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Meet Carla Bley

Craig Jolley BY

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The big band is more challenging, and I should stick to that. Also there's less competition. A lot of people write great music for small bands, but very few write great big band music.
From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in October 2000.

A Genuine Tong Funeral (RCA). 1967 record by Gary Burton quartet with orchestra; music composed and arranged by Bley.

It was my first big break. After the Funeral I did quite a few big projects. After all this time it's going to be performed next March at Iowa State University. The faculty of the music department approached me. They were just talking about doing a concert. I said, "There are parts of this that have never happened yet—the stage presentation." So we decided to do it with full staging, and I guess we're going to make a movie out of it. It will look like something as well as sound like something. I'll be there with Steve Swallow. The rest of the players will be the faculty of the music department. We'll do it just like the original—vibes will remain the lead instrument. There's a vibes player who really likes this record. The person who likes it the most should get to play the most. We're also doing a big band concert there. After we do the Funeral we're going to Europe. I'll be trying out new pieces with an Italian big band. From there I'm going on a trio tour with [saxophonist] Andy Sheppard and Steve.

Rock

It depends on what decade you're talking about. There are times when what's happening in rock is the best music in the world, and there are times when there is nothing worthwhile at all. You sure wouldn't have to think twice about being influenced by the Beatles.

The Blues

I've never felt it was OK to write a serious blues so I've always named my blues something that got me off the hook. I wanted to use the song form, a great form. One of the most recent blues I've written is called "Blues in Twelve Bars." The second part is "Blues in Twelve other Bars." I don't do it without a reference to indicate how ridiculous it is for someone as happy as me to be writing a blues.

Politics and music

Again it matters what decade you're talking about. In the '60s and '70s there was an interesting political landscape. It would be really hard to get serious about anything political today unless it was a joke. The guy who did that was Charlie Haden. When he started the Liberation Music Orchestra [for which Bley composed] he was the guy who had those political ideas. The rest of us were mostly apolitical. We never thought, "This is for Martin Luther King." Later I did a few things. When Ronald Reagan was elected I was on a bus traveling with a band in France. I got a piece of paper and wrote a little arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner in a minor key. That was how we opened the show that night in Paris.

Composition

You like to think you can write for any group of people at any time, but sometimes you get an idea that doesn't work for the group you're trying to write for. You put it aside until it's the right time to use it. I write all the time. Right now and for the next two years I'm trying to write only big band music. I've been able to write one big band piece, but the second one it looks like it wants to be for a smaller band. I'm trying to expand it, but I don't know if it's going to work. The other approach is you just sit down and write something, and you have to form a band of a new sort in order to play it.

Big band writing

I don't need much coaxing. The best stuff I'm doing is for big band. There's a lot more voices, and it's more complicated. When I'm writing for 4 X 4 the backgrounds can never be more than three horns. That makes for a very angular, gaunt music. When you have thirteen horns, and one is soloing, you have twelve people to play the richest, fullest chord you could ever imagine behind that solo. The big band is more challenging, and I should stick to that. Also there's less competition. A lot of people write great music for small bands, but very few write great big band music. I'm doing a big band event with a radio orchestra in Hamburg next month. There will one new piece completely finished, and I'm working hard to finish another. Slowly I'm accumulating the amount of material I need for another big band album—it's going to take me two years. We're going to be touring Europe (the festivals) with the big band in the summer of 2002. After that we'll tour America in 2003. I have to think so far ahead because I write very slowly.

Duets band with Steve Swallow

We started playing duets in the basement just for recreation. Our agent found out about it and said, "Why don't you play in night clubs?" We said, "Absolutely not. This is private." So after about a year we gave in, but we decided we only wanted to work in the Caribbean. We told our agent, "We'll do it but we'll use false names." That was a big laugh. Instead we had to go to Europe and play regular Van Heusen. That's over now—I'm never going to play duets again. [Sounds like another in a long series of promises eventually broken.] It's something I really hate to do. My piano playing sticks out like a sore thumb. Since I'm not a fast player it's very hard to cover all the musical territory I should with my ten fingers. I think too hard, and by the time I've decided what note to play that chord is gone—a lot of train wrecks. The smallest band I'm going to work with is the trio because then I have a lot more help.

Organ playing

I'm finished with the organ absolutely. As soon as I learned how to play the piano I didn't want to play the organ any more. I used to play the organ because it was simpler. I didn't play a left-hand part—whoever played piano in the band would accompany me. When I learned to play the piano left hand with the third and seventh of the chord to accompany myself (It sounds like no big deal, but to me it was incredibly big.) I didn't need to play the organ any more. Unless I reconciled myself to learning the entire Hammond organ tradition in popular, rhythm and blues and jazz music it would be pointless. I didn't want to go into that—it would be a lifetime of its own—not only the organ stops but the feel, the groove.

New CD: 4 X 4 (WATT 30)

Wow! Thank you. I wasn't sure it sounded that good. I better listen to it again. It took two years to get that material together, and it was fun to do. Each one of those songs has a story about how it was written.

The piece I'm working on now only has a technical reason for being—there's a pull between whole tones and major scales. There are no birds or people—no programmatic aspect. You're not always lucky enough to have a fantasy or a romantic situation. On 4 X 4 every piece was lots of fun. It's a good-sized band for me. We're touring in the later part of October this year. Maybe I'll fall back in love with it. It will be the original people except the drummer is Dennis Mackrel (who's my big band drummer) and the organ player. I couldn't get Larry Goldings so I got Will Boulware. A strange name. I've never heard him, and I've never seen him. I've never spoken to him. He replaced Larry Goldings in John Scofield's band. It seemed to me if I wanted to replace Larry Goldings I might as well use the same guy John Scofield replaced him with. So I hired him sight unseen and sound unheard. We're playing in New York at the Knitting Factory on October 11 -12.

Fancy Chamber Music (WATT 28)

I had accumulated a certain amount of pieces written for classical musicians. Once the pieces were played I never heard them again, and some them I never even heard for the first time. I thought if I wanted to hear this music I better record it. I better tour with it first to see if it's good. If it is I'm going to record it. So I had to keep writing music for those instruments—let's see flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano, bass, and melodic percussion. Is that it? I had to keep writing for that group of people in order to have enough to tour, which means two sets, two hours of music. Every time you start writing for a new format you have to keep doing that same format until you have enough to not do it anymore. Fancy Chamber Music is still alive because I've written a new piece since the recording. I think it might be a really good piece. I have to now write another hour and forty-five minutes before I make another album. It's a trap!

Escalator Over the Hill (1972 Opera recently reissued on JCOA)

It was performed live starting three years ago. There was a promoter in Germany who just had to hear it—that was his goal in life. He finally talked me into going into that huge cavern of music and getting it into shape to be performed. We performed Escalator live in Cologne. The following summer we toured Europe with it—for two years Escalator lived. The performances in Cologne and on the tour were videotaped, and there was a lot of talk about staging it. Directors were called and brought into it. We had all the people lined up. This wonderful guy wanted to see a production in Japan, the United States, and France. He suffered a loss of power when his record company was eaten up by some large company—all of a sudden he slipped down a big hole. I'm going to offer Escalator for sale for a big sum of money. It's perfectly performable now, and it's in really good shape three revisions later. It will live.

Inspirational music

Going back really far the people who wrote the hymns in a Bible-type songbook were my first inspiration. That kind of music was very important to me as a child. I was raised in a religious family, and we went to church every day—Christian undenominational, sort a Baptist religion. My second influence was hearing my father play an Edvard Grieg piano concerto very badly at home. In Oakland there was music called Sepia. I've never heard it again. It was not gospel—it was secular and usually sung by four male voices. The groups were called the Silver Chalices or something. They were almost like the Ink Spots but not that popular. That was a big influence on me, and it was the first black music I heard. It was not very far from hymns to that. When I got interested in jazz a few years later again it wasn't a very big leap. I felt like I had stepping stones that were very close together. There was never a "I'm going to destroy all that." My favorite composer now is Charles Warren, and that's pretty advanced compared with Abide with Me. That's the wierdest thing—other people have also asked me about Kurt Weill. I never heard Kurt Weill until after I moved to New York. [Weill's opera] Mahagonny was playing at the Public Theatre. I think I was thirty-two or thirty-three, well after I was supposedly influenced by him. I was influenced by Eric Satie. Maybe that's what some people hear. I first heard him when I was twelve years old and liked him very, very much. The first piece was that opera thing, Parade. It was sort of a production. Picasso did the sets. I recorded it on my little wire recorder, and it broke right after. It was the only piece I had so I listened to it all the time. Later, in my early twenties, Charlie Haden showed me the Gymnopedies and those pieces.

Website: wattxtrawatt.com

It should be up in October. My daughter Karen and I have been working on this, and it's huge. The reason it's taking a long time is Karen has never done this before. She's learning to design a web site. Every time she gets stuck things fall apart for two days while she reads about the problem.

Bley tunes recorded by others

One performer whose band played my music better than I could myself was Art Farmer. He recorded Sing Me Softly of the Blues and Ad Infinitum [Atlantic 1442]. Steve Swallow was in that band. George Russell played some pieces of mine, and Steve was in that band, too. And then of course Steve was in Gary Burton's band who played my pieces well. He sort of took my music with him—if you hired Steve he came equipped with Carla Bley tunes.

Musical partnership with Steve Swallow

Steve has influenced me very seriously as a composer. Some of it's probably not for the good because I feel sometimes I've lost a lot of my personality by knowing what's "right and wrong." I never knew before. Now if I play something and it's "wrong" I stop doing it. I spend a lot time trying to make it "right." It's too late—I don't think you can ever regain your ignorance. I'll just keep trying to do it "right" now. We don't really collaborate on tunes. If I write a tune for any of my bands before I commit it to the score I write a reduction of it and play it with Steve just to see if it sounds right.

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