Pianist and Bandleader Carla Bley on a Life Devoted to Jazz

The influential artist reflects on her path from ’60s radicalism to contemporary composition

Carla Bley is an American jazz musician and composer who came to prominence in the free-jazz scene of the 1960s. After moving to New York as a teenager, and getting a job as a cigarette girl at jazz venue Birdland, Bley began to compose original music – soon she formed the Jazz Composers Guild, was a leader of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, and founded two record labels, JCOA and WATT. For over 40 years, Bley has collaborated with artists from the jazz and rock worlds, led her own ensemble and released dozens of collaborative and solo albums. In this excerpt from her Fireside Chat with Frosty on Red Bull Radio, Bley, who is now in her 80s, reflects on a life in sound, including why she doesn’t tell people she’s a composer, the transition from church music to jazz and the making of her “jazz opera” Escalator Over The Hill.

D.D. Rider

If you were to meet somebody in the elevator, how would you introduce yourself?

I never say I’m a composer. I always say I’m a writer, which is confusing to people. The word “composer” always got laughter afterwards. I was trying to go over a border between Switzerland and France. I was with my husband at the time, who is also a composer. [The guard] said, “What do you do for a living?” We said, “We’re composers.” The guy just burst into laughter, so I’m a little nervous about that word, particularly given what I look like. I don’t look like Beethoven at all. I just say I write music, or I say I’m a musician, because that often will let me pass as a vocalist or something.

How do people react if you mention musician? Is it a warmer kind of connection?

A musician puts people at ease, and a composer makes you sound like you’re a little bit full of yourself.

Beyond the world of meeting people on the street and having an anxiety of telling them you’re a composer, what do you feel most at ease doing?

I’m a composer. That’s the real truth. I’m a composer. I always have been, and it’s embarrassing. I wish I was a dentist or something, but it didn’t work out that way. I can’t help it. I write music and that’s what I do.

The work of writing music, do you imagine it’s as utilitarian as being a dentist?

I used to think that I wrote for musicians who improvised. They were too busy improvising and they were used to getting immediate pleasure from what they did. None of them wanted to sit at a desk and carve out an arrangement or do a orchestration of a big band. That was something that seemed like a service occupation to me. I’ve always thought of it as that. I wonder if it’s true. I think now everyone wants to write his or her own music, because you make more money if you do. Then you can belong to one of those collection societies and fill out after the concert that you wrote this tune, that tune and the other tune and get money for it.

I’m sort of a type A person, the one that dies of a heart attack rather than a slow disease.

Is there a sense of improvisation within composition for you?

If improvisation doesn’t have a speed, you could say that I’m improvising all the time. The speed is so slow that it sometimes takes two or three days to do like six notes. Also, when I play the problem is I am instantly composing, and my solos are incredibly and horribly slow. Because that’s the way I am. I’m a slow person. I get it right every time.

How do you see yourself fit in within that spectrum of the pace of life? How do you feel at the pace that you live?

That’s interesting. The real truth is I’m not a slow person. I am only a slow musical person. I walk fast, and I hurry through everything except dinner. I get a lot done every day, and if I don’t I’m unhappy. I’m sort of a type A person, the one that dies of a heart attack rather than a slow disease. I write music and I think musically quite slowly.

I heard a quote of yours: you write it ’til you get it right. Can you talk about that kind of editing process, or the idea of making it right?

The difference between playing a live concert and sitting at home trying to come up with a great melody is about as opposite as you can go. I do both things. When I play in a solo situation, all of a sudden there’s a tune with a great opening introduction, a fantastic melody, a rhythm section that’s just churning away in a marvelous fashion. It comes time for my solo, I very rarely please myself. I really, at the end, feel like a failure usually, because I haven’t lived up to the standards I would be following if I was writing the music down all alone in my room. It’s not as pleasurable for me to play concerts as it is for me to write the concerts.

When you’re at home and you’re writing, is this paper writing or is it writing at the piano? Are you playing for pleasure at home, kind of as a sketch pad?

I don’t believe I’ve ever played for pleasure in my whole life. It’s as though playing is like… Well, Dorothy Parker once said, “I love having written and I love having played.” That about sums it up.

When I’m writing a piece, the moments of pleasure are far more frequent. They could be like ten a page. That doesn’t happen in real time even when you’re talking. I hardly ever say anything that I can say, after I have said it, “Boy, I said something really wonderful.” When I’m writing music, that happens maybe ten times a day, let’s say, not even a page. Maybe ten times a day I say, “Oh, fantastic. I didn’t realize I could do that. That note is killing. I’ve got to go beyond that note now, because that gives me an idea for earlier in the piece where I couldn’t figure out how to end that section. I could end that section just by playing that note and adding it to the theme that happens.” That’s my thinking. During that thinking, maybe one note gets written down on the page, but my mind is actually working fast. I didn’t realize I’m a very fast person. I’m a very fast person who writes very slowly.

Do you play with tempo?

That’s such a serious question it’s hardly interesting. If the piece doesn’t have a rhythm feel to it that stands out as being extraordinary, I can’t continue working. I would just sit at the piano, like a lot of young composers, and play the perfect chord, and then go to the next chord and get that perfect. That wouldn’t be music. That would be something like placing those things in traffic that make you go from one lane to another. It has to have a rhythm feel or it’s useless. That’s maybe the most important thing of all.

Well, maybe the most important thing, to get even more boring, is that the first note you hit can be everything. Without a first note, you would never write a second note. Let’s say the first note is the most important note, but it’s random. It could be any note. You could go and write all the notes in a paper bag, shake it up, pick one, and if that was your first note you wouldn’t be anywhere. Maybe your second note is the most important note. If you put them together all you would have is an interval – they probably wouldn’t have a rhythm. In fact, the distance between one note and the next note you can’t say has a rhythm. You could say fast or slow, but it wouldn’t be a tango. It wouldn’t be a waltz. It wouldn’t be a piece of church music or anything.

The third note… Now, that’s the note. If you get the third note you’re liable to get even a fourth or a fifth. However, you don’t have the rhythm yet. That’s the way I work. I work really slow, thinking, “I have to face a blank page, and I need a piece for a big band to be finished by August 15th.” I’m terrified because I don’t know what I’m going to do, where it’s going to come from. This happened to me five times in the last year, and each time I sat down, put in the time and I got a piece out of it. I’ve got to believe that there’s a piece in there, waiting to be heard, to be found, and it’s going to come out. Maybe not tomorrow, but the day after. The first day nothing ever happens. You could write something, you could play something on an instrument. The second day maybe you get a little bit more, and the third day, from then on, it’s straight ahead or downhill. You probably would rather it were uphill.

Uphill gives you the future moment to go downhill again. You have to go up to get down.

Is downhill the good way? In church that would be the road to hell.

I don’t know, it could be good. Rhythm’s down there.

You’re right. That’s horrible to think, but that’s really true. I think the narrow, difficult road goes to heaven and the wide, easy road goes to hell. I think I want to go uphill.

I started in the church. My parents were avid churchgoers. We went to church almost every day. There was either choir practice or a prayer meeting or potluck dinner. On Sunday there was Sunday School and then there was church. Then there was the evening service. Then there was maybe something after. The church was my first musical influence.

When I went from the church to jazz, I hardly noticed. I thought it was the same. I thought there was no real difference. Maybe it was because of the ecstatic experience involved in both serious and frivolous music. In music in general, people do it and get very, very happy, or very, very sad from listening to it. That was true of the church music and jazz. Seems to me the harmonic language was the same.

It sounds like you spent 24 hours a day in the church, between Bible studies and potlucks and services and all this stuff. Music is so much a part of the spiritual experience, but music’s a part of the human experience in many ways. People tend to build up boundaries that might not exist to open-minded people. Did anything from the church time explicitly impact what you’re doing later?

In my last big band concert I did two pieces that were absolutely all church music. One was called “Setting Calvin’s Waltz.” “Old Rugged Cross” was a quote in there. Then the piece “One Way” was also a religious-based piece. I had once done an album called The Carla Bley Big Band Goes to Church. On that I tried to do all music related to religion. One of my pieces was very Protestant and I thought the next piece should be very Catholic. Then there was trying to think of religion as a theme, a useful theme. It’s good to have a theme.

The Carla Bley Big Band Goes to Church (Live)

Maybe that’s what I need for the next big band piece I’m about to write, a theme. The last two pieces that I have written have been about Donald Trump. Do you think I have a third one in me? It’s certainly appropriate. It certainly would be the time to continue that, except that this is for the Danish big band. They have their own problems over there, although Donald Trump certainly could provide them with a few.

One of the pieces I wrote has secret lyrics. I’ll never use them, but sometimes you just use words as a way to write a melody that has a human feel to it. This piece goes: the D, the O, the N, the A, the L, the D. Then the next line is: the T, the R, the U... I used that as a technique for the rhythm of the piece.

I had heard before that you had those kind of lyrical associations. How did that come about? When did you start using that tool?

That was a starting and a stopping of a technique that I haven’t used until last month. I don’t know how important it was, but back in the ’80s I used to, during a solo in particular, think of the words that I wanted. I just would try to speak my solo in my head, and play the notes that seemed to go with it, as a technique. Then I started – maybe I used it in three or four pieces – writing a melody that had to do with mostly romantic words. Nothing like spelling Donald Trump’s name. It wasn’t something that lasted for long.

Do ideas come while sitting in front of a blank page or away from it?

The ideas come not sitting at the desk, but at the piano. I actually play to start writing. I like when I’m finished with that part of the process, and I go to the desk. That’s a lot cleaner. I like my seat. I like my desk and I like my light. Piano is like, everything could go wrong. The desk, if it goes wrong, you just put your eraser over the pencil mark that was not any good.

I was successful in turning off everyone who met me, and that made me very happy.

When you were growing up did you have a piano in the home?

I had two pianos in my home. My father was a piano teacher and he would sit at one upright piano, and the student would sit at the other upright piano right next to him, and he would play examples for the student. This was not a man who went to a conservatory of music to learn things. This was a piano teacher in the neighborhood, my father. It wasn’t a big deal, but that’s what he did. In fact, it wasn’t a big deal to the point where he tuned his pianos a half-step low. Until I left the house, maybe at the age of 12, 13, I thought that middle C sounded like B. Since I have perfect pitch, that has been a impediment all my life. Every time I hear what I think is C, I have to raise it a half tone before I even say what it is to myself.

I started taking lessons from my father probably at the age of three or four. I did my first public performance at the age of five. By the time I was eight years old I thought I was a musician. I thought I was… a person from the world of music.

How do you feel to have lived within that world of music?

I definitely am a citizen of the world of music, and there is very little physical geography involved in that. I feel just as close to musicians from Africa as I do musicians from my own country, the United States. In fact, I don’t feel close to the music of most of the people of the United States at all, except that I do like good country music. I love that whole Motown thing in Detroit. The Four Tops were my favorite band, and I just love everything Marvin Gaye ever did. I just love the stuff done by… “Simpson” is the second word. The singer was Simpson. A man, married to the woman? Valerie Simpson! I love the music of Valerie Simpson. She wrote stuff like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” A lot of songs that I don’t remember at the moment. One of the true great songwriters of the ages, Valerie Simpson. Wow.

Was it a natural inclination to have the open perspective with music? How has that benefited you, or have you run up against walls?

I’m not a “world music” person. I’m not crazy about music from all over the world just because it’s from all over the world. I could just fall in love with a piece from Iceland. I could also hate something from Brazil. It’s the composers, the people who write a tune that captures your attention to the point where it keeps playing in your head, long after you’re listening to it. You’re still hearing it. I really would love to leave a few things on the earth that people kept hearing in their head after it was turned off on whatever the listening device was.

Carla Bley - Ida Lupino

“Ida Lupino” was one of those pieces. Can you talk about that?

I wrote “Ida Lupino” after I had been writing music that was completely dissonant. It’s as though this piece was just waiting inside to come out when I would come to my senses at some point. I was only interested in very sour things, very flinty, hard notes and things that were offensive. All of a sudden one day, sitting at the piano hoping for another difficult but very advanced original piece of music, out came “Ida Lupino.” Horrible. I couldn’t believe it. I was so embarrassed, but I wrote it down and the next day it was in a recording studio somewhere being recorded. I had to live with it the rest of my life, but now I’m so happy that that happened to me. I’d give anything for one of those now.

You could have asked the engineer to cut up the tape, put it all together in a mess to make it sound very abstract and dissonant.

I certainly did, immediately, I turned “Ida Lupino” backwards. There now is a version called “Oni Puladi.” It goes from the very last note to the very first note, just to get away from having written such a romantic, lovable tune.

I wanted to be a difficult person, to be admired but not liked. I ended up being… Well, I’m still difficult, but if it doesn’t have something likable about it I sort of throw it in the wastebasket. I like to like it myself and I like for the people that I like to like it, too.

Where did that pressure come from? Was it self-imposed or was it through the world you were living in?

This was self-imposed, but it had nothing to do with anyone else. Everything I wanted to do, from the earliest I can remember I wanted it to be different than had ever been done before. I wanted to be the person in first grade who refused to read books, because it was a lazy thing to do, and what you should really do is write books, not read them. Then what it would be ten years later would be someone in the tenth grade who wanted to wear clothes that no one would think of wearing in public. I would wear carrot tops as my jewelry, and anything as weird as possible, just to stand apart. I didn’t want to be not only worse than anyone, I didn’t want to be even like anyone. In particular, anyone good, I didn’t want to be like them either.

It’s interesting if you try to set yourself apart and have a unique identity. I know there’s places that some people are ostracized for that, but then there’s also an attraction. Did you find that people were attracted, or that it then ended up attracting the right people to you?

I was successful in turning off everyone who met me, and that made me very happy. Even today, when someone stops me in the hall and says, “Great concert,” I sort of shrink back thinking, “What did I do wrong?” No, I don’t do that. I just made that up. I’ve turned out to be a lot more like other people and a lot more ordinary than I ever dreamed, and I’m okay with it.

I became self-sufficient when I found that no one else was going to help me do what I wanted to do, or what I had to do.

The idea of having a big band, is that a social action? You’re bringing people together, so that’s a community in many ways. What are the joys of that, and do you feel it to be a social gathering?

My God, it couldn’t be more different than that. I find that you can have any group of people in your band that you want if you just pay them well. I don’t bring them together for a social event of any kind. I think in the world that I came up in musically, if we had any feelings of community, it was kept deep down inside of us. We were all hard as nails. We would read the newspaper between playing sections of an original, stupendously fantastic competition, just to show how cool we were. We would never think of either bragging or envying, trying to think of what normal people do.

You mentioned that you’ve always tried to do things different. Escalator Over The Hill is something that came out very different than anything that had come before. Did you start off saying, “OK, I’m going to make this?” Did this start unfolding as, “Let’s see how far we can push it and how we can do things?”

Escalator started one note at a time. Paul Haines, who is a great poet and my only lyricist, sent me a poem that he had written called “Detective Writer Daughter.” At the time I had been writing a piece of music. I didn’t know where to take it next, but I had the whole idea and maybe a page full of notes. I sat this poem on the piano. I put the poem where the piece of music usually goes. It fit miraculously, unbelievingly, right with the piece of writing that I was looking at. “Detective Writer” became the piece of music’s name. Those words were put into the piece of music where they fit perfectly, and provided me a platform to jump off of for the completion for that piece of music. After I did that I said, “Paul, something really miraculous just happened. That piece that you sent me fit right into the piece I was working on. Let’s write an opera.” He said, “Sure. No problem.” I said, “No problem here either. OK, we’re going to write an opera.” For the next two years we wrote Escalator Over the Hill.

Carla Bley/Paul Haines - Detective Writer Daughter

When did you realize it was finished?

It was finished when someone said they would record it, and that was me. I tried to get that piece recorded when it was only 50 minutes long. I tried to get that piece recorded again when it was an hour and 15 minutes long. Couldn’t do it. Couldn’t get anyone interested. Not Atlantic, not Columbia, not Blue Note. All the people I went to [said] “No. Very interesting, but we could not sell something like that.” Then I kept working on it. Finally I realized no one would ever put this on an album, so I raised the money myself and put it out on my own label.

I became self-sufficient when I found that no one else was going to help me do what I wanted to do, or what I had to do. I had to do it. It was too late to become a dentist. I was a music writer and I was about to write a big piece. I had already accomplished most of it and every record company I took it to said no. There was nothing to do but to put it out myself by raising the money. I would raise the money and then do whatever that amount of money was worth of recording. Then I would try to raise some more money and take out loans and speak to anyone I could about how important it would be for them to co-sign a loan or loan me the money, stuff like that. That’s why it took so long. It took about five years between the beginning of writing that piece and its coming out. It would have been a lot shorter if someone had said yes, so I’m sort of glad I had to do it myself and wait ’til the end.

Right now I have another piece that I cannot get recorded. It’s the unusual combination of big band and boys choir. It’s a very expensive project. I can’t imagine how I would get the money to do this. Not only that, but boys choir is a bit of a problem. You need parents to bring the boys to the recording session. That means the boys have to live where you’re going to record. I would have to record it in an area where there’s a boys choir location, a choral academy or something like that. Probably in Germany or Austria, where the best boys choirs are. Then I maybe couldn’t get the big band of my dreams without flying them all over and putting them all in hotel rooms and paying for their meals and giving them a big salary as well. This is a million dollar record, so I’m going to have to do it myself by starting to raise money again, because this might be the last thing I ever do because of how long Escalator took. It’s going to be like I never got anywhere in life. The very end, I’m doing the same thing I was doing at the very beginning, writing something impossibly difficult to achieve.

By Frosty on August 15, 2017

On a different note