February 27, 2024

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Paul Bley: Starting Out in New York, All Over Again: Video, Photos

Carla Bley would always remember the exact size of the apartment at 55 East Ninth Street.

It was the first permanent address she and her husband, Paul Bley, ever took together in New York, after they moved back to the city, in September 1959.

It was a single room – just big enough to contain an upright piano, a bed, a two-burner stove, and a little table for two. The bathroom was down the hall. It cost nineteen dollars a month.

The apartment was thirteen-by-seven feet.

“It was really small,” she said, as the thought of it, nearly six decades later, spurred a stream of lovely laughter. “It was notably small.”

In his memoir, Stopping Time, Paul Bley never mentioned the ninety-one-square-foot flat on East Ninth Street. He skipped straight to the Sixth Avenue loft the couple took the following year. There, as they inched towards midtown, living illegally in an office in Manhattan’s flower district, they could at least claim a space – albeit a tenuous space – on the scene. W. Eugene Smith, the legendary Life magazine photographer, kept a loft down the street. A handful of musicians lived nearby. The room on East Ninth Street embodied their penury.

“Every time I looked for an apartment they were the ones that were at the very bottom of the list, that cost the least money,” Carla remembered. “Forty dollars a month would be much too much. I think that first apartment was … It was way, way down there.”

Returning to Manhattan, where Paul and Carla had met three summers before, their circumstances were, in many ways, vastly different. They’d been out west – and, for much of their time in Los Angeles, Paul had been a great success. For more than a year, he’d led a smart, impeccably-crafted (and carefully-dressed) band six nights a week. They had a following, and full houses, at the Hillcrest Club on Washington Boulevard. In 1957 he recorded Solemn Meditation, his third LP, for GNP Crescendo. It included “O Plus One,” Carla’s first composition. She wrote the record’s liner note and she took its cover photograph as well. When the couple married, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, in January 1959, Carla Borg became Carla Bley.

In California, she had, for the first time in her life, begun to compose in earnest. In their last year in Los Angeles they lived in a handsome little bungalow in Silver Lake. There, she carved out a writing regimen for herself, and stuck to it. She wrote tunes that would last (“Donkey,” “Ictus”), and tunes that wouldn’t. Occasionally, she even led groups, awkwardly (and often reluctantly), at a small club or coffeehouse.

In August, however, they scuttled the relative comfort of California for New York. First, they followed Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry to the Lenox School of Jazz, in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. Then they drove into the city. In the weeks after they first met, Paul and Carla slept in small hotel rooms in and around Times Square. Now they wanted a place of their own. The Ninth Street apartment, nearly halfway between Union Square and Washington Square Park, was all they could afford.

“That was where they lived. And I found that just remarkable, too. I came from a very comfortable middle-class childhood in New Jersey, not far from New York City, and it had never even occurred to me that people could live in a space so circumscribed,” bassist Steve Swallow remembered.

I’ve often tried to imagine the couple’s state of mind in those early, New York days. At times, their straitened circumstances must have been excruciating. And yet, at other times, their quarters might have seemed secondary: urgency, excitement, anticipation, even fear must have all at some point fueled them. What’s next had been Paul’s credo since he was a teenager playing bebop in Montreal in the forties. Hearing Coleman and Cherry for the first time was a revelation to him, and to Carla. Their marriage would last just six years. After a sharp, definitive break, and nearly a lifetime apart, this was something they never forgot: they experienced Ornette and Don’s music together. Together, they had a glimpse of the future, and acted on it. It was the spur that brought them east. The way they made music, and the way they thought about their art, would never be the same.

“When Carla and I arrived in New York from Lenox, it was my plan to see who would hire me, and bring my new revolutionary ideas about playing the piano into the mainstream jazz,” Paul wrote in Stopping Time, the autobiography he authored with David Lee. “It was one thing for everybody to tell me these were good ideas; it was another thing for them to give me a job.”

Underneath the clarity and the unblinking self-assurance – borne, I suspect, by nearly half a century of hindsight and an unwavering instinct for the hustle – there must have been the hum of self-doubt. Coleman had upended the standard 32-bar AABA song form. (“Ornette was going straight from A to Z, and nobody knew what hit them,” Bley later said.) He was venturing into microtonality, too – daunting terrain on a piano, the cornerstone of an equal-tempered system.

“When we finished in Los Angeles, with Ornette and Don Cherry and Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins [at the Hillcrest Club], and the band came east without the piano at the Five Spot, then the piano was in jeopardy,” Bley explained in 2012 for an ESP-Disk archival release. “There was a good possibility that there wouldn’t be any more piano in modern jazz – and that we would have piano-less groups.”

Bley now faced obsolescence, and he knew it.

The path forward was daunting. Deliberately, Bley began to reassemble his craft. When he came east, he trumpeted his revolutionary ideas. But in the twelve months since he’d played with Coleman and Cherry, no matter how far he’d come – and no matter what he said – Bley’s advances were still unfinished.

“I think when he came to New York, he really just was beginning to absorb all of what he’d gleaned from his experience with Ornette,” observed arranger, composer, and pianist Sy Johnson, who met Bley in Los Angeles in the summer of 1957, and remained friends, often at a distance, for the rest of their lives. Johnson, an accomplished journalist and photographer, was responsible for many of the now iconic images of Bley, including the cover photographs to both his mid-sixties ESP recordings, Barrage and Closer.

“He was trying to find an independent approach to the music that equaled the freedom that Ornette felt,” Johnson said, then noted that, interestingly, Bley never abandoned standard songs. “He was trying to find a way to get into that no man’s land that Ornette inhabited so effortlessly. Of course, Ornette had his own code, his own laws – he was pretty organized. And the guys who played with him knew Ornette’s point of view about playing the music. But Paul never gave anybody that luxury of doing that.”

After Lenox, however, at the end of the summer of 1959, as Bley turned towards New York, there was one thing he could hold onto: he had an edge. Bley now had his ace in the hole. In October, Coleman’s quartet recorded its second Atlantic album in Manhattan, Change of the Century, the follow-up to the seismic The Shape of Jazz to Come. The next month they opened at the Five Spot.

“When I got to New York, people would stop me on the street and say, we know you’ve done some playing with Ornette and Don – what is it they’re doing?” he wrote. “They hadn’t even gotten to the Five Spot yet, but there was already advance word about what was happening. … I possessed information that nobody on the planet had as a keyboard player. I was unique in having to deal with translating that music.”

If Paul and Carla had ever doubted leaving Los Angeles, Ornette’s Five Spot engagement proved how prescient they could be. Overnight, and without hyperbole, it became one of the most important stands in jazz history. Paul and Carla were in the audience from the start.

“Everybody was there, including Miles Davis, who stood talking to the bartender with his back to the stage, as though he was thirsty and just happened to stop in for a drink,” Bley said in a 2000 New York Times interview. Pianist Ran Blake, still a student at Bard College, came into the city for the weekend sets. “It was such a heady time in New York,” he remembered. Into his mid-eighties, Blake had vivid memories of Leonard Bernstein and Thelonious Monk at those early performances. He remembered seeing Dizzy Gillespie, too, someone who, Blake noted, could be “a little intolerant of Ornette.”

The original two-week run stretched until the end of January. The Coleman Quartet shared the bill with Benny Golson and Art Farmer’s Jazztet. “The week before Ornette came, [the Jazztet] sounded like a very modern, Horace Silver-type arranged band, beautiful aesthetics, all the fine points were ironed out; it was a slick, smooth band,” Bley said. “And then they made the mistake of putting the two bands together. Ornette opened at the Five Spot opposite Benny Golson and, after the first set, turned him into Guy Lombardo. Unbelievable!”

Paul and Carla would have been among a very small minority – in the audience, in the city – who knew how the Angelenos might sound. “When Ornette finished and the Jazztet came on, I turned to the bartender and asked him to dance,” Bley told the Times. “After Ornette, this band that had sounded top-of-the-line just a week before sounded like the society band at the Hotel Taft.”

That Bley was omitted from any of Coleman’s after-California endeavors is something he rarely mentioned. But in the fall of 1959, Bley’s Ornette connection was a precious currency – that he, rightly, would deploy: to get work, to reposition himself on the scene. His supreme self-confidence perhaps opened doors, and bided him time. Hiring Coleman was one thing; translating his music to the piano was another.

“Nobody knew what was being done,” Bley recalled. “They didn’t know the modus operandi, they didn’t have the ground rules, and so, having heard that the band had played with me in Los Angeles, I was besieged by horn players, piano players, bass players, all saying ‘What are they doing?’ … They were looking for hard facts. What happens to the change? … What happens to the meter? … what happens to the rest of it, and so forth. That was fun. I spent a lot of my life behind the times, and sometimes in the times, but it’s most fun ahead of the times. That’s a feeling of euphoria, a particular kind of euphoria.”

That euphoria, however, wouldn’t add up to a month’s rent. He had embarked on a deeply unpopular path. From the moment he entered Ornette Coleman’s orbit in Los Angeles, Bley knew the economic model he’d honed for years wouldn’t stand up.

“How does that joke go: How will you know the next movement in jazz when you first hear it?” Bley said many years later. “You will know it because you won’t like it!”

Paul Bley obituary | Jazz | The Guardian

He could kid about it. In middle age, he could carry it as a badge of honor – teaching at the New England Conservatory or, as he did here in one of his long, career-assessing interviews with New Zealand pianist and academic Norman Meehan. But he never forgot what it felt like on the ground, in real time – for better and for worse. Paul was twenty-five when he led that famous quintet at the Hillcrest Club. (Carla, there listening, and recording the music for him every night, was twenty-two.)

His career was still in the balance. Everything he’d ever heard about succès de scandale – initially at Juilliard, likely, in the early fifties – was happening in plain view in Los Angeles. In 1957 and ‘58, Coleman sat in all across town, alienating almost everyone who heard him, musicians and audiences alike. That wasn’t something Bley could have missed; he’d always had his ear to the ground. For months, Bley’s rhythm section had been playing private sessions with Coleman and Cherry. Then they joined him on Washington Boulevard. The gig he’d held and maintained for more than a year vanished in weeks.

Hindsight (and Bley’s own storytelling) has often diminished how acutely he understood popular taste. Born in 1932, jazz was all around him as a child – on the radio, in the movies, in the record stores downtown. The popular art and the state of the art were often inseparable; jazz was woven into the fabric of mainstream North American culture. In Montreal, long after he’d moved to the United States for good, Bley’s handle remained “Buzzy” – the child prodigy, who’d, in his early teens, first led summertime bands in the Laurentian Mountain resorts, Quebec’s Catskills. He might emblazon his initials – “BB” – on the group’s music stands. Or he might even employ a hydraulic lift – to create a moving stage. Later, in Los Angeles, Charlie Haden’s memory of meeting the pianist included his performance apparel, as Bley and drummer Lennie McBrowne wore their matching suits when they sat in after-hours at a jam session above a garage on Santa Monica Boulevard. Alto saxophonist Anthony Ortega, who, in the summer of 1958, turned the Hillcrest quartet into a quintet (before Coleman and Cherry), still had a clear memory, at ninety-one, of being sent by his new bandleader to Zeidler & Zeidler, a fashionable menswear shop off the Sunset Strip, to be properly outfitted for the job.

And yet, with his eyes wide open, Bley embraced Ornette’s music; he devoted himself to its revelations. This might have seemed anathema to his nature. But this is part of the riddle of his personality. Bley’s instincts, his learning, his experience – everything told him to pull Coleman and Cherry closer, to absorb what he was hearing. Seeing the hubbub at the Five Spot only affirmed what he and Carla already knew. But the reality of mounting this new music was treacherous. He was trying to find a space for himself – and for his instrument. He was also trying to figure out a way to make ends meet.

He and Carla arrived back in New York jobless – and without prospects of any kind. The Ninth Street apartment was a start. Paul’s know-how would be stretched. The new music hadn’t yet arrived. He needed like-minded colleagues. He needed musicians he could afford to hire. He needed musicians who were amenable to taking another path, wherever it led. Bley was a step ahead: he knew he needed to exploit that, as a jobbing musician and as an artist. Would the survival skills he’d honed out west still hold up? He would soon find out.

by Greg Buium

Paul Bley, Avant-Garde Jazz Pianist, Dies at 83 | Billboard – Billboard

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