Carla Bley: The Girl Who Cried Champagne

A toast to Carla Bley's 80th birthday
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Composer Carla Bley maintains her status as an international superstar and an elusive cult figure simultaneously. From the festival stages of Europe to her modest home studio, Bley follows her own tunes wherever they lead her.

On the scene for more than 50 years and turning eighty this May, Bley still composes and records new work. Next month ECM will release a recording with recent compositions for her trio, which includes Andy Sheppard (saxophone) and Steve Swallow (bass). Since I first talked with her in 2009, she has won several international prizes, has been named a Jazz Master by the NEA, and received Honorary Doctorates from the University of Toulouse and the New England Conservatory of Music.

I recently sat down with Bley in the kitchen at her and Steve Swallow’s home in Willow, New York, to talk about her new album, touring, and her feelings about turning eighty.

How do you feel about turning eighty?

I’m proud. I didn’t ever want to acknowledge a birthday before now because it wasn’t as . . . monumental. It wasn’t glamorous. I think turning eighty is very glamorous. I would like to think that it would be shocking to people to know that this is what eighty is like. Except for the fact that I recently fell off a ladder and I have to use a cane, so I look a little more like eighty than I did a couple of months ago.

But, in turning eighty, I actually feel quite lucky. Just where I live makes me feel lucky. And the fact that I have a partner who forces me to write music, who constantly says if I’m not up there at the piano, he’s going to get a chain and lock me to it!

What I could do if I wasn’t constantly writing? I know what I would do: I would learn to be a better player. I now practice every day, but it’s only for about thirty minutes; usually it’s the Brahms piano exercises, which I think are so beautiful. I don’t mind playing them again and again. Sometimes after I practice, I still hear them in my head. I recommend them to everyone.


Do you think of your “player self” and your “composer self” as different people?

Now I think they are integrated. I used to think they were completely different. But I think when I take a solo, I sound like the piece I’m writing. And that’s something that I appreciate in other people: A musician who plays the tune, instead of just turning on the switch and playing whatever that person is interested in at that moment. That would not be the case if I had Charlie Parker in my band: I wouldn’t even want him to play the tune, I would just want to hear what he was working on.

But the regular humans, I appreciate when they say “Oh, this is a tune built on the cycle of fifths, so I’m going to play off of that.” Or “This is a tune that brings back the Roaring Twenties or the Roaring Thirties, so I should play more back . . . taking from history.” That’s not something I ask people to do, but if they do it, I appreciate it. And so I do it to myself, and I say play the tune, just play the tune. And then I say if I could just play the tune, I wouldn’t have to be a writer. I have to work on it because I can’t play quickly. I can’t think of things that please me. So I will take a solo and more often than not, I’ll reach a place where I say “that’s not working.” But I learned from other musicians that that’s a wonderful place, a place to get to, where you’re going to do something totally unexpected and make something out of it. Maybe you made a mistake and you played an F# instead of an F, so that means that’s a wonderful thing to do, and you can just keep doing that, play around with that.

I had a trombone player, Gary Valente, and for many years he would play one note during his whole solo. I would say: okay but when he gets to that thirteenth bar, he’s going to have to change from a C# to a C! It’s not in the chord! And he wouldn’t do it! He would keep on that C# and it made me so happy! Something that pleases me would be something that surprises me. I can be horrified, but I can be mostly pleased when someone plays something where I say, “Why didn’t I think of that? I’m glad that person is playing!”

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I might as well say Andy [Sheppard] right now. Andy is my band. Steve is always with me, in every band, so I get to be surprised by Steve before the tune is played in public. We’re playing downstairs a lot, just the two of us. We play the tune like the rhythm section, to get it ready for the soloist, although we solo too, but.… Andy’s really our crowning glory.

But the integration of player and composer used to be totally different. Because I wasn’t a player, until I had to be. I was just a writer and wanted to only write, and everybody would try to get me to tour and then I would and I would say, “Oh this is awful, I can’t play the piano! How can I possibly get paid for this performance? I should pay the audience!” But people would say, “Well, they want to hear the tunes, just play your tunes; people don’t listen to your solos anyway!” But I thought: I’m listening to them, and I’m not happy with them. But then finally, it got to the point, as often . . . something bad that happens can turn into something really good. The really bad thing that happened was people not buying albums. When that happened to me, I lost my source of income. And without playing, I would not have been able to be a musician anymore. That made me into a piano player—someone who has to learn, someone who has to practice.


Why do you love writing for the trio?

I don’t love writing for the trio! I want to write for a big band. I have to write for the trio. So I said, okay, that’s the reality. I can tour with three people. I can’t tour even with my favorite drummer. Three is the most I can do, and pay the guys I’m touring with well. Otherwise I have to say, you know, it’s on the cheap, times are bad; and I don’t want to say that. So I only have a trio. So this has been.… I think I’ve only worked with trio for—how many years now? Well, I still worked with Charlie Haden. The Liberation Music Orchestra has made a new record and will have a concert in Chicago on Labor Day. We made the record already, with new tunes, and a new tune I wrote for Charlie after he died, and a couple I wrote before he died, and a couple I wrote thirty years ago that go with the theme of the album. It’s an environmental theme. Because that’s what Charlie was most interested in at the end. He’s on two of the tunes.

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Why do you think you work so much more in Europe than in the U.S.?

We’re not playing in the States at all anymore, even if it’s only a trio. We don’t exist. But there’s a lot of history of Europeans preferring the Americans in jazz. The Americans really have the cache that gets them the gigs in Europe. This June my piece for big band and boy’s choir is being performed and recorded. It was performed before, at the Moers Festival [Germany]. After that I thought it would get recorded but we just couldn’t get it together. A Swedish big band said they could do it but they couldn’t do it. The boys’ choir just isn’t a tradition in Sweden as it is in Germany. I need a German boy’s choir. I tried a bunch of radio stations, and nobody bit; except, finally, the NDR [Norddeutscher Rundfunk] bit. It’s the NDR Big Band, plus the boy’s choir from a choral academy in Hamburg.

I wrote the text for the piece myself. It’s about learning French. And it’s called La Leçon Française. I helped myself learn French by writing an opera in French. It’s half in French. The other part is learning, in English, it’s about students. It’s a day in the life of English speaking students learning French. But you know in opera—it’s not an opera, it’s an oratorio, an oratorio for big band and boy’s choir! I originally planned it with Rebecca Martin as the teacher but I can’t afford her. I can’t afford anyone!

The big band is free. The government pays for it. The NDR is free. The government pays for it. This tells you a little about the United States government. They don’t pay for any music stuff like that. Or I would have done it in New York.


It’s ironic that you’ve been named the NEA Jazz Master.

Yeah. The even paid me to play one six-minute song at the celebration, “Ups and Downs.” And it turned out really good. I practiced for months, my piano part, and we played it in the basement for months, and I finally got to the point where I could play a decent solo on it. And my solo during the performance, I lucked out, man! My solo just killed. One chorus. Killed it! I played it as if I’d spent months writing it! And I didn’t, I made it up on the spot! But you see how hard I have to prepare? It’s because I wasn’t raised a player. I mean, I wasn’t raised anything, I raised myself. And if I had known that I would be a player, I would have done what everyone else did and gone to Berklee [School of Music] or something. Learned to play! I never learned!

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The last time we talked you told me that you had gotten more conservative, musically, that when you were younger you did a lot of experimental things and really radical recordings, and that as you got older you wanted more and more to write traditional jazz. Is that still true?

I know that I had been saying that. But I don’t think it was ever that I wanted to be anything, I just was what I was. I would have loved to play like Bud Powell. I couldn’t, so I didn’t want to. I think I was just protecting myself. I still want to play like a great piano player would play. I want to play like Keith Jarrett. I think maybe he’s the greatest improviser in general, not only in jazz, but in general improvisation. I can’t believe it, that that’s coming out of him in an improvised way. Or if I could play, like, say, Larry Willis—I’m thinking of all the piano players with an incredible touch. Larry Willis is a totally great piano player.

But also, Ornette Coleman was such an influence. My solo piano pieces, “Romantic Notions,” have been recorded but haven’t been released. There are two or three pieces in there where Ornette Coleman was a direct inspiration. I recorded them; they’re perfect. But there are certain things that everyone who plays them does wrong. They’ve been played by a lot of people, and sometimes totally wrong: Too much expression. I don’t like expression.

Let’s talk about the pieces on your new recording, Andando el Tiempo. There’s some heavy subject matter that you describe in your notes for the CD booklet. Can you talk about that a little bit? What do the titles of the three-part title piece mean?

“Sin Fin” means “Without Ending.” Then the middle one was a William Safire title. “Potación de Guaya” was a potion of grief. It’s very ancient Spanish. It means “Drink of Grief.” And the word “drink” was crucial. We should say, first, that the piece “Andando el Tiempo” is about being addicted to something. And I don’t mean music. I mean one of the things that makes you feel happy when you’re sad, or high when you’re low; it’s about being addicted. And a friend of mine had that happen and I watched the whole thing, and it was on my mind, I felt so sad.

Sometimes when I’m really sad I write a piece of music, because it helps. And this helped a lot. This helped while it was going on. The third one was the hardest one, “Camino al Volver,” which means “Road Back to the Beginning.” Go back to the beginning. And I meant it that the person went back to who he was before what happened to him happened. And to me that’s the beautiful happy ending. The overarching title, Andando el Tiempo means passage of time, passing of time.


Do you have any advice for young composers today? What advice would you give to one of my students who wanted to be a composer?

I would say: Good luck! And with the expression in my voice, I meant it: Good luck! I would say to young composers there’s nothing you can do about it, you have to write music, and … oh man, lo siento mucho. You could have been a dentist, for god sakes!

Is there anything musically happening in the world today that you keep track of—new groups, composers, styles—anything that you’re really into?

Well, we like Rihanna. She’s sort of like the Ornette Coleman of the pop world. She’s not following. She’s got her own drummer going in her head, and a lot of great drummers around her too. But they’re all sort of walking without a crutch. It’s really interesting. Personally, I adore Lady Gaga. I adore everything she has ever done. I want to play the organ like she does with one foot up on the stool. I adore her!

You told me before that when you go down south for the winter you always take something to listen to, some complete something-or-other. What did you listen to this winter?

Gordon Beeferman! We think he’s really wonderful, talented; a great young pianist, organist, and composer. We can really relate to what he’s doing. But one year it was Beethoven, one year it was Shostakovich, one year it was [Charles] Wuorinen. To me, his piece “Blue Bamboula” with Garrick Ohlsson playing it, it’s the best piece of piano music in the world. But it has to be Garrick Ohlsson. And from the first note you know who the composer is and you know who the piano player is. And there are very few people that; well, you know when it’s Ornette Coleman, immediately. You know when it’s Bird immediately. You know it’s Horace Silver, or anything by the Count Basie band, and Count Basie’s playing; certainly as a pianist, for me, very, very, very influential. And the other pianists: Of course Thelonious Monk, from the first time I heard him when I was seventeen.


Was Thelonious Monk a big influence on your piano playing or your composing?

Big influence on everything. And Ornette, like you said; because I worked in jazz clubs, for maybe three years, at that age where you take in music and it becomes your favorite music for the rest of your life. But of course, Miles Davis is the greatest player—musically, in any vernacular, in any format, in anything. Miles Davis is maybe the greatest musician that ever lived. Because to me, the improvising is just the miracle; that jazz exists is such a miracle. How could that happen? How did something like Ornette Coleman exist? How did Charlie Parker become Charlie Parker? Where did that come from? You can trace that back and there’s nothing like him.

For me, it’s the magic of not knowing what’s right or wrong; that is the part of the magic that I have access to. I don’t know what’s right or wrong. I still ask Steve everything.

What about other pianists?

Since I play piano, I’m so critical. I can find something wrong with the best piano players on earth. I just don’t like the way they played that phrase. I just don’t like the expression. That’s why I like Keith Jarrett because of the way he plays Shostakovich. You can tell that he knows how to play Shostakovich. It’s like walking. It’s like a lot of trained classical piano players walk funny. They walk like a ballet dancer [gestures]. Why would you want to walk like that? You’re not going to get anywhere that way. And they do things, little expressions, I can do it right now as a joke. Why not walk like you walk down the street? Why not walk like you’re living in the hood somewhere? There’s some walking going on there! Or why not walk like Monty Python’s silly walks? But to do ballet, it doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t enjoy it.

But Garrick Ohlsson, in general, I just really like the way he plays. He really socks it to you. And I really like Richard Goode for Beethoven; he plays; he works up a sweat. He plays really down to earth. The way Horace Silver plays can’t even be imitated. It is so full of blood. It’s just life itself. It’s the blood pumping through him as he plays; I can’t believe how life-full it is—Horace Silver. But only for about five years, his first five. Or Milt Jackson, his touch, his phrasing, I’m fussy about phrasing. But I’m trying to think about piano. Steve loves the guys that I hate, and sometimes sneaks one on me. And I just say, “ugh!” And I just try to bear with it. He just loves really classical piano playing. And I just like sort of the modern guys.

Is there anything you would have done differently in your career, given what you know today?

I think I’ve said it already. I would have practiced the piano and realized that playing the piano is not something you do to the best of your abilities. Playing the piano is something where you have to pursue your level of ability for miles and miles before you are of any use to anyone else.

Last question: When Steve makes you go upstairs to compose tomorrow morning, what will you work on?

I have no idea. Do you realize that? Is that an opportunity or what? It’s an opportunity, and it will be horrible. It will be frightening. I know I can never write another piece. Ever.