The 2nd in a series of Interview/Essays of Canadian Musicians
On February 6th, 1979, at Town Hall in Toronto, a really surprising occasion took place. Great Black Music Productions presented a concert by two soloists, Roscoe Mitchell and Paul Bley. Apart from the excellent music that was performed, the surprise was that Paul Bley, a returning Canadian, had not performed in Toronto for nearly twenty years.
Although Paul and I had often corresponded, by letter and by telephone, we had met only once, when he was working with the Charles Mingus group at the Five Spot in the early 1960s. I was however not to hear him play on that night because the “legendary” Five Spot piano was in its “normal” state of untune and Paul refused to perform. And so after nearly two decades of experiencing him on recordings, it was eventually in Toronto that I was to really hear his music.
Part of his program was a tribute to the late Charles Mingus, a wonderful recitation of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”. In his introduction to this piece he had said something that I had not realised, that Charles Mingus was the person who had abducted him, when very young, from Montreal.
PAUL BLEY: Oh yes! When I first went to Juilliard I encountered something called The New Jazz Society in New York City. It was a group of people who met at a club on West 54th Street that Charlie Parker played at. Barry Ulanov organised it, he was working for a magazine called Jazz. Mingus was also working at this club on certain nights, Bird would work weekends and Mingus would work other nights. I had occasion to sit in at the club. Mingus was very friendly and when I went back to Montreal for one of the holidays I was offered two jobs in Montreal, which meant that I was making a great deal of money, as I was living at home, and it seemed that I was never going to get back to New York. The phone rang one day and there it was — Charlie Mingus was on the other end of the phone, saying, “Paul, you’ve got to help me out, I need a conductor for an octet.” It was quite complex and he felt that he wasn’t able to do the conducting and would I do that, and “by the way would I also do a trio date with him and Art Blakey?” Which was my first record.
That was a hell of a phone call. And I said, “Just tell me where to be when. I’ll be there!” I caught a plane and there I was. We did a date for his own Debut label with a singer and an octet, baritone sax, one or two horns, trombone — Jimmy Knepper, if I remember correctly. I’d done my first year of conducting at Juilliard. He had this large score and we ran through it and we got through the day I was extremely nervous (laughter).
Then early one morning a few days later Art Blakey showed up and just my luck, good luck I should say, the date was scheduled for 9:00am in the morning and I had for some reason to be back in Montreal at 3 o’clock that afternoon, and so I told Charlie I was hoping to get through in time to catch the plane. Art Blakey came in, some band boy was carrying his drums. He was so sleepy that morning that he played very quietly, very quietly, keeping beautiful time! It was just perfect, because at that stage of my career I wasn’t really ready to override him, his power, so I had a chance to be heard and be felt. He’s a monster drummer. Mingus played beautifully. And I went back to Montreal. This is just out of the clear blue, I said, “Well, now that I have all this activity in New York I’d better quit all these good paying jobs”. I think my mother was banking $350.00 a week for me in Montreal, clear. In the early ‘50s that was a great deal of money. It must have been equal to a thousand dollars. Clear! It seemed like an endless job, and I was looking forward to a great deal of income. But it was a wonderful opportunity. Mingus’ offer plucked me out of the liability of this seduction, the lure of heavy money.
I was already enjoying a considerable reputation in Montreal before I went to Juilliard. My early bio includes a film with Stan Kenton, jazz workshops at the Chez Paris, we ran our own club, we produced a weekly show for CBC television, of which over a period of time we promoted Canadian groups as well as Americans; Brew Moore, AIan Eager, Dick Garcia, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker. This was for CBC and for our own jazz workshops. As a matter of fact I invented the name “Jazz Workshop”, although I’d never tell Charlie Mingus that. I shouldn’t say I invented it. It was taken directly from the drama workshops that existed.
One of the other things that happened was, during my final year of high school, (Norman) Granz came and literally plucked Oscar Peterson out of Montreal, leaving behind him Clarence Jones and Ozzie Davis. Ozzie Davis was the bassist and Clarence Jones was the drummer, both from New York, whom Oscar had invited up to Montreal to work over a year or two period at a place called the Alberta Lounge which was just opposite the CNR station in downtown Montreal. I sat in there occasionally So when Oscar was invited to leave, the other two members of the trio invited me to replace him. I was there for about six or seven months Which was another wonderful opportunity. It didn’t do anything for my final year of high school though.
When I eventually went to the United States, everything was as wonderful as that first opportunity, the music was really going on. There was a little bit left of 52nd Street. Can you imagine one of the first nights that I remember arriving in New York, Lennie Tristano, Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz, Billy Bauer and one or two other players were working on 52nd Street. Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis and whoever were working on 54th Street. Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra was working in Birdland. Billy Eckstine’s orchestra was working upstairs, Be Bop City! And that was just in a four-block radius. If you wanted to go a little farther there was other music to be heard Incredible! All finished, very professional, very deeply into it, as into their act as Ellington was into his. Finished, fully professional, fully formed bands. All playing Misteriosos as far as I was concerned. To hear this level of accomplishment, of diversity! Can you imagine the bridge of some of those Lennie Tristano tunes, at four times the tempo, this gorgeous harmony? It was incredible, it was really an oasis. A garden of Eden musically.
My mother was really a wonderful woman. When I was 14 she put 500 bucks in my hand and said “go to New York for a few days and see if you like it.” I checked into the Taft Hotel and kept my head upwards for the whole weekend. And I said, “I definitely like it.” So while I had a band in Montreal there was a girl singer from New York to whom I explained my hidden secret desire to go to Juilliard. The moment I said that, she was convinced that there was nothing else I could possibly do, except that. She was generous enough to invite me to her family’s home in Brooklyn and I slept in an apartment with her and her three brothers, and we kept rifles for Israel under the beds. And cooked main courses, dinner was chicken, and steak and roast beef and six vegetables, I mean we really cooked a dinner. It was like a restaurant.
What I mean to say is, there was an awful lot of generosity extended my way. When you try to leave your home country at age 15, 16, 17, there’s an incredible amount of magnetism pulling you to stay where you are. You have to be wrenched out of your environment.
When I arrived in New York I was definitely the worst player in town! It was just a measure of how far I had to go. It took years, while I was at Juilliard I worked different weekends with different people. One of those experiences, one particular weekend, I worked early in the evening in Brooklyn with the Pete Brown quartet, and the same night I went to do a gig with Dick Garcia and Charlie Parker at the Armoury, around 168th or whatever, it was up in Harlem. The gig was supposedly at 1:00am, which Bird showed up for at 3:00am, and to hear the two horn players juxtaposed over three hours, to be on the bandstand with both of them was to see the incredible similarity rhythmically, and the way they projected their sounds. They were very very close. Pete was considered a blues player and Charlie Parker of course was bebop and there was a great deal more complexity, but rhythmically they ran eighth notes the same way. A jump band.
Beautiful. Beautiful. His favourite idea was to be playing Brooklyn in January and it would be very cold and for the first number he’d play “52nd Street Theme” as fast as he could play it. Willie Jones was the drummer. Willie Jones would say, “Man, give me a chance to warm up you know, why do you want to hit with that for the opening tune?” He would say, “If you can play this tune you’ll have no more problems for the rest of the night.”
BILL SMITH: Was it possible for you to make a living playing this music?
PAUL BLEY: No I don’t think you could say that you could make a living. For one thing, I wasn’t ready to go and jump on the bandstand with the groups that existed. There’s a tradition in New York that for twelve months you’re supposed to be seen and not heard. It’s very presumptuous to think that you can come in being the hot flash from Cleveland and expect to impress anybody in New York. So you’re supposed to just very quietly make friends and do a great deal of listening. It took me four years of listening before I was really ready to jump on a great deal of the bandstands. At Juilliard Phil Woods was a student, Teo Macero was a student, there was a band there I had an opportunity to play for John Higgins’ class. I had a chance to do a lot of work as a leader at that time.
I worked in all the black clubs in Long Island and Brooklyn. I’ve had some wonderful bands that have never been written about. I had a quintet, which was a very well-known quintet but it was mine. It was Jackie McLean, Donald Byrd, Arthur Taylor and Doug Watkins. It played a place called Copa City in the early ‘50s. Those guys were really funny. To drive out with those guys in the car was hilarious, they were like a bunch of porpoises, you know, constantly roughing each other up physically, verbally, for me it was an incredible education I copped for six weeks or so while I found out what they were doing. I was always the poorest player in every band and that situation existed for years. As a matter of fact I didn’t make a record that I could say, “check this one out” until about 1962 or ‘63, which was the Savoy record with Pete LaRoca and Steve Swallow. I think that record took ten or twelve years of listening and trying to play, just to catch up. Because Americans had all kinds of power, all kinds of forward momentum, all kinds of aggressiveness, all kinds of balls, all kinds of lack of inhibition These were personality traits, it’s nothing you can practise in a room by yourself.
And then there were the giants, the monsters. The Sonny Rollins’ with the super volume. These people were giants. And for us practising our standards and sitting in and playing well and whatever, it just wasn’t the same breed of animal. You couldn’t tell from records. You thought you were playing jazz by comparing your playing to records, but when you heard the amount of wind that came off these stands you realised you would have to totally lose your reticent Canadian personality before you could even expect to keep up. That was the shock.
That incredible power and confidence. And that very confidence is what I tell people, this is where the Canadian artist’s function to Canadian society is. The problem in Canada is that… just reading your newspapers… that one doesn’t have the confidence to be objectionable, as a Canadian one doesn’t have the confidence to subject someone to your inadequacies. I learned to tip my hat in elevators in Canada, to defer whenever possible, almost Japanese like. Canadian behaviour is very Japanese-like in social relationships and that. Japanese might be a multiplication of Canadian behaviour, but the good-byes and the hellos take a tremendous amount of time in Japanese, the full bows back and forth, almost ad absurdum.
For example, you have a two-way television system here that has to be sold to the rest of the world in a very short period of time, before the ideas are co-opted by some other country and introduced as their original invention. And given that time deadline it’s still — according to the headline of your local paper the other day — the recommendation that Canada would not be able to sell this two-way television idea to the rest of the world unless it already had a system in place in Canada. Well, that’s just looking for an out. If you only have a year or two to sell it according to the article. And you’re certainly not going to put a system in place by then. What you have done is say, “let’s not sell it because it’s not time yet”. If you had a good sales person out there, because you do have a superior product that no one else has, you wouldn’t have to have everything in place to make the perfect sale. It’s just that type of mentality: “Let’s not do it now, do it later because we’re not ready yet.”
BILL SMITH: There’s so much incredible natural wealth here. Why do you think Canadians are like this? Now that you aren’t actually part of Canadian society anymore.
PAUL BLEY: Oh, I’m a Canadian who’s left and had a chance to observe society all over the world. Lived in different societies all over the world. Why is the Canadian personality this way?”
BILL SMITH: Well it seems to be two steps back from the front. You know, you stand back when you knock on the door instead of opening it. That seems very prevalent in Canadians.
PAUL BLEY: Perhaps its our British tradition, perhaps it’s our French tradition. The English are also extremely polite, mannered. I’m not sure why. All I know is that I think that generalisation is accurate. Now as jazz musicians we’re saying for this society, you can free up your imagination. You can proceed in an area without much information and you can function in an area without much information. You can, I told a class at York University just yesterday, that one has to be the greatest salesperson in the world to sell something to somebody that they have no idea that they need or want. These are all characteristics that artists are faced with because of the difficulty of their situation and they can serve as a model to the rest of society as to where society is in its own personal development. You have to have something to be proud of. Nationally, federally, locally, and the type of people who are willing to take on several layers of impossibilities, and yet be able to function. Artists always predict the future, the social future. Blue jeans were the dress of the painters. It wasn’t the paintings that influenced society, it was their pants!”
BILL SMITH: In this period here in Toronto, I don’t know about the rest of Canada, there’s a very powerful new music thing happening which is not at all like the bulk Canadian music attitude. Always the jazz players here are imitating someone else, learning in that kind of process which is not very healthy in my opinion. There have not been very many original players that I know of in Canada, and when there are they do seem to leave. It’s almost a joke in Canada, that leaving thing. So I hope your prediction’s right, that it does socially follow the occurrence that takes place in the environment. Music now in Canada is coming to the point where there are perhaps a dozen players who are becoming quite powerful. So theoretically your idea means we’re looking to a good future socially. I don’t know if that’s true...
It’s an indicator, absolutely. One of the many indicators at least that should be taken seriously.
BILL SMITH: Returning, do you feel like a Canadian anymore?
PAUL BLEY: Absolutely! Always have I have a Canadian passport, a Canadian mother, all my school friends are Canadian. I grew up here for the first 15, 16 years. So that’s fully formed, that’s Canadian. As a musician one doesn’t want to disinherit oneself from any ethnic background. The more ethnic backgrounds the better.
BILL SMITH: So in spite of all your reservations about the character of Canada you still feel very strongly that you are one of us.
PAUL BLEY: Absolutely! I tip my hat in elevators to ladies.
BILL SMITH: You said that you didn’t really make a record that you felt was an important statement until about 1963 or ‘63. Yet by that time you had already had a band that was so controversial that it had nothing to do with those records. You know, the band with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. There’s been so much talk about Hillcrest that we have to talk about Hillcrest. Do you mind talking about Hillcrest?
PAUL BLEY: I don’t mind talking about anything that happened.
The Hillcrest Club was a club on Washington Boulevard, which is in the black section of Los Angeles, right in the middle of it. That area had a tradition of live performance. Les McCann played our Monday night jam sessions. When I arrived in Los Angeles after along college tour with a trio that I brought from New York we added the vibraphone player, Dave Pike, and went into the Hillcrest Club and stayed roughly close to two years; six nights a week. (This is the band that made the record Solemn Meditation - Gene Norman GNP 31). And over that period of time some of the players went back east and were replaced. Billy Higgins replaced Lennie McBrowne, Charlie Haden replaced Hal Gaylor, the Montreal bassist.
One night Billy Higgins said, “a friend of mine, Don Cherry, brought a saxophone player and wants to sit in”. I normally never let anybody sit in, we sent them all to Monday night and gave them to Les McCann, but because it was somebody in the band and they almost never made any recommendations for somebody to sit in we said “no problem”. After playing one set with them Charlie and I went out in the back yard and had a confrontation. We said. “Look, we have been working in this club for a long time and most probably could stay here as long as we wanted. If we fire Dave Pike and hire Don and Ornette we won’t last the week. We’ll be lucky to last the night. What shall we do?” And we looked at each other and said — “Fire Dave Pike!” (Laughter)
Well a good relationship with the owner allowed us to stay another three or four weeks on that job. It was historically amazing. And socially, in the club it was hilarious. Look at the situation. A quartet that is a house band, very successful in a club, making money for the club, all of a sudden changes its policy and hire’s two horn players in place of a vibist. The music in 1957 was certainly a lot more dramatic and revolutionary than Albert Ayler when he first came out, and he created a tremendous stir. It was really similar to some jokes, I’ve told jokes about it. When you were driving down Washington Boulevard and you looked at the Hillcrest Club you always knew whether the band was on the bandstand or not. If the street was full of audience in front of the club, the band was playing.
Every set we’d go up and we’d play and the club would totally empty out, they’d leave their drinks on the bar and everything. Totally empty out, it’s socially possible in California, there’s warm weather and it’s very friendly there. So everyone would be out on the street. And as soon as the band stopped they would all come back in and drink, talk and shout and be happy and be merry and then we’d go back on and they would empty out and wait on the street. They really loved the place, loved the band. Loved what they thought the band used to be. That’s what the situation was.
Musically it was incredible. Ornette had a bag of compositions that was so deep that we rehearsed every day of the job for the three weeks or the month of the job. Every single afternoon all day. And every night we played an entire new book from the night before. So, I’d say ten or twenty new tunes were added to the band’s repertoire daily. That’s a rate of growth that’s stimulating to say the least.
I spent 3/4 of the time tuning Ornette up to see if I could get him to play A44O. He could play A44O, A444 or A436 or any A you wanted. Unfortunately I didn’t have the flexibility that he had when it came to hitting A. From a musical point of view it was extremely stimulating.
I told the class yesterday at the university that all you’ll ever be hired for as an artist, as a musician, is your judgement. When you hit one note, the next note starts involving your judgement. We talked about personal habits and things like that to improve your judgement. Well, who you play with is certainly important. Who you think plays well, who you think can offer you something. All these decisions. Geographical decisions, musical decisions. They’re all judgement, over and over and over again.
Up until the time that those two fellows had sat in with this group, there had been a great deal of thought as to how to break the bondage of chord structures over meter. Ornette was so early that Coltrane was an interim step which coexisted with Ornette, whereas historically it should have preceded Ornette.
BILL SMITH: A friend of mine here told me once about visiting New York. He liked Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, that kind of music. While he was there he went to the Three Deuces and the shock of Bird and Gillespie, and I think people like Duke Jordan and Max Roach. I mean he was a real jazz fan, but the shock of Parker… he’d heard it on record but it was only 2-1/2 minutes long and in the club it was 22-1/2 minutes long. You know, chorus after chorus after chorus.
PAUL BLEY: That was the normal length. An LP length was normal club time, and longer if there were more horn players. But I think the shock of Ornette was much more severe because bebop didn’t use micro-tonality. You were just talking about a new arrangement of well tempered notes. When Ornette introduced the idea of erasure phrases, where you’d have some phrases that were tonal and well tempered and then some phrases that were deliberately meant so that there was no way you could transcribe this onto paper easily. Then the music was suspect. That interfered with the enjoyment or the evaluation of the music. The technical ability was suspect. If Ornette had not been a composer, it would have taken him a great deal longer to get those erudite critics, who by the way performed a yeoman service in quickly identifying Ornette’s validity to the sceptics, the New York musicians who were sceptical. It was the critics who did more than their job of acquainting the public with the music. They acquainted the musicians with the music. They acted as liaisons between the avant garde and the musical community. Benny Golson was the band opposite Ornette at the Five Spot when he came in.
After the Hillcrest I formed another band with Scotty LaFaro and Bobby Hutcherson just down the street from the Hillcrest and we went in there and played for an open-ended contract. Ornette and Don had gone to Lennox School of Jazz and I’d done a couple of months at this club. I’d heard that they were at Lennox and that this was the final year of Lennox and I thought it was a very exciting idea. So one night around 9:30 I told the band that I was going to say goodbye to them right now, and that they could finish the year without me. I just walked out of the club, got in a car with Carla and we drove directly non-stop to Lennox. We realised that if we drove non-stop we would get there for the last day of Lennox and we thought that it was extremely important to do this.
After the Hillcrest job I was in the process of taking in this new information and playing with other musicians in Los Angeles. At the same time as working steadily I would go on my night off and sit in with everybody to see how I could relate what I’d learned with other players. After being offered every job in Los Angeles as well as having my own job, it was another case of having to leave. It was Montreal all over again. There was nothing left to accomplish.
We drove to Lennox. Got there at 10 or 11 o’clock at night. Got to the jam session of the final night. This was the last jam session of the last night of the final year of Lennox. Everything was the last. The last set and the last tune. The car was still sweating from the trip. We left everything in the car, came in and I tapped Ran Blake on the shoulder, introduced myself to him and said “May I sit in”. Ran is an extremely social, wonderful person, and said yes. I had a chance to play with whoever it was. Sort of an all-star line-up. Everybody was there. Jimmy Giuffre was there, Ornette, everybody was there. I had a chance once again to see if I could relate what I’d learned. Because I was playing a tempered instrument, you see, so that if anybody was to ask what was going on in free music I was in a perfect position to tell them something that they could relate to, because they could not relate to any information regarding microtonal music. But they could relate to everything involving the well tempered scale. I had one tune to play and I played like my life depended on it. I’ve only done that about four times in my life, where you play one song where your life depended on it And in fact it did. That last tune on the last set led to my next four years employment in New York. I got the job with Jimmy Giuffre based on that set. I got the job with George Russell based on that set; the two piano album. There was a phone call directly from his being in the audience that night. For Jazz in the Space Age with Bill Evans and myself and the orchestra. I got reinvited to play with Mingus as a direct result of that set. Everything but the Sonny Rollins job was all out of that set. If a traffic light had been red instead of green at one intersection across the country it would have been too late. We slept under John Lewis’ piano that night and headed for New York the next morning.”
BILL SMITH: I remember all that controversy around Ornette in that period. I mean all the quotes and stuff in the press, all these different critics. This camp saying, “It’s okay because Leonard Bernstein said it’s okay, John Lewis said it was okay” and on this side, this critic says, “This is rubbish”.
PAUL BLEY: “Right. The terms were really hostile. The groups that didn’t like the music just couldn’t face it, never mind discuss it. And the enthusiasts said it was the messiah. It was that extreme. Anyway, Ornette opened at the Five Spot and played there for months.
BILL SMITH: Did you play with that band?
PAUL BLEY: No, never. That’s another story, involving Charlie Haden and myself. Ornette wasn’t sure whether he was going to continue with Charlie Haden. I said “You’ve got to be kidding!” Charlie had some personal problems. I said “I know a lot about rhythm sections. It’s been my life study”… I could get into that sometimes as to thin bassists and fat drummers or fat bassists and thin drummers. I mean, I made a study of time playing. I said “There’s no one on the globe who will be able to accompany you” and no one ever did. Scotty was playing atonally and certainly Ornette was not an atonal player. Jimmy Garrison was a tonal player. He wasn’t even polytonal or atonal. Most bass players could only play a fifth of the areas that Ornette could enter.
BILL SMITH: Charlie Haden heard it all the way through didn’t he?
PAUL BLEY: All the way through. Played all the wrong notes and made everything sound right.
BILL SMITH: When I think about it now those early records, on Atlantic for example, they never sounded very strange to me at the time. We thought that they were very funky.
PAUL BLEY: Because of the bassist! The Atlantic records, once again, were shortened performances, six or seven minutes, which involved a lot of writing.
BILL SMITH: And those wonderful tunes. That people actually whistled.
PAUL BLEY: But in the club… those few Hillcrest tapes that managed to come out, with a great deal of duress at one time or another, they’re presently withdrawn from our catalogue. I withdrew that album shortly after it came out. Those Hillcrest tapes are 15 minutes, 21 minutes a tune, as the bebop lengths were. It was a lot harder to listen to microtonal music at length than it was squeezed together between some very friendly songs.
BILL SMITH: In this period, you’re moving quite a way from bebop music and this microtonal music is making you investigate other concepts of piano. Or were you always developing into that? You play a much more open, spacy way, whereas bebop players have a tendency to accompany themselves. You don’t do that, you have another way of playing.
PAUL BLEY: Yes, use of space is a separate discussion. In terms of what I personally thought was the way to play the piano. Leaving space out for the moment, I’ve always loved every period that I’ve played in. I’ve never been interested in one as opposed to another.
I anticipated all the changes in jazz because they were all problematical things, that I was dealing with myself. In New York in the late ‘50s there were a lot of experiments being made on how to avoid playing popular standards and how to get improvising out of those constricting formats. I participated on several of them, the albums with Don Ellis in the early ‘60s were part of that problem/ solution, some of Mingus’ compositions, some of George Russell’s compositions, these were things that were handled by composers and therein lay the problem. It was an improvising problem, over and above a composition problem. So a composer could write something that wasn’t 32 bars. But as soon as he let someone take a solo on it, it would become metrical, an 8 bar system or what have you.
BILL SMITH: George Russell almost succeeded with that concept of improvisation.
PAUL BLEY: Almost, yes, absolutely. But don’t forget Ornette took on rhythmically the loosening up of the dominance of the single meter beat so that you’d have multi-rhythms happening. Or something that wasn’t even considered rhythm, just slower or faster than the beat. That type of rhythmic suppleness was unheard of prior to him. For me, it was a question of techniques. I could play on simple triads, I could play on complex chord changes. I could play modally, now — could I play free? It was a question of stretching your consciousness, to allow yourself to be fearless in the fact that you could get back correctly. Could you go to a place that had relevance to the history of jazz? You could always sit and rumble around on an instrument but would it mean something to a perspective based on, say, King Oliver? As well as who else was around the scene. These were techniques so I didn’t hold one style over another. I didn’t have to give up anything to acquire something. It was my specific interest in being able to weave a seamless thread through the history of jazz, involving any and all of what I thought were valid and future mainstream pursuits. So the ability to recognise this music when it happened. To know and to work with Albert Ayler early on. John Gilmore (this was Gary’s band, actually. I was the pianist in Gary Peacock’s band), Sunny Murray and Paul Motian. It was like a double band.
I just released the album with Gilmore and Motian, Gary and myself. But in fact the second group of players that worked that job were Albert Ayler taking John Gilmore’s place and Sunny Murray taking Paul Motian’s place. To be able to recognise and seek out what I thought were important players the moment they appeared was sort of a voracious appetite, for the scientific pursuit of advancing the art of improvising.
BILL SMITH: So this is an incredibly different New York City to when you came as a young man from Montreal?
PAUL BLEY: Well after doing a great deal of listening in New York, I went to Los Angeles in 1957, because I had done enough listening and I was interested in putting a band together and trying out some of the ideas I had. When Ornette and Don came along it wasn’t a shock to me, I was ready for it.
BILL SMITH: In this period in New York there was some communication, for example, between musicians and artists and writers? Was there a community thing like that? Did painters and poets and writers come to the music?
PAUL BLEY: In the ‘60s, yes. There was a really nice situation. Mike Snow from Toronto lived in a downtown loft. Paul Haines was somebody I discovered in the audience of a Charlie Mingus performance that I participated in in the early ‘60s. We became fast friends, so he introduced me to a group of writers who were exploring the English language as opposed to a straight prose style, and making analogies there with free jazz and regular jazz. Michael Snow visually was dealing with certain abstractions of real images that had something to do with his trumpet playing. The walking woman album as you well know is a Michael Snow painting. There was a lot of talk. A lot of wonderful talk going on. Sitting around at tables with wine and candles and talking for six, seven, eight hours about the implications of what had happened, what was going to happen, how it affected the other arts, what type of work needed to be done. The Jazz Composers Guild Orchestra was an idea of mine. A very practical idea because there was the Jazz Composers Guild which had everything, all of the eleven or twelve groups had a fully formed instrumentalist as leader: Archie Shepp, Sun Ra. And Carla and Mike Mantler both were not fully formed instrumentalists and we were very competitive. Because we played ten bands a night, quickly, one set after another, so that, being adjacent on a bandstand, you were very competitive. I said that the obvious thing to do was, since you were not able to compete with these fully formed instrumentalists, was to hire them, because you’re both composers and this way you can wipe out everybody by playing your music. And you got a name as well, just take the name of the organisation. Which is exactly what happened.
It was too good of an idea. It required their full time attention to do it and I lost a wonderful lady in the process.
So ideas were very important. Gary Peacock came to New York in the early ‘60s and was a participant with Annette and Carla and myself and Michael Snow and Paul Haines, this was sort of an intellectual nucleus that spent a great deal of time fully working out problems. For instance we could solve a problem real quickly. For this Gary Peacock job, we had Albert Ayler as I mentioned. Carla approached us with a set of tunes that were in meter, had time to them. Not four beats to a bar, but steady time. As soon as the tune was over the band began to play free time, so that you had tick-tick-tick-tick for the piece and then whatever for the solo. We did this for one whole night and I got back at around two in the morning, I said to Carla, “Look, I can’t go tick-tick-tick-tick for your pieces, and go free for the solo because your pieces make the soloist sound wrong or the soloist makes your pieces sound wrong. Would you please write me a new book that’s in free time.” …so it would make the soloist sound right, for example I worked on Sunny Murray. I said, “Sunny, we’re gonna play a Latin tune, you got it?” “Don’t worry Paul, I got it.” I said, “One two three four.” Then he would play open (laughter). I said, “Sonny, now it’s in time, right?” “Right!” “One two three four, ready?” Then out he’d go, he’d play free. So I had to change the book, because I couldn’t change the drummer.
Well by the next night Carla had a dozen or two dozen tunes all set up, that were totally free. We quickly called the band in and by 8:30 or 9:00 started. There was no more steady meter. The history of instrumental music changed in 24 hours as a result of our meeting.
It was done that quickly. By the way it was a very fine situation. Every time I’ve had the chance of some historical, musical job some other very attractive offer has come up. Gary said, “Paul, I’ve got a gig at the Take 3 with Albert and Sunny and John. It pays $3.00 a night.” I said “Fine, I’ll take it.” Just as soon as I put the phone down Edgar Bateman, a former Miles Davis drummer, called me from Jamaica, saying that he had this wonderful bebop band in Jamaica and would I catch the plane on Friday. This is in the dead of winter. It paid hundreds of dollars a week. “Edgar”, I said, “I’m sorry, I wish you had called me last week. I’ve got a $3.00 a night job on Bleecker Street that I can’t say no to” (laughter) So there’s always the temptation to not do the historically important job.
BILL SMITH: Did you really know that you were changing the face of the planet?
PAUL BLEY: Absolutely! These things don’t happen accidentally.
BILL SMITH: I feel that way too. All the processes that I’ve been involved in were definitely not accidents. I work very hard to make all these things occur in Toronto. People, in books and things, sometimes throw away history and say, “well, it naturally evolved”.
PAUL BLEY: Naturally I would have been in Jamaica.
BILL SMITH: That’s right, you would actually be wearing a three piece suit, sitting in a lounge in Jamaica (laughter).
PAUL BLEY: Edgar Bateman was no slouch. That would have been a great deal of fun. He was a wonderful drummer.
BILL SMITH: In this same period are musicians beginning to think about being in control of their own music? Through recordings I mean.
PAUL BLEY: “No. The ‘60s still had the gangster element in the record business. There’s a story about Woody Herman. In 1952 he formed Mars Records, one of the first artist’s labels. He had just come off a CBS contract and a Capitol recording contract. He and his manager decided to form their own company. I’ve read a couple of stories about what he said had happened. He said that he was in business for perhaps a year or two, and they distributed the records all over the world. They put out about six or seven Woody Herman orchestra records. A very successful band at that time. Anyway, he said that looking over the books after doing all this business over that length of time they realised that no one, anywhere, ever paid them any money at any time for anything. No distributor ever paid them. Not a nickel. Not foreign, not domestic, not local, no one ever paid them. There wasn’t a distributor on the globe who had ever paid them. Period.
When I started in the record business I asked somebody in the business. I said, “I’ve got this buyer’s guide with maybe five or six thousand names of distributors world wide. Who shall I sell the records to?”
He said, “You’ve got to beware of them. There’s quite a few people who are slow or non-existent to pay.”
I said, “Well, there’s thousands of them in the book. How many pay?”
He said, “Six”.
The ‘60s was not really the time to form a label. Like ESP, the little talking I’ve done lately with Bernard Stollman, because he’s totally dropped out of sight. He tells horror stories about being pirated. Can you imagine somebody wanting to rip off Albert Ayler discs. That there was nobody else on the globe that they could make more money with? I didn’t get the full story, it was just a telephone conversation. But he had horror stories that made me very glad that I hadn’t tried to start a label in the ‘60s. That wasn’t the time yet for a musician-controlled enterprise. But it was the time for music to be directly controlled by musicians. A lot of upheavals, coming very quickly. And through all of this was John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. A big controversy was as to whether Dolphy played as well as Ornette. Well, as we said, the two historical movements overlapped and they shouldn’t have. In the past they each would have taken a decade, There would have been a decade of Trane and Dolphy and then a decade of Ornette and then a decade of Albert Ayler and then a decade of electronics perhaps. In fact, they all telescoped, reverse-telescoped into a ten-year period. It created a great deal of unnecessary controversy.
BILL SMITH: The controversy at least actually got everybody’s name in the paper.
PAUL BLEY: Well, not really because of the type of controversy, the hostility. And at the same time, the English-revived blues music with electric guitars took all the press. The Beatles came and everybody forgot about everything else. That was a friendly, together, hip interpersonal music, introducing electric sustain, and it captured the imagination of everybody. So improvising, even though it was in a very rich period in terms of impact on the public, the ‘6Os were very hard times on players financially. The ‘5Os, and the ‘7Os have been better. The ‘6Os were lousy for players. The music was fantastic but don’t expect to make more than hundreds of dollars a year. There were very small opportunities financially. But improvising players had steeled themselves against these things by developing very simple life habits, so that they were fully prepared to spend a whole year with no income if that was the case.
BILL SMITH: So when in actual fact in that period when you read about somebody like Cecil Taylor saying that he never made enough money to pay income tax, it’s not bravado, it was very definitely what was happening to everyone in New York.
PAUL BLEY: Absolutely. Now Cecil can make enough money on a single performance, if it’s recorded, to equal a year’s income.
BILL SMITH: Do you feel in a strange position now? I mean, you’re a musician who has a record company recording other people’s music, Is this an awkward situation for you?
PAUL BLEY: A very natural situation. I think all record companies should be run by a musician. Just as you wouldn’t trust your health to an electrician. You’d want someone who knew a great deal about the body and its functions. Musicians who trust in your brain, your aural senses, to somebody who doesn’t know anything about music, this is not really right, So it seems quite natural for somebody who spends all of his life carefully considering the relative merits of one musician to another, for that person to form a record company.
BILL SMITH: Are you recording friends? Or is it more businesslike than that?
PAUL BLEY: For me a label has to have a definite philosophical continuity. The continuity of this label is contained in the name, Improvising Artists. I had a point to make. Both my ladies have been composers who just happened to be women. The label is called Improvising Artists, therefore what I’m doing is saying philosophically or posing the question philosophically, which is something of a soap opera question. “Can a label that doesn’t require its participants to bring written music make a series of recordings so that the listener won’t know the difference or will find that those recordings in fact sound totally written, as opposed to partially written?” It’s certainly, from a practical point of view, more seamless to have a piece of music that’s totally improvised from beginning to end than to have one that’s written for a period of time, improvised for a period of time and then written for a period of time. So what we were doing is asking these players, who are composers, “Can you compose in real time for the entire length of a performance, as opposed to having something written?” The first record, the Jimmy Giuffre/ Bill Connors record called Quiet Song, won the Prix du Jazz. It was great, I’d never won a prize before so for me that was important.
BILL SMITH: This continuity of a certain kind of style, not just the fact that you’re saying it’s improvised music, but you take your attitude into the concept of record jacket design, quality of pressing, the kind of artist. Do you think it’s perhaps dangerous to create an image that could become a very singular thing?
PAUL BLEY: No. On the contrary. We’re dealing again with ideas. Improvising Artists is one idea for one label. I’ve written a list of fifty ideas for fifty labels, all of which I would be interested in doing. I.A.I. was just one idea. I’m hoping to get to the other forty-nine labels eventually.
BILL SMITH: Do you enjoy being a record producer? Do you enjoy that as much as the music?
PAUL BLEY: Well, anything to do with the making of music is very exciting. There are a lot of people in the world who want to be in recording studios as producers, as artists, as technicians, whatever. The actual making of music on record is a very exciting process. So of course I enjoy it. The ability to pre-decide things without discussing them with other players, you see all the planning and everything can’t ever be verbalised. In music you can only exert your ideas musically. Not verbally. You can discuss them later. After the fact verbally but it’s very gauche to sit down with players and discuss “my ideas musically”. It was never done. Mingus never sat down and said, “look, Paul, this is what’s going to happen.” All the information that was necessary was contained in the music and in the mode of performance. So that’s just some more of the same. I bring a group of players together, and it’s the playing experience itself that tells them what’s going to happen. I don’t write them a couple of paragraphs telling them what it is I’m trying to do.
BILL SMITH: There’s some problems in the kind of business that we’re in, having this kind of music efficiently distributed. We talked a little bit about this last night. Do you think it’s possible there should be some other way for people who are interested specifically in improvised music, that perhaps we could make more of an impact if we all formed a new group?
PAUL BLEY: Well, we can’t produce each other’s records. That wouldn’t be fair, and I don’t think we should collect revenues for each other. We certainly could collect credit references together. Share imminent bankruptcy information with each other. So we won’t have a shipment of 2,500 records going to a foreign country when one of us has heard that this man has just left the office and locked the door behind him. You don’t want to send him a plane-load of records just because you haven’t been informed that he was leaving the active business world. So by sharing this credit information we can save ourselves some time and money. There’s a lot of information we can share. I think certainly a meeting of the concerned individuals, realising that we’re competitive, but that there are more people in the world against us than ourselves, and so because we are a minority we have to be together and see if there’s something we can do for our own specialised interest. We’re different from a folk label or a blues label, a vocal label, a boogie label, we’re interested in improvised music, whether it’s ragtime, free music or electronic music. We do share a common musical basis.
As for the difficulties of starting a record company, remember that as a band-leader you go into business every time you talk to a person you don’t know and ask him for a live performance job, whereas in the record business you go into business only once with each distributor. You may have the distributor for 25 years. So you only have to ask half a hundred people for a relationship once and they continue those relationships forever. In the live performance business you could ask half a hundred people to start a relationship, but those relationships are only one day long and then you have to ask another half a hundred people. You’re constantly going into business in live performance. Record companies are much easier than live performance. There’s nothing harder than live performance.
BILL SMITH: I recently read, I think it was in Coda, about you putting the music in a visual context as well. Where you would buy video tapes that went with the records. That kind of thing. Are you seriously contemplating doing this?
PAUL BLEY: We’ve already done it. The catalogue lists the last four recordings, which have been visually recorded as well. The fidelity of the future is no longer the needle in the groove. It’s lasers reading through discs. Right now we get somewhere around 55 to 65 DBs in high fidelity. The video disc gets 90 to 95 DBs. In a single technical innovation we’ve almost doubled the level of fidelity. The only problem, they say, is that when listening to 90 to 95 DBs you can’t tell it’s loud because the background noise is so low. You might hurt your ear drums and not know that the music was loud to begin with. What you hear as loud is the background noise being loud. That’s how you can tell music is loud. This new fidelity level takes the background noise all the way down. Therefore it doesn’t seem loud to you, where in fact it’s injuring your ear drums.
To get back to why visuals; this was just an experience. Somebody about five or ten years ago played me a black & white video tape of a concert by Miles Davis in a theatre in Philadelphia. It was Coltrane, Cannonball, Bill Evans, whoever. This was a single camera on the first balcony, that just turned to the left for the piano solo, to the centre for the trumpet and saxophone solos, and to the right for rhythm section solos. The concert lasted an hour and a half. They used a long lens so that you could bring in close-ups and this was the most revealing innovation for me. In that visual information is five million bits, audio information is twenty thousand bits. As a player trying to absorb a performance, with the aid of the visual, I was getting five million bits of information, whereas in the past, listening to a record, I was only getting twenty thousand. It didn’t matter if the fidelity was high or low, audio-wise I was getting more of what was happening because of this tremendous amount of visual information. It was a very compelling performance, and historically very important. I realised that now we had a medium to replicate visual musical performances cheaply and efficiently. It was very important for us to preserve what existed on film from an archivist point of view. And in fact to preserve those performances by players who are perhaps still around, but not for much longer, on film as an archivist. I understand that there’s not more than half an hour or so of Charlie Parker on film.
We have players among us right now who, if they could be captured just in the process of recording their audio portions… like Joe Venuti for instance, was a tremendous live performer who captivated large audiences. Their should be several hours of video tape on this man, high fidelity colour videotape; well, he passed away. Lennie Tristano passed away. As an archivist I’m beginning to face this dual problem of whether nor not I want to continue my other 49 labels, or face the tremendous need for preserving some of these performances visually, because your record collection for certain is going to go the way of the wax cylinder. It will be audio, and as such it will not survive into the 21st century.
BILL SMITH: I have thousands of them Paul. Don’t say that.
PAUL BLEY: Save them, they’ll all be worth something whether the music on them is good or not.
BILL SMITH: You know I collect jazz films. I don’t have an enormous amount of them but I have quite a few. I have a 45 minute reel of shorts that were called “kinnies’. I watch them often; it’s fantastic to see Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, just to see them on film.
PAUL BLEY: Right, and you’re speaking of something that was transmuted through Hollywood’s idea of what was theatrical. We just bring a camera in and let the music go on for an hour, and show the players playing it. There’s visually a totally different story than dealing with the visual imaginations of people in Hollywood films. Also it’s a question of duration. Video tape can go on for hours. Film is a very expensive medium, it does minutes.
I think that’s probably one of the most important works that anybody can do today, is make colour video tape of the important artists that are still alive.
BILL SMITH: And everyone does have a TV. I mean they won’t just be documents. There are imaginative video people who can also make the image creative too.
PAUL BLEY: There will be as many ideas in the visual as there are musical. We found that a very nice format is to do a real time concert. Which has a natural beginning, a natural pause, a natural ending, a natural recapitulation and the encores. It makes a nice dramatic balance. It’s a theatre piece already just in the form of the structure and so it makes a good film. It’s not a television program because, number one, you’re not broadcast over the air. The visual fidelity is much higher than you could expect to receive off the tube over the air. So much so that it does begin to resemble a film in its fidelity.
BILL SMITH: In conversation it’s becoming apparent that you are somehow consuming, in your personality, all the aspects of this music. Not just a piano player, you’re producing records, you’re interested in visuals, you give lectures at universities…
PAUL BLEY: This was the first one. I make it a point not to teach. Ever. Partially because I’m very fearful of somebody coming under the influence of a teacher. It’s better to get information oneself from a myriad of sources as opposed to from a student-teacher association. I object very strongly to those relationships. So whenever anyone’s asked me to teach I’ve said, ‘Yes, but only by telephone.’