Jumpin’ In

a column by
Greg Buium


Paul Bley, Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, 1984                                                ©2016 Mark Miller

Canada doesn’t naturally produce characters like Paul Bley; of course, it doesn’t naturally produce artists like him either. This was a man who could be provocative, unblushing, filled with bravado. As a musical entrepreneur, he was a fabled hustler. As a pianist, however, he was immensely important – and he was often unafraid of telling you so. His 1999 autobiography, Stopping Time, was subtitled Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz. Still, he could be remarkably self-effacing, solitary (he lived for decades with his family in upstate New York and small-town Florida), filled with doubt. He was a big man: well over six feet, broad shouldered, with, in later life, a formidable middle frame. He was a truly larger-than-life figure. He was a masterful raconteur and, in his way, a showman. He also produced some of the most exquisite music of the second half of the 20th century.

Bley grew up in Montreal at a time when, as he said many years later, he learned to tip his hat in elevators to ladies, “to defer whenever possible, almost Japanese like.” He grew up in a country just beginning to figure itself out, when many of the early stereotypes of what it meant to be Canadian were perhaps at their most potent – the deference to international models, especially in the arts; the extreme modesty; the slavish mirroring of American culture. “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.”

So why should it matter? He left in 1953, and never returned; it long ceased to count, this country of his birth.

But now he’s that gone, I can’t quit thinking about it. (It’s still hard to shake that mid-morning transmission, the first Monday of the New Year, an e-mail from ECM Records with the subject line “Paul Bley 11/10/32–1/3/16.”) For Canadians like myself, Paul Bley was always there: the music, the stories, just the idea of him. He was in that tiny, unbending circle of four. After Oscar Peterson and Maynard Ferguson, he was the third Montrealer of his era to have had a significant impact on the world of jazz. As Mark Miller observed in The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada, stylistically, Bley was to Peterson as Kenny Wheeler, the Ontarian, was to Ferguson: “an esthetic opposite.” Much like Wheeler, he was also one of the great Canadian outliers.

To me, Bley fueled the pitter-patter of national pride, something that isn’t easily done in these parts. Growing up in Vancouver in the late ’70s and ’80s, you might hear him (periodically, on the CBC or, briefly, CJAZZ), you might read about him (he was, to my impressionable mind, inseparable from the great jazz writers back east – Mark Miller and Bill Smith in Toronto and Len Dobbin in Montreal), or you might even see him, too.

My first sight of Paul Bley was in the summer of 1984. When Canadian television launched its own version of MTV, MuchMusic, the network needed films to fill the day; in the early days of pop-music videos, a 24-hour schedule was a punishing proposition. So in-between Rush and Culture Club, Human League and the Spoons, Much (as it came to be called) ran the classics: The Last Waltz, Woodstock, et al. And they also ran Imagine the Sound.

Up alongside Robbie Robertson, Santana, and Country Joe and the Fish, came Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, and Paul Bley. The film, I soon learned, was Canadian. The interviewer, my band teacher told me, was Bill Smith from Coda Magazine. One of the pianists (“the white guy,” he said, “the one in the killer leather jacket”) was from Montreal.

There was Bley circa 1981: affected and cool and cerebral. He seemed like the hippest, quirkiest dad in the neighborhood. Mark Miller was there during the making of the film and wrote about it in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. He called Bley “particularly accommodating,” at once comfortable and bemused by the events. “He has a sense of occasion,” Miller wrote, “taking a long drag of his cigarette before his last piece, he held it until the cameras were rolling and then exhaled, disappearing in a cloud of smoke. Beautiful.”

The whole thing seemed just about right, and not entirely out of place next to Ultravox and ZZ Top. This wasn’t an uncommon mix in those days – there were often arrows pointing back to early moving pictures (the first “music video” Much aired was a Eubie Blake clip from 1922), and ’60s culture (our parents’ heyday), even sometimes the avant-garde. Time travel barely resonated for my generation, though it undoubtedly snared a few.

Imagine the Sound seemed to me like the Wild West. This enterprise didn’t feel soft or precious or inconsequential – as high school stage band sometimes did. It felt tough and a little bit dangerous, in a strange, arty kind of a way. The musicians were storytellers I’d never seen before. It was irresistible. (Bley, after seeing the film a second time, said: “I was rolling in the aisles with laughter. Those guys are clowns! Unbelievable! They’re so serious, which makes it even more hilarious.”)

What about the music? Admittedly, much of it went over my head. But I still remember getting to the end. Cecil Taylor finishes – by himself, alone in that crazy white room, full gray tracksuit, white toque, sweating like mad – the screen goes black. Then, as the credits roll, the most lyrical, mysterious piano playing I’d ever heard before. That it immediately followed Taylor’s extraordinary torrent, might have been part of why I noticed. It was, at first, extremely slow, then not. It felt slightly off-center? Unbalanced? I couldn’t put my finger on it. Even to my teenage ear, some of it felt like a song, some of it didn’t. And then, gradually, there was this lovely bounce. It felt fragile and lovely and altogether beautiful. This wasn’t the Wild West. This wasn’t jazz either. Or was it? I was confused and enamored all at once.

This was my first real contact with Paul Bley’s music. It never left me. As I got in deeper, as I consumed any and all sounds and stories about the artists I admired, the extramusical lives of musicians often felt like phantoms – they were there to derail you, to challenge you to listen closer, to zero in on what made the music tick. In Bley’s case, this was especially challenging: the stories piled up. They covered so much ground. This was the man that brought Charlie Parker to Montreal, whose first recorded date was just three months before Bird’s legendary show at Massey Hall. It was the winter of 1953. Bley was 20 years old. Four years before, he’d replaced Oscar Peterson, briefly, at Montreal’s Alberta Lounge. He’d been traveling to and from New York to study at Juilliard since he was 17.

“I found Bird in a basement in the East 70s,” Bley told Miller in 1984. “I knew where to find him, I knew all about him, I’d been filled in about everything. So I knocked on the door and invited him to the workshop. He said, ‘When is it?’ I said, ‘Now – we leave in 20 minutes.’ There was no use in discussing anything in advance with him. So I took him to Montreal, didn’t let him out of my sight, and after the concert took him back to the plane – I didn’t want to be responsible for getting him lost on my gig – and delivered him safe and sound to that funky basement where I found him.”

I was the same age as Bley when I first read this and this much I knew: the guy had moxie. But as he said many years later: “The only way to get good is to play with people four times better than you.”

Later that year Bley moved permanently to the United States. His musical engagements in Canada were scant until the 1980s with the rise of the country’s festival circuit. When he filmed Imagine the Sound in Toronto it was only his second visit to the city in nearly 25 years.

Bley’s journey, however, still reads like a pioneering tale, a rugged creative-music explorer. Stopping Time feeds the frontier lore; the book dares you to separate the artist from the art. Forget about Capote and Didion and Wolfe: here, I suspect, is the true creative non-fiction. Some of the stories are so large: it feels at times like a realm of the fantastic.

Start with this. December 1956. Bley’s trio – with bassist Hal Gaylor and drummer Lennie McBrowne – arrives in Los Angeles. Their first gig: New Year’s Eve at Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez’s bungalow in the Palm Springs Country Club. After months on the road, Bley had been living on nothing but Pepsi-Cola. That night, he collapsed at the piano.

“Lucy rushed over and said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I explained that it was nothing, I just having a little distress from being on the road.

“ ‘Just let me rest,’ I said, ‘and I’ll be okay.’

“ ‘No,’ she said, ‘I want you to go to the hospital as my guest.’

“At the Palm Springs Hospital they diagnosed internal bleeding. [It had been an ulcer.] They didn’t let me leave for a week. If I had followed my better judgment, which was to take a five-minute break then finish the gig, I would have been dead. Lucy was an incredible lady, the opposite of a star, completely maternal and I can honestly say I owe her my life.

“I’ve rarely had a hotel room that was as nice as this Palm Springs hospital. Room service, purple sunsets on the desert, and Lucy picked up the tab.”

In Stopping Time, the vignettes (and the epiphanies) keep coming – Chet Baker’s red European convertible (tearing down alleys and sidewalks during set breaks), a terrifying Lower Manhattan apartment fire (as Bley escaped onto the roof, naked, with a giant synthesizer on his lap), those first Los Angeles performances with Ornette Coleman.

“For the duration of that gig,” he famously remembered, “if you were driving down Washington Boulevard past the Hillcrest Club you could always tell if the band was on the bandstand or not. If the street was full of the audience holding drinks in front of the club, the band was playing. If the audience was in the club it was intermission.”

For all its mythmaking, Stopping Time is also enormously candid. The book is imperfect; it’s scattershot, often maddeningly incomplete. Bley’s ego is daunting, and you inevitably wonder about the veracity of some of his memories. Remarkably, however, his insecurities are right there too, woven directly into the heart of things. Since his death, I keep coming back to something he said about that early trio with Gaylor and McBrowne.

I was the leader. Nowadays it’s very unfashionable for somebody to be a leader. We do everything to create the impression that there is no leader. But in those days, especially when a band was traveling, there was definitely a “leader,” who was supposed to be a father figure to the band. The rest of the band were the children in the leader’s family. There were leaders who could get work and leaders who couldn’t get work. I was a leader who could get work, although that’s an impulse of mine I’ve always fought against. Any time the organization was successful, or I was successful because of my abilities to get work, I’d make sure I’d spend a long time not trying to get work. Having gone from somebody who couldn’t play at all to somebody who could play a little, to somebody who could play well enough to get hired by other musicians, to somebody who changed the prevailing style, and then somebody who put that style back into the sideman market just to check it again, I’m always on the alert as to whether the music itself has the power, or whether it all has to do with my own ambition. At one point in New York I sold my car to make sure I wouldn’t get hired for gigs just because I could get the band to New Jersey.
You don’t have to dig very far to sense something complex: an inner life filled with doubt. You can’t forget how Stopping Time begins. The book’s opening reveals more about Bley’s interior world than we can ever know.

The scene: five years old, sitting on his front walk-up. Chatting back and forth with his neighbor, Esther Goldstein. You’re adopted, she tells him.

“ ‘No,’ I laughed, ‘I’m not adopted!’

“ ‘You are too!’ ”

He had never known. His mother Betty’s response? Silence. Then, she said, “Well you should love me even more now that you know.”
I don’t know where in the world she got that idea – or why she and my father Joe had decided not to tell me that I was adopted, but as soon as I heard my mother’s response, I think I left home – in my mind, anyway. From then on, I felt that I was just biding my time until I could buy the ticket.
Bley didn’t find out the real story behind his adoption until the 1990s. His father had had an affair. The birth mother, Lucie, a French-Canadian woman, had been his childhood nanny.

****


Stopping Time isn’t a primer; it only fitfully navigates the art. Still, in the weeks since Paul Bley’s death, the book has come to feel a little bit like something in a scrambled picture – to crib Nabokov – something “that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.” Once you begin toggling back and forth, between the music and the man, it looms. It may feel superficial, but, to me, it’s also inevitable – these wildly subjective impulses, trying to reckon with an artist you’ve admired since you were a child.

That’s why I’ve been grateful for first impressions. After a lifetime of listening to great sweeps of his oeuvre – at Bley’s death, there were more than 150 recordings – those final two minutes of Imagine the Sound are still something magical: by turns lucid and oblique, measured and stuttering, emotionally impermeable and wonderfully inviting.

“My solo piano playing is a question in itself,” Bley told Arrigo Cappelletti in 2002. “The question is ‘why?,’ and after ‘why?’ comes ‘what?’ and after ‘what?’ comes ‘when?’ So these questions are food for thought for improvisation.” This basic notion informs all of the solo material, from the first album, Open, To Love (ECM, 1972), to the last, Play Blue (ECM, 2008), his final disc.

But these questions couldn’t really just be food for thought, fuel for improvisation. It feels like he’s asking them down deep as well. The recitals, these terrific mazes, lay bare something so forthright – their abrupt shifts, their spare, striking lyricism. You turn them over in your mind, again and again. Stopping time, Bley allows you this intimacy. Yet it is never sentimental: in his improvisation, the contemplative moment always ends, often out of nowhere, cutting, as it will, into a rollicking blues or a jarring bit of extended technique. Alone, Bley is transparent, then knotted, then walled off.


©2016 Greg Buium

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