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(November 10th, 1932 – January 3rd, 2016)

Bristol 1956

In the back room of the Swan Hotel on the corner of Nine Tree Hill in Bristol we would try our hand at being promoters, bringing down from London by train on Monday nights, guest stars as wonderful as Joe Harriott, Don Rendell, Tommy Whittle and Tubby Hayes, to perform with a local rhythm that featured drummer Ian Hobbs, a musician who was to play an important part in my jazz education.

In his house, where I was a regular visitor, shelves filled with long playing records occupied a whole wall, the largest amount of records I had ever seen outside Brown’s music shop down in the city centre, and in one corner a huge Wharfedale speaker from which constantly poured the music of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, all the bands which featured the talent of his favourite drummers. Louis Hayes, Philly Joe Jones, Kenny Clarke. Filling the rest of the room was his Gretsch drum kit, the very same model played by Art Blakey.
His knowledge of jazz was phenomenal, far past the casual, and from his collection of records and our conversations he passed on the secret information of the fanatic. He was my mentor, creating the landscape of the mysterious world of modern jazz, introducing me to the geniuses of its invention. Through him I became completely enamoured with modern jazz, and by attending all the gigs that he played, heard first hand most of the important English musicians, local and those that journeyed down from London.

Ian introduced me to the idea of how jazz fans collected small items of information that are handed down and eventually create the legends and myths that embellish our music. One such detail was to do with Paul Bley’s first recording as a leader, which was on Charlie Mingus’ Debut label, where he played with Mingus and Art Blakey. On the record was a composition titled “Teapot”, which we decided was actually a tune on a Miles Davis Prestige record called “Walkin’”. We would play one and then the other proving, in our minds, that it was the same. But not exactly the same. So I naturally assumed, for years, that Paul Bley had copped this tune from Miles Davis. Years later I realised that in jazz the compositions often sounded similar, and could be based in the same concept without the players being aware of each other (Paul Bley recorded “Teapot” on November 30th, 1953 and Miles Davis recorded “Walkin’”, which was actually written by Richard Carpenter, on April 29th, 1954). But at that time I was ready to accept any new information. I was being initiated into the world of the jazz fan.

Toronto 1979

On February 6th, 1979, at Town Hall in Toronto, 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 Metronome. 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: Ernie Royal – trumpet; Teo Macero – tenor saxophone; Eddie Caine – alto saxophone; Willie Dennis – trombone; John Lewis – piano; Jackson Wiley – cello; Kenny Clarke drums. The titles were “Miss Bliss”, “Pink Topsy”, “Eclipse” and “Blue Tide”. Vocalist Janet Thurlow was on the last two. 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 9am 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 Roberts. Ozzie Roberts 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 142nd up in Harlem. The gig was supposedly at 1am, which Bird showed up for at 3am, 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 Footlooseearly ‘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…

PAUL BLEY: “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! 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: In the early sixties, 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, spacey 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 Turning Pointyou’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 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.

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: 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 nonexistent 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 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: I recently read 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.

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.

BILL SMITH: 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: 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.’”

Toronto 1981

Paul Bley was invited with Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and Bill Dixon by Ron Mann and myself to participate in the film Imagine The Sound.

End Notes:

When Will The Blues Leave:
A composition by Ornette Coleman that Paul often performed
Paul Bley Discography:
Imagine The Sound:

This post is an edited version of a conversation between Paul and myself published in Coda Magazine, February 6th, 1979
The Ornette Coleman section of this interview can be read at:

Photographs by the author…

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