Paul Bley - Improvising Artist

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Pioneering free jazz pianist Paul Bley passed away on January 3, 2016. In remembrance of his substantial contributions, we are republishing our interview with him from the late '70s.


''Everyone wants to paint, write, or play an instrument," claims pianist Paul Bley. "The difference between the amateur and the professional is that the professional can survive the corruption of the marketplace." Bley, a jazz pianist born in Canada in 1932, is inclined to play philosopher obligato to his own career. One of his chief tenets is that the sometimes crass demands of the record companies and the fans are as necessary as they are blasphemous. Instead of avoiding these demands, Bley meets them head-on and strives to make his transactions (a word he uses to describe every interpersonal encounter) work in his favor.

His latest transaction in the music world was the founding (with Carol Goss) of IAI; Improvising Artists, Inc. The label, which initiated its first half­ dozen releases in January 1976, is dedicated to the principle that all improvisers are soloists and, hence, none should receive top billing. On IAI, Bley performs unaccompanied (Alone Again, IAI 373840) and with his stage band, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Barry Altschul (Virwosi, IAI 373844). As producer and co-marketing director of these albums· and the others on IAI, Bley says that "signing the other line" on the contract has cultivated a realistic insight into the performing arts.

Bley can be moody and brooding at the keyboard. He can also play well­ defined lines that turn sharp, clean corners without warning. What he cannot seem to do is discuss his playing in anything but the most oblique, if not existential, pronouncements. He does not like his performances, but certain moments in them during which he "agrees with" his playing. He does not like a piano, but only certain notes on it; he has no tone, but tones. Many questions are challenged rather than answered, and at times it was tempting to ask how many fingers he had on each hand to see if a straight answer was possible.

Bley will tell you that he learned jazz piano by finding Charlie Parker in a basement in New York, taking him by the hand (after putting money in it) and leading him back to Canada to play saxophone with him. What he won't tell you is that he had already founded the Jazz Workshop of Montreal , where he had asked Parker to perform, that he had studied at the McGill Conservatory and earned a 'junior' degree at age 11, that he led a band in high school, or that he had met Parker while studying composition and conducting at the Juilliard School of Music in New York , where he remained for four years. All of that might have had something to do with his learning to play piano, too.

After an apprenticeship at Basin Street and Birdland, Bley’s first important jazz gig was with Art Blakey and Charlie Mingus, but he also worked for· significant periods with Chet Baker, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, and Sonny Rollins.

Paul Bley is lanky and cordial; he has an easy manner and a resonant voice, smokes a pipe (even between tunes on the bandstand), and could pass himself off as an Ivy League professor with little difficulty. But heed his brief lecture on public relations: "If you're playing on a street corner in India," Bley advises "and you want to hold everyone's attention-and if a guy down the street is standing on his head, also trying to attract attention, what you choose to do to keep everyone’s attention is very real and important."

Though most of Bley's remarks in the following conversation are informative, they are also oblique, and one may legitimately wonder exactly who is standing on his head.

* * * *

How did you begin playing piano? We're interested in your background and whatever might be helpful to other keyboard players.
The first question any musician has to answer for himself is this: Is my aspiration to become the greatest living player on that instrument or not? If their answer is no, they should cancel their subscription to this magazine because they’re wasting their time. And this probably rules out 90% of the aspirants because very few people will cop to that goal.

Is there a 'greatest' player? Who was greater in 1955, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, or Thelonious Monk?
Okay, the half-dozen greatest.

Who are the greatest players today?
Everybody knows who the greatest are. That question doesn't need answering. It’s those people you 're considering when you ask the question. If they’re near the word "great," then they are great.

Do you recommend formal study of the piano, or learning by working?
Everybody knows how to study music. Books are full of it. This maga­zine is full of it. I will not tell anybody how to study the instrument. All I can say is choose what you want to do. If it’s your aim to play in Carnegie Hall, go to New York and live near 57th Street.

Aren’t there technical problems that come up in the act of playing, physical problems, which have keyboard solutions? How did you learn to play in this sense?
I hired Charlie Parker to play with me, and I did that by learning to make transactions early. I was 16. He was in a basement in New York. I lived in a suburb of Montreal. So I got on a plane, went to New York, took him by the hand, and led him to Montreal. It was a geographic problem. Quite frankly, the only way to be good is to play with people four times better than you. If you're going to ask them to engage in a transaction with you where they have to suffer your performance, you'd better have a pretty strong reason for asking.

How did you get good enough to play with Charlie Parker, let alone learn anything from the experience?
The only question was how much he’d get paid, not how good I was.

How did you learn to play as well as you did play?
By hiring Charlie Parker.

But before you hired Charlie Parker. I didn’t play well at all.

Let's try a different approach. I'm a piano player and my basic problem is< Improvising what I’m hearing. What can I do?
Okay, there are two methods. In Europe they use solfeggio, which is taught two years prior to any training on your instrument. Not only do you learn the key signatures, but you sing in seven clefs. Now if you can sing in all the keys in seven clefs, you certainly won't have any trouble with that material when you're improvising. The other possibility is through improvising itself, making a concerted effort to keep pushing that barrier between what you can hear and what you can play. Of course, you might be able to hear what you want to play but not be able to execute it technically, right? But if you’ve had five to seven years’ of piano study, that shouldn’t be a problem. You may have to invent techniques for what you want to hear. It may take five years not to let sharp or flat keys bother you, and another five years before you can write as fast as you think, which is almost the same as playing as you think. A composer is an improviser who works without a time limitation, because when you compose, you can reconsider every phrase and rewrite them. An improviser, though, is a composer who works in real time.

For acquiring technique, do you feel it’s worthwhile to do the Hanon exercises or something similar?
Are you going to play Hanon on the stage of Carnegie Hall? If you're not, it's irrelevant. If one could speak about music at great length, one wouldn’t have to listen to it. There are truths about music that are self-evident only in a performance situation onstage and with the players. The audience doesn't have access to that information.

But do things really come into existence spontaneously-out of nothing, no background, no preparation?
You just described improvising. That's exactly wha.t happens. Something is created out of nothing. It comes out of a silence. It's a silence followed by a silence. Since improvising is playing what you never played before, you cannot practice it. Practice is the antithesis of improvising.

Can't one practice improvising?
Practice is the repetition of something to be able to execute it. But the same training will destroy the process of improvising.

But you needn’t repeat the same music, note for note.
But you're improvising in your front room, so it's of no use. You have to play in the place where you intend to play, with the players you intend to play with. Obviously, playing in your front room will only make you a good front room player.

Let’s get back to the idea of a background or tradition in jazz piano.
Everybody knows the tradition of music. It's as soon as they forget it that you have the possibility of improvising. The word "tradition” simply means limitation. Of course, we’re all good students of the genre we’re working in these are minimal prerequisites. It may not be helpful, but it’s minimally required. You can go to all the schools you want, listen to all the records you want, but none of that will assure you of the ability to improvise. My list of recommendations is headed by, What are you going to play? That may take seven years to answer. How you are going to play follows from what you are going to play. So it’s premature to concern yourself with the how while the looms so large. Some people never concern themselves with what they are going to play because that, hopefully, would require some original thought.

How old were you when you felt good about your own playing?
To get that measure you have to go through the recording process. It will answer that question over a period of time. You have to see if you agree with your playing years after you've recorded it.

So when did you feel you agreed with your playing?
After I climbed all the mountains, played with everybody I felt it would be useful to play with for the length of time I thought it would be useful, under the conditions, under the transactions I needed at the time. Only after climbing all those mountains was I ready to begin the process of deciding how much I liked what I did. Before that, I was only concerned with whether other people liked what I did enough to pay me for it.

Well, what date, year, in real time?
1959. Even then I had to check it out again in '61 and '63.

There was an album you recorded with multiple electric keyboards -RMI, Rhodes, synthesizer, and so on-on top of an acoustic piano. What was your motivation for this format, and why are you no longer using it?
Being a keyboard player, when new keyboards came along I decided to see what I could do with them. It was the dark ages of electric keyboards. I did the first live keyboard synthesizer concert in jazz-to my knowledge-on the stage of the Philharmonic in 1968. As new instruments come along, I'll use them. I just used the new Yamaha electric grand piano in Japan, which has a touch-sensitive keyboard. It has horizontal strings about three feet deep and real piano action. I like it, even with its limitations. It’s still the dark ages of electronic instruments. Of course, every acoustic piano is a different instrument, too, so it isn't that objectionable to be playing a newly invented instrument. Every acoustic piano is a new invention.

Could you comment on your damping the strings with your fingers?
It'll have to do until we can raise and lower the pitch. Change of pitch and timbre will most likely be available to acoustic instruments in a short while.

Could you describe your own touch on the acoustic piano?
You mean touches, since there’s obviously more than one way of touching a piano.

But there’s one style that characterizes all your touches, which is what is meant by Touch, capital T.
That's because I have what is known as disrespect for the instrument. First of all, you’ll notice that I sit above the instrument on a telephone book or on the highest chair I can find. If you intend to be above something, to have it under control, you should be on top of it, literally. Charlie Mingus doesn’t just play the bass, he sings exactly the way he plays the bass; he talks exactly the way he plays the bass; and he deals with the same subject matter in his composition and conversation that he does on the instrument. Therefore, you are not meeting a bassist so much as you are meeting a person. That's what I mean by lack of respect for the instrument. It involves complete mastery over the instrument.

So you don’t play the instrument; you dominate it.
You use it as a tonal way of expressing language, thought, and most of all, ideas.

What about feelings?
That follows. If you have thoughts and ideas, I assume you'll have feelings about them.

Well, how would you characterize your style, or touches, on the piano?
You must remember that the word 'piano' is a misnomer. There are no two instruments alike. Consequently, playing at home in your living room is the worst possible preparation for playing an instrument that you're about to meet.

What’s the best preparation?
Continually meeting new instruments.

What kind of piano do you own at home?
I don't have a piano.

What kind of piano do you prefer to play on?
Reliably, I’d say German Steinways are the best pianos. But the advantage of playing a lot of instruments is that in about sixty seconds you can get a good overview of a particular piano. You immediately find out that this is not a full instrument but a partial instrument. What really happens is that a keyboard is good in places. Notes are bad when they don’t have any personality. They may be in tune, but they sit there dull and lifeless. Of the 88 keys, perhaps only 15 are useful. The others are passable; some are totally objectionable. The only way to get good tone is not to linger on the passable and objectionable ones and to emphasize the tones that are beautiful.

So the sound check must be very important to you for the purpose of learning the instrument you're working with.
Well, it’s not important for that reason, because it’s not until the audience gets in the hall that the resonance of these notes becomes absolutely ascertainable. The sound check is important so that you can get to hear each of the musicians you're working with very clearly while you're playing with monitors. If you don’t have a good stage balance between the players, there's no hope for you to get a good balance outside the stage.

What other pianists do you listen to?
As a pianist, I’d recommend not owning any records. I made it a point to destroy piano records-other than those I recorded. The more one listens to another musician playing the same instrument, the harder it is to avoid imitation.
I'd like to make one more attempt to discuss your style. I know it's there because with my eyes closed I can tell when you are playing as opposed to another pianist.
Well, that’s very nice. Thank you very much.

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