Last month, Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, named pianist Paul Bley a member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The official announcement cited him for “his contributions as a pioneering figure in avant-garde and free jazz, and for his influence on younger jazz pianists.”
Bley was at the center of changes in jazz in the late l950s. The Canadian pianist has continued for half a century as an instigator of transformation. At the same time, he has been a gravitational force helping to restrain unstructured or loosely structured jazz from flying off into space as random noise. He is pictured recently at the right and below as a young man. The sidemen in Bley’s Los Angeles band of 1958 and ’59 were alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins. They became the Ornette Coleman Quartet, providers of oxygen to fire up the free jazz movement that had been smoldering for a decade. Recordings of Bley’s band at the Hillcrest Café are reissued on CD under Coleman’s name.
Thanks to Rifftides reader Brian Nation of the Vancouver, B.C., Jazz Society for directions to a transcribed conversation with Bley. On the Vancouver Jazz Society’s web site, Bley tells soprano saxophonist Bill Smith that after the groundbreaking job at the Hillcrest, he had a band with bassist Scott LaFaro and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. After a time, he felt compelled to return east just as, earlier, he felt compelled to leave Canada. Here is an excerpt from what he tells Smith about his 1959 visit to Massachusetts and the effect it had on his career. He made the trip with his wife Carla (they later parted), also a pianist and composer:
Ornette and Don had gone to Lennox School of Jazz and I’d done a couple of months at this club. I’d heard that they were at Lennox and that this was the final year of Lennox and I thought it was a very exciting idea. So one night around 9:30 I told the band that I was going to say goodbye to them right now, and that they could finish the year without me. I just walked out of the club, got in a car with Carla and we drove directly non-stop to Lennox. We realized that if we drove non-stop we would get there for the last day of Lennox and we thought that it was extremely important to do this. After the Hillcrest job I was in the process of taking in this new information and playing with other musicians in Los Angeles. At the same time as working steadily I would go on my night off and sit in with everybody to see how I could relate what I’d learned with other players. After being offered every job in Los Angeles as well as having my own job, it was another case of having to leave. It was Montreal all over again. There was nothing left to accomplish.
We drove to Lennox. Got there at 10 or 11 o’clock at night. Got to the jam session of the final night. This was the last jam session of the last night of the final year of Lennox. Everything was the last. The last set and the last tune. The car was still sweating from the trip. We left everything in the car, came in and I tapped Ran Blake on the shoulder, introduced myself to him and said “May I sit in?” Ran is an extremely social, wonderful person, and said yes. I had a chance to play with whoever it was. Sort of an all-star line-up. Everybody was there. Jimmy Giuffre was there, Ornette, everybody was there. I had a chance once again to see if I could relate what I’d learned. Because I was playing a tempered instrument, you see, so that if anybody was to ask what was going on in free music I was in a perfect position to tell them something that they could relate to, because they could not relate to any information regarding microtonal music.
But they could relate to everything involving the well tempered scale. I had one tune to play and I played like my life depended on it. I’ve only done that about four times in my life, where you play one song where your life depended on it And in fact it did. That last tune on the last set led to my next four years’ employment in New York. I got the job with Jimmy Giuffre based on that set. I got the job with George Russell based on that set; the two piano album. There was a phone call directly from his being in the audience that night. For Jazz in the Space Age with Bill Evans and myself and the orchestra. I got reinvited to play with Charles Mingus as a direct result of that set. Everything but the Sonny Rollins job was all out of that set. If a traffic light had been red instead of green at one intersection across the country it would have been too late. We slept under John Lewis’ piano that night and headed for New York the next morning.
To read all of the long transcription of Bley’s interview with Bill Smith, click here.