual players and what they respond to with the player is pretty much the timbre and tone of the player and the passion of a player. That's what engages an audience. The content of the music, the harmony, the rhythm, those are secondary, actually, to world-class performers. They mostly respond to the sound of the players and the fact that the player's style is recognizable to them because of recordings.

FJ: There is one recording in particular that is a personal favorite of mine, Bebopbebopbebopbebop on Steeplechase.

PAUL BLEY: I'm very happy with that record. Actually, I've been happy with all the records post 1960. Prior to that, I'm unhappy with all the records. The premise of that record was to use the bebop classics as a platform to play with chord changes and use the bebop format, but also to bring in the new ideas of free jazz on top of a popular song based chord changes. I bridged those periods, the bebop period with the free music period and they inform each other.

FJ: You alluded to the fact that you are unhappy with anything pre-1960, is that because it was early in your development?

PAUL BLEY: Well, I was not a fully formed player as Oscar or Maynard was in the '50s. For me, it was a question of acquiring skills, different skills each decade, synthesizer skills in the '70s, free music skills in the '60s to add to the bebop skills if the early '50s, so once the music, once we got to 1960 and I had been introduced to Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, they were so flexible rhythmically, that it was easy to add enough variety to play, so that it would be of interest to a wide group of audiences.

FJ: I spoke with Gary Peacock a few months back and he credited you with changing the way he hears music. Does the way in which you hear music allow for more flexibility in your improvisations?

PAUL BLEY: Well, there are only twelve different notes. Eleven of those notes sound good together, so you only have to worry about one (laughing). We're a hundred years past the crest of classical music and I think the audience and the musicians are ready to combine any set of notes that are attractive to them, without worrying about whether or not this distorts the harmony.

FJ: Let's talk about your new release on ECM with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, Not Two, Not One.

PAUL BLEY: That album's called Not Two, Not One and it's with Paul Motian and Gary. We had played together, not necessarily as a trio, but we had played together in different combinations in the '60s. The philosophy behind that album is that it is not absolutely necessary to relate to each other when you play. You can have three parallel voices. That's one possibility, also the idea of counterpoint. If you're, once again, twelve notes and eleven work, counterpoint is really not so much whether you're playing together, as to whether your own playing is imaginative enough to hold the listener's ear. So there's competition between the three players for attention, as opposed to imitating one voice or another. Another thing in that album, I had been working on solo piano styles, trying to face the question of what's the prerequisite to playing solo piano in free music. There was a number of styles offered and for me, I hadn't really decided on what style would work best for me after the early ECM album, Open To, Love. So this album explores some other solutions to the questions raised by solo piano.

FJ: One of the obstacles musicians playing what is commonly referred to as free jazz is that they are often maligned for their lack of formality.

PAUL BLEY: Well, in all the arts, painting, poetry, literature, and so forth, what the purist of the avant-garde and the near view turns out in retrospect to not be the thing that is the most of concern. The real thing that happens over time is whether the work has interest or substance. Art always has survived one decade later, one continent removed.

FJ: And the future?

PAUL BLEY: Well, there's this new hi-fidelity recordings that are made by Sony and I was in Tokyo recently and made a duo album there, piano and drums. And that just came out. There's also a new book that came out, coincidentally, this week called Stopping Time, Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz. The ISBN number, if you wanted to get it from Borders or wherever is, may I give you the ISBN number?

FJ: Certainly.

PAUL BLEY: OK, it's 1-55-65-111-0. Also, we have a web page up, a website and so forth with a lot of different information on it and that's under There's a concert coming up at Jazz at Lincoln Center, February 19 and 20, a duet with Charlie Haden and a tour of Europe with Paul Motian and Gary Peacock in July of the coming year 2000. At the website, you can buy some of our videos.

FJ: Improvising Arts is also your label.

PAUL BLEY: Correct, that's right.

FJ: You have documented Jaco Pastorius's recording on your label.

PAUL BLEY: That's correct. Jaco's first record and Pat Metheny's first record.

FJ: They played together on that record.

PAUL BLEY: Right, along with Bruce Ditmas and I am playing electric Fender piano.

FJ: It's an interesting recording, grievously under-publicized.

PAUL BLEY: Well, it's better to be under-publicized, Fred, than to be over-publicized (laughing).

FJ: I think that has been the hallmark of your considerable career.

PAUL BLEY: Thank you, Fred.

Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief. He is also our resident interview pointman. Comments? Email Fred.