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Artist Profiles

Finding Carla Bley

By Published: October 28, 2003
Her compositions, divided into neatly marked files, fill a book case behind her piano bench. A black and white, '50s photograph leans against the wall atop the bookcase. A young woman dressed in a striped cocktail dress sits at a piano. Her long blond hair falls to her waist, down the straight slope of her back. A young man plays upright bass beside her. It's Bley and Swallow, over 50 years ago, playing together then as they do now.

The scene depicts a time from Bley's early days in New York when she immersed herself into the jazz world as a cigarette girl at Birdland. She made just enough money to eat and pay her rent at her hotel in Times Square. But she got a fantastic education watching live music every night. "Instead of going to college I went to Birdland," she said. "I'd go right up near the bandstand with my tray. Luckys, Camels, Pall Malls. I'd listen to the music and if somebody tapped me on the shoulder I'd say, 'Hey, wait 'til intermission, okay?' I'd get really angry when they bothered me. It was wonderful. It was a great way to do it. Only way I could have done it."

During those early New York years, she had a gig at a coffeehouse, where she claimed to play very badly. "You don't have to be very good to be a leader - you just have to be a star," she said. "You have to have a certain quality, and you just hire guys that play really good, but if you're a sideman you have to be really good. I knew from that point on nobody was ever going to hire me, so I became a leader. I played very badly, and hired great musicians."

Since then, Bley's been commissioned by international groups and fellow jazz musicians like vibraphonist Gary Burton, and bassist Charlie Haden. She's written for solo piano, duo, trio, quartet, sextet, chamber group, as well as for her big band, and her Very Big Band. Her composing technique is sort of like collage. She plays something and if it sounds good, she plays something else. The parts get tacked together to create a full piece. The problems get smoothed out at the end, when the real style comes in.

She said writing jazz is more about feeling than just putting notes on paper. "Classical writing has more formulation theory," she explained. "You come up with an idea and you can intro - retro or whatever they do to it. Or it's a fugue and you know a voice down there comes in a little bit later. But I just play it, and if it feels good... Steve [Swallow] does the same thing. He says 'I don't write it down unless I've played it a hundred times. Does that feel right? Would I like to play that? Can I keep playing it? Does it sound good the 200th time?'"

Birds influence her music, but the winged silhouettes pasted to the window beside her piano are not for creative musings. They prevent real birds from flying into the glass and killing themselves. Aside from tweets and chirps, all kinds of sounds inspire Bley's music. "I've taken rhythms from old refrigerators, 30-year-old Land Rover trunk doors, car horns...'Fast Lane!' Car horns!" she exclaimed, recalling the fourth track of her new disc. "I do that all that time. Because hell is sitting at the piano and not knowing what comes next."

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