(From January 2018 and transcribed by Lysa Hale.)
Ethan Iverson: Carla, you’ve been interviewed so much. There’s a good book about you by Amy C. Beal, and you yourself have written about your own music quite a bit over the years. Instead of going over a bunch of ground that’s already documented, I simply have list of names to ask you about to see if anything comes to mind. We could start with Count Basie.
Carla Bley: Okay, that would be a good one. Count Basie was playing at Birdland, Basin Street, and the Jazz Gallery when I was working as a cigarette girl. I got to hear him more than anyone else, and it was an education. That’s the kind of music I wanted to hear, and that’s what I learned. I sort of picked up on a lot of it and put it away for use later. I was very impressed by him and the whole band, particularly all the arrangers and the fact that they weren’t getting any credit for it, as far as I thought, they weren’t. Neal Hefti got a lot of credit, but some of the other guys like Ernie Wilkins were more interesting to me.
I just sort of wrapped myself in the atmosphere of a Basie gig.
On Sundays at the Jazz Gallery there’d be family day, and every guy in the band could bring his wife and children to the gig. They’d all be sitting there in the audience and watching their husbands play with Count Basie. That was really interesting.
An early influence and still something to always answer to the question,”Who do I like as a piano player:” Count Basie. That’s the final arbiter of how to play two notes, the distance between them and the volume of them is perfect. I can’t hold myself to that standard, but I can appreciate it.
EI: Duke Ellington?
CB: I never liked Duke Ellington. I thought he was stealing music from Billy Strayhorn, basically. But aside from that, I didn’t like his style of playing or talking to people. I didn’t see him a lot either, because he worked festivals and I worked clubs. Later I found out that even before Billy Strayhorn started writing music for the band, there was some great music in the earliest Duke bands. I didn’t know that at the time, so later I absolved him from his crime. I have a book on him, and I’m not even reading it, I just can’t quite get into it.
EI: What about Louis Armstrong?
CB: I actually met Louis Armstrong! That was really amazing. It was in the subway and he was with his wife, they were going home to Queens. I just practically fell over. I couldn’t believe it. I thought that he lived on a cloud somewhere, in a palace, not in Queens. He was a very nice person, nice to me, anyway. I, of course, revere him for the same reason as I revere Count Basie. Everything is perfect. Every note, all the phrasing, is perfect. He worked on it. He told me he didn’t have that ethic that the rest of the musicians have, always coming up with something new, never repeating themselves. He just worked on a solo until he had it, and that was really freeing for a person like me, used to writing everything down. I couldn’t really enjoy improvising. When it turns out great, I am thrilled. But on the way to sounding even good, I’m in a terror. I just cannot relax.
I didn’t like a lot of the musicians at the beginning. I didn’t like John Coltrane for about 20 years. And then I just loved him.
EI: Why didn’t you like him at first?
CB: I didn’t like his sound. I didn’t like his sort of slippery ease with playing. It was stupid. I hated Cecil Taylor and all these guys I love now.
EI: But this is pretty common process, I think. I had trouble with Charlie Parker and Bud Powell at the beginning.
CB: Those are recent discoveries for me too. I gave Charlie Parker all the credit anyone could, but I didn’t have an emotional reaction until many years later. I never saw him live. I arrived in New York, and he was on his last legs, was playing at a club, and I remember standing outside the club because I couldn’t get in because there were too many people, listening to his set. So that’s as close as I got to Charlie Parker. And so from that point on, I think I tended to like the people that I got to hear a lot or that I got to see a lot. I sort of put him on the back burner. God, I’m telling you these horrible things about myself. [laughs]
I didn’t like Bud Powell. He played too many notes. I saw him play once in New York, maybe Basin Street or maybe Birdland. But when I went to Europe later I got to see him a couple of times at clubs like in Paris and stuff, and I thought he was sort of mean. A mean person. He would turn his back and scratch his ass, just to say, you people listening to me, I don’t care if you like it or not, something like that. I though, oh god, he’s rude. But I really didn’t like his playing. I think maybe I’m still not graduated to liking him a lot. I find it impossible to keep my ears up to his fingers, where his fingers are. So: I am just a slow hearer.
EI: Thelonious Monk was more your speed?
CB: Well, there you go. That was perfect. I thought he should run everything, be named king of the world or something. Everything he did or said, the way he moved, the way he played, was perfect. He didn’t ever make any mistakes. That’s so weird. I never heard him like grumble, and stop playing or anything, which is something I do all the time. I thought he was another person in the galaxy of great jazz people. And I understood him from note one.
EI: Did you learn his tunes?
CB: Yeah, when I played with Roswell Rudd and Steve Lacy, I got a chance to learn all his tunes. Steve Swallow and I played in a band with the two horns, soprano and the trombone, and we played only Monk tunes.
EI: And you probably got to see him a fair amount.
CB: Yeah. A lot at the Five Spot, also the Jazz Gallery.
EI: What was it like to see Monk at the Five Spot?
CB: Well, it was crazy. He would get up and dance. He’d play a couple choruses. He’d play the tune maybe twice in a row without taking a solo, then he’d just get up and move around, just sort of move to the rhythm section’s time. Then he’d sit down again and play the head out. His mind might have been in a different place than a performer at a night club’s place. He wasn’t saying, “Glad to see you tonight, we’re going to play a little thing that I’d like to call ‘Epistrophy.’ Over here on bass is…”
He was just really in his own world. I went to his funeral.
EI: Sonny Rollins?
CB: Boy, I wish I had the nerve to go see him. He lives in this town, and I know where his street is, and I know I should go and see him, but I’m afraid that my visit won’t be welcome. I want to ask him what it’s like, not playing, you know? And maybe he would tell me. He could always write. I’d go to scold him a little bit: “Why aren’t you writing?”
I saw him quite a bit in the later days. We’d be at festival gigs on the same night, or something like that.
I have an interesting story you may want to use. When Paul Bley was working with Sonny Rollins, Sonny would come to the house sometimes and just be talking to Paul Bley. And once he came to the house, and he brought a huge bag of fruit. And he handed it to me, and he said, wash the fruit. I said, okay, and I washed all the fruit. I didn’t really take it too bad. I thought, well, it’s a chance to help out. I didn’t have anything to say, at least I could wash the fruit. About 10 years later, he apologize to me for the fruit. He says, Lucille now tells me that that’s not the right way to treat a woman. I shouldn’t have asked you to wash the fruit. I said, man, that was a small thing, I didn’t take it badly at all. I was glad to help. But thank you for apologizing. So he turned out to be a very friendly guy in a way that he wasn’t when he was younger, and I’ll bet now he’s ultra friendly. So maybe he wants to see me.
EI: You should go over.
CB: I should. I will.
EI: Did you see Paul Bley play with Sonny?
CB: Maybe once, but not a lot.
I heard about Sonny. Everyone talked about him. The guy I was married to was working with him, and I still didn’t see him play much. But later on I saw him play, when we had the same gig on a festival, I would make it a point to go to the gig, if I possibly could. He played better and better all the time. So great. I feel I know what he was meaning. What he meant when he played. Before I was a player, I was a listener. I could go to a gig every night and listen to every solo and understand every note. That was long before I started playing.
Listeners should not be taken for granted. A lot of them hear more than musicians hear, I found. Paul Haines said there’s no player like a listener. I think he was giving me the same credit because he didn’t play, and he listened. He knew everything. He knew the same things.
EI: A lot of musicians can listen to the small things and miss the bigger picture.
CB: Maybe so. So I was a great listener, long before I was even an adequate musician.
EI: My next name on this list is Charles Mingus.
CB: He was a little bit crude in his talking to me. He used to say things like, “Ah, Carla, you wanna play? Let’s play together.” You knew he didn’t mean the piano!
So I was a little scared of him. But again, toward his older days, he was as sweet as pie.
Some of his songs are the best of the batch of good post-bebop writing. I found a mistake in “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and corrected it. He was dead by then. It was a little turnaround thing that wasn’t quite working, and I got it to work. At that point, if a guy was dead and needed anything to be done, I was the person to do it.
I also adore “Fables of Faubus” and “Better Get Hit in Your Soul.” Some of the longer stuff I have to revisit. At the time I liked them. I probably would now too.
EI: Mingus, Sonny Rollins…this sort of leads into Paul Bley.
CB: I left him because I didn’t like him. I didn’t see him since the day I left, except once at Seventh Avenue South. My band was playing, and he showed up. That was about 10 years after we divorced, and he seemed okay. I like all my old boyfriends.
EI: What’d you think of his playing early on?
CB: He was very accomplished.
I had such strong opinions before I knew anything about music. And I knew every note, whether it was a good one or bad one. I could sit and listen to all the solos as if the person playing was talking to me, and I would say, yup, that’s right; no, that’s wrong.
Paul did one thing that I didn’t like. Every time he went up high on the piano, he played louder. He never played softer when he went up. The higher he went, the louder he played. And I thought that was some sort of a tic. I never told him about it.
EI: Was it your idea to write for Paul Bley?
CB: No, he asked me to. I remember the first time he said, “I need six tunes by tomorrow,” and I would do it. I had my own kind of music where I wasn’t writing for him and “Ida Lupino” would come out. He played that but it wasn’t his kind of music. Mostly he wanted stuff to play free on. I would just write kick-off, something to get you started. Something maybe to give you a little boost in the middle, and then at the end, reinstate the theme and play the last chord. Something like that. Just utilitarian.
In free playing everybody played as loud as they could and as fast as they could and as high as they could. I liked them, but there was also what Max Gordon said about a bunch of guys screaming their heads off: “Call the pound.”
I think the music needed a setting. Here I go again, fixing it. Take that solo, and put it in a setting where it made a lot of sense and it was really appropriate and be welcomed by the ear. I could put that guy over there, and I could give that guy kind of a background. Just as it was, I thought free jazz needed work.
When we were very young, Paul and I used to not want to hear a melody. We thought that was corny. We wanted to play only abstract things, only weird notes, only play minor ninths and major sevenths. We only wanted to play nothing that resembled anything that already existed. And that lasted for a couple of years in New York.
That went the totally opposite way when I got older. I had to have a memorable melody and I actually succeeded sometimes.
Free improvising could be very useful, very interesting and fun to listen to and fun to play. But it needed something to ground it a little bit, like tie the kite to the ground.
EI: That’s one your great contributions, offering a kind of frame for avant-garde soloists. We’ll start talking about your own records in a moment, but let’s go back and mention when Ornette Coleman started to play with Paul Bley.
CB: I agreed with Paul Bley, totally, that he should fire his old band and hire Ornette’s band. I loved Ornette, from the drop. Again, one of the people that was perfect, just never played anything that wasn’t beautiful, or if he did, it was for a reason. It was a comment. Sometimes when beautiful women walked in the Five Spot, he would just go with his arm – “wooo wooo” – something like that. He was just a commenter. So I began to know how to listen to his solo: What was the guy saying?
Since the very beginning, I wanted music to be more than notes. There are people that are just so musical and you know it. It’s more than being able to play great. It’s like being able to hear great.
EI: Ornette was playing with Don Cherry.
CB: I liked him the same amount exactly. And in the future, I began to like Don even more than Ornette sometimes. Both of those guys, man, they were good. Wow, fantastic.
Ornette and Don came over to my house one day when Paul Bley wasn’t there. They brought their horns, and they wanted to play. And I said, I’ll play piano. Ornette was babysitting, he had his 2-year-old son with him. I sat down at the piano, and said, let’s play a blues in F, because I knew that. They said, yeah, okay. I start playing with them, and they start playing, and they were playing in F sharp! I thought, why would they do that? I said F. And I realized they liked the sound of their horns when they were pitched upward. I transposed up to F-sharp, and I couldn’t play well in F-sharp, but that worked. Isn’t that a weird story?
EI: Does the lead player in a big band play a little sharp sometimes?
CB: Yeah. It’s to stand out.
EI: Is that what they’re doing, to get brighter?
CB: I don’t know. But there wasn’t a piano in Ornette’s band, I think partly so no one could say, “You can’t do that with the pitch.”
Ornette was a tremendous influence and still is on everything I write. I’ve done two things in the last six months, writing-wise, that were built on something Ornette would play.
EI: Do you have perfect pitch?
CB: I did until a year and two months ago. And then it went instantly when I had some dental work done. I woke up from the operation, and I didn’t have it, so now I’m working on getting it back. I’m still a half-step off. I was a good maybe third off after I woke up after the anesthesia. Isn’t that horrible?
I was playing with the Riverside Band, it was a problem because of the free improvising part. I would start to play, and I would hear in my head, with that note I think I’ll start here. And I’d say, oh my god, that’s not where I thought it was. And I’d have to correct it.
My father tuned a piano half a step low.
EI: Why was that?
CB: He was a piano teacher, and he was poor. And he thought it would save money on tuning. Because he had two pianos, one that he would sit at, and one that the student would sit at, and he tuned them both low because it was too expensive to get a piano tuned. So grew up with perfect pitch a half step low. I always knew how to correct it in my mind.
EI: [laughs] That explains everything!
CB: I’m glad you like that one.
EI: I like them all. Don’t worry about that.
CB: I’m trying to think of interesting things to say.
EI: It’s all interesting! Let me ask you about Charlie Haden, who was playing with Ornette at that time.
CB: Well, I liked Charlie better than anyone else. Why did I like Charlie more?
EI: Um…because he played beautiful slow melodies on the bass?
CB: That was it, then. Also, aside from music, we liked the same color, or we would like the same taste or the same painting or the same painter. We just had similar taste, which came in really handy later when he hired me to do the arranging for his records, because I knew what he liked, and he knew I would do what he liked. We were the same.
I never really spent any time talking to Don Cherry. We’d be in Charlie’s band together, or he’d be doing something I wasn’t a part of, and he would talk to me like Duke Ellington would talk to me, like, “I love you madly.” He would just say the thing you say to people, but we never had any real conversations about anything. I think with Ornette it was easier. But with Don, it didn’t matter to me. I just loved his playing, even though he didn’t talk to me personally, he talked to me like someone in a crowd.
EI: I guess Don Cherry started the first sessions for Escalator Over the Hill.
CB: That was a miracle thing.
EI: He plays unbelievable on that record.
CB: It was a miracle because he didn’t have any music. And even the words, when he says the syllables again and again and again, those were words from Escalator. Again it was one of the main songs, and he didn’t even know that. Everything was mystical like that with Don. He was from a different planet, definitely, god. And he went a different way. He went into the world music thing.
EI: These Escalator tracks have a strong world music feeling. Don was already going in that direction, I guess.
CB: He used to play more urban. Ornette was the country guy, and Don was the urban guy. Where was Don from? It was the South somewhere, wasn’t it?
EI: He was born in Oklahoma but moved to Watts when real young. He and Billy Higgins were were playing in high school together in L.A.
CB: Well, that explains the urban thing.
I liked him the first time I ever heard him. I liked him even when he would do a bunch of stuff that I didn’t approve of too much. He would take the whole group of people, and they would look at him, and they would only play his hand motions. He wouldn’t write a piece. He would come in, and let’s say for now a string quartet, and he would go like this [motion] and of course, they would all play a note. And he would go [motion], he would stop the note. And he would go [motion], and they would play a loud note. And he started almost like it would be a downward swoop, and this would be an upward swoop, and this would be very pointillistic. I won’t call it dancing. It wasn’t very interesting to look at unless you needed to be told what to play. And I sort of didn’t approve of that too much. I mean, it sort of made me look like a fool! I spent months on every note being perfect, and you could get those notes without regard for how much work was going into it. So I was jealous, I guess.
Steve Swallow loves Cherry more than Ornette. He adored Don Cherry.
Don’s been gone for a long time now. Me and Mike Mantler would go visit Don. He lived across the river from New York City in New Jersey. We would go over there and hang out. I knew him pretty well.
EI: To me, it sounds like Mike Mantler was influenced by Don Cherry.
CB: Yeah, definitely. And who would you say Don Cherry was influenced by?
EI: Well, I don’t know, but I suspect in the beginning he was influenced by Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge and Clifford Brown and everybody else, but just played it his own way.
CB: Interesting how he turned out like that. He was so original.
EI: Then he was also probably influenced by Ornette quite a bit. I don’t know why I’m explaining this you of all people, Carla…
CB: Yeah, like maybe before Ornette he just played changes. I shouldn’t say “just” played changes. Changes are really hard! I spent my life with them.
EI: Don then also become connected to all these world music traditions.
CB: Yeah, he wanted to be in there. Some of it was a scam. I think he was sort of like a healer. I didn’t ever like the people that he taught. I thought they were falling for a scam in a way. He would encourage people to play that shouldn’t have been players.
I have a good Steve Lacy story. Lacy was teaching at Karl Berger’s school, the Creative Music School, the other side of the reservoir here in Ulster County. I was teaching there, too, so-called teaching. I didn’t know what to teach, and I didn’t learn anything there, either! I just was there because there were a lot of really interesting musicians there that would expect something they would not get. I liked to subvert them.
I went to a Steve Lacy concert outside on the lawn of the Creative Music Studio, and Steve Lacy was improvising an entire hour of just solo saxophone concert. At one point, he said to all these students,, right after playing, “Don’t go to school, don’t go to school, don’t go to school, don’t go to school!” I thought that was so cool that he would tell the students to not go to school. It was so reverse of the right thing to do.
About 10 years ago, people started saying, man, you were there in the 50s, you were there in the 60s, it must have been so exciting. I thought, no, it was just life. I didn’t know it was important. I didn’t know that the things I was a part of would end up being historically interesting. And now they are. And for good reason, now that I’m looking back at it, we were all pretty good.
EI: One thing I’ll say in response is that you’ve kept using your early material. The themes from first 10 years of writing recur in your band music to this day.
EI: You must respect the freshness of that early moment.
CB: I don’t remember why I was so thrilled about Paul Bley. It just seemed thrilling. Everything seemed thrilling. The beginning of the Jazz Composers Orchestra. The Jazz Composers Guild, that was really interesting. That was Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor getting all the free players together and forming a group, and we had meetings and stuff like that.
EI: That’s an interesting double album that Mike Mantler organized, The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, sort of like avant-garde concertos for Cecil and Pharaoh Sanders and Larry Coryell.
CB: Those were the guys he liked, I guess. I’m beginning to really appreciate Mike Mantler. I just heard an album — I listened to the whole thing — that he made in Europe and I thought was great. And I didn’t know he was a great trumpet player. I thought he was, “Oh jeez, he has no chops whatever, he plays low.” I wasn’t impressed with him until six months ago.
EI: I like this album Movies with Tony Williams on drums.
CB: I’ll tell him that somebody liked that album. He never knew anyone who did. He always felt completely rejected by the jazz world.
EI: How’d he get Tony Williams to play on that record, do you remember? Just called up Tony Williams? It’s hard to imagine.
CB: I probably called him. I was sort of producing those albums.
EI: Of course, Tony recorded some of your songs.
CB: Yeah, a couple of them. I guess I knew him before Michael Mantler knew him. I guess through Paul Bley. I don’t know how I met him. But it was back when I was married to Paul Bley, I remember that. So I probably called him.
EI: It’s really interesting to hear him on Michael Mantler’s Movies playing prog rock drums. Giving Bill Bruford a run for his money, that’s for damn sure.
CB: That was interesting, wasn’t it? Tony Williams was very into it. He took a lot of risks at that session.
He used to come to my house and ask what I had. He’d say, “I need a waltz.” Oh, I got a waltz, over there on that bench. That’s where the waltzes are. And we’d play them, and then he would ask, “You got anything Middle Eastern?” I’d say, oh, I got a great Middle Eastern one. He was a user of my product. Mostly it was Steve Swallow that got people to play my tunes. If Steve was in a band, that bandleader would be playing my tunes.
EI: In another interview, you said something which I thought was so beautiful. You said Albert Ayler was maudlin.
CB: Yeah, in the most wonderful way. He gave me license to play something that was really corny and to love it and to work with it and be happy working on it. I didn’t have that before Albert. He legitimized it and he made me feel that I could play all that stuff that I used to abandon because it was too maudlin. So I thought it was great. That was a compliment, when I said that.
I just loved Albert Ayler. I really was sorry and missed him a lot when he got killed but it seemed, it was just a good description of who he was, in a way,…no! [laughs] But he lived a little on the wild side.
EI: It seemed like there was already a legend in the making, and his dramatic death helped consecrate the legend.
CB: I like the way you phrased it better.
EI: He was also a great composer. Albert Ayler isn’t given enough credit for those melodies, but those melodies are incredible.
CB: Those melodies…they were so much better than people trying to be modern and trying to play free, trying to play like something Anton Webern would write. Albert didn’t do that. He played just…I don’t know…
EI: Churchy sounding stuff?
CB: Churchy sounding stuff, that’s right. I guess there was a license for that already existing. I just didn’t hear it.
EI: As a certain part of an American tradition, Charles Ives…
CB: American is a good word because this music is so American. That’s again a phrase that I used to hate. I wanted to be Swedish or something. I didn’t want to be American, a cowboy. I thought Americans didn’t have any taste in music and they had no taste in food and the cars sucked and even the cigarettes weren’t any good. They had no wine. Everything about Americans rubbed me the wrong way. But the Americans won. They just survived. It’s just amazing.
And that country and western music, I just love that music. Some of that is so great.
EI: Like Charlie Haden’s bluegrass.
CB: Bluegrass…it’s great music.
EI: And there’s Hollywood music, too. I mean, “Ida Lupino.”
CB: Yeah, right. American. Very American.
EI: Here’s my chance to ask you. Why’d you name a song for her? How did that happen?
CB: I have no idea. I just saw a few movies she did, and I thought she was sort of stripped and basic. She didn’t have all the sex appeal that a female star should have. She was sort of serious. Maybe I felt a bond with her for that reason. I wanted to be serious. It wasn’t anything to do with her being the first female director, I learned that later. I just knew her from a couple of black and white movies. I must have been attracted to the way she was or acted like she was. Sort of stripped and straight and serious.
EI: And then you wrote the retrograde as well.
CB: Oh, “Oni Puladi.” You know, we almost did that in the last band I was in. That might reappear, “Oni Puladi.” I finally made the perfect arrangement of “Ida Lupino,” and we do play it with Riverside: Dave Douglas . And they want “Oni Puladi.” Maybe if I have time and there is a reason to do it, I might add “Oni Puladi,” just play it backwards all the way to the beginning.
EI: Why did you make a retrograde version?
CB: I tried to think of what a composer was supposed to learn when they went to Juilliard. I heard that they had a night school that you could get into without having finished high school, and that was the only time I had ever heard that there was any hope that I might finish my education since I quit school in the 10th grade and nothing replaced it. I signed up for this course. It was called Composition. I had a teacher I hadn’t heard of, just some guy that taught a nighttime course on composing. I did the first class, and I handed in my paper. He called me at the beginning of the second class and held my paper. He said, you’re in the wrong field. You’re not a composer. This is nothing to do with you. I said, oh, okay.
EI: That’s terrible!
CB: Oh, I got that a lot. Nothing ever bothered me. I thought, he’s an idiot, I’m a great composer! Every time someone refused to play with me or treated me badly, I thought, they’re an idiot. They don’t know. Nothing bothered me.
I learned later to be self-conscious and let things bother me, but at the time, it was just ignorance from Oakland.
EI: “Young and dumb” is the phrase they say.
CB: “Young and dumb.” It was wonderful.
EI: I just got a couple more names before we get to your albums. Gary Burton?
CB: Gary Burton. Steve was working with him, and told me that Gary Burton is going over to the rock and roll side and looking for a piece of music to record.
I was trying to sell Genuine Tong Funeral to Creed Taylor, Bob Thiele, Francis Wolff or anyone that I knew in that world. They all said, “We love it, but we can’t sell it. It’s wonderful, but no, we’re not interested.” So I put it back on the shelf.
Steve said to Gary Burton, I know someone who has a piece that’s never been done, and it’s really up your alley. And so Gary Burton took it. When he said he would play it, then I wrote more music for it.
Bob Moses was…
EI: Lonesome Dragon.
CB: Lonesome Dragon…sorry, I didn’t want to spill the beans! He just said, “I don’t want my name on that album. I don’t want to ever be associated with music with that. “
EI: So the reason his name isn’t on the album is because he didn’t like the music?
CB: He hated the music. He didn’t want to have made a record of it.
EI: That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.
CB: I swear!
EI: It’s a beautiful record, and Moses plays great on it, too.
CB: I thought it was really good. Anyway, it didn’t bother me. I just thought, he doesn’t know anything.
EI: I read that Sgt. Pepper was an influence on you.
CB: Yeah, it was, a real big influence for about six months. It was at the beginning of Genuine Tong Funeral. An artist friend of mine, Mike Snow, from Toronto, came over one day with this album. He said, “Jazz is dead. You better hear this. All the artists are listening to this. We don’t listen to jazz anymore. This is it.”
I said, I want to hear it. And he put it on and I said, that’s fantastic. “A Day in the Life” was the tune I loved, of course. I thought it was wonderful. I don’t think I really succeeded ever being influenced by it. It had words for one thing, and I was not into writing words at that time.
EI: But you’re dealing with rock beats for the first time, and that would be in your music from then on.
CB: Ah, maybe so. I got something from it then.
EI: If I may be pompous for a moment, it seems to me that jazz musicians tend to reflect the current moment. They take in what’s happening. And your discography always shows you’re taking in what’s happening.
CB: I would call it being infatuated with a kind of music, because it never seemed to last. You can hear Brazilian music or some sort of thing, and that’s all you wanted to do from then on. But I found out you shouldn’t play the music you like. It can influence you: bossa nova, Beatles, music hall…but don’t try to play it, because those people have spent their whole lives doing what they do. If you come along with an infatuation, you don’t deserve to play it. You’ve spent your time doing other things.
EI: What is music hall? What style is that?
CB: The Beatles had some of this stuff. It’s with the tuba players going “oom pah” or whatever. I can’t think of a tune offhand.
EI: “When I’m Sixty-Four” is music hall?
CB: Yeah! That’s like music hall. I thought maybe that was something I could take as an influence without having been born in a black ghetto. I could say, well, I like this music, but it’s European. My roots are European. But that didn’t hold very good. Because that was nothing to do with the beginning of jazz. That was another one of my momentary notions.
EI: I guess we get back to the notion of American music.
CB: And also the notion that six months later, I wasn’t into the Beatles anymore. Or free playing anymore. Or anything that fascinated me. They would just be an influence for a minute.
Kurt Weill was music hall. I learned about his music later, though.
EI: Were there other rock groups that made a real impression on you?
CB: Cream. That’s Jack Bruce. When I heard his voice, it made me want to write music with words. I hadn’t done that yet. That was before Escalator over the Hill. I heard him in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall. Gary Burton was playing there at the time.
EI: Cream was playing that night?
CB: Yeah. That was Cream, Electric Flag and Gary Burton. I stayed for the whole thing because I was fascinated with hippies, free apples at the door, balloons. The music wasn’t the big deal, although the music the hippies was music that I loved, too.
Trying to think of who else I liked. Stevie Winwood…Procol Harum….Joe Cocker’s great cover of “I Get Along With A Little Help from my Friends.” And then, of course, there was the whole Motown stuff. Me and Steve independently discovered Marvin Gaye. Before we were together. And then when we were together, we just had an orgy of Marvin Gaye. Just listened to it all the time. Steve was most influenced at that point by Marvin Gaye, not so much by Paul Chambers. That was sort of an infatuation, too. Me and Steve found out we liked a lot of the same things, so we got all the Motown history and all the albums that could possibly be listened to by everybody and loved by everybody and just basked, indulged in that music.
EI: Ok, great. Well it’s time to start going through your records. We talked about Don, but what about Roswell Rudd, who starts Escalator in such incredible fashion?
CB: I wrote a paragraph for his death. When I first looked at the word processor, I thought, “I don’t know what to write.”
He was a friend.
I didn’t know anybody was great. I didn’t favor one person over the other. Well, I did, actually, but friendship came first.
He gave me a criticism. He told me, you compose like you wrote the music at the piano. I thought, good god, that’s true. How in the ghost of Charlie Parker could I do something like that? From that point on, I started thinking what the horn player was thinking and also how they would write. The harmony would be apparent in the melody, without them playing their own bass notes. When I started writing music, I was writing with the bass note in it, and the harmony in it, and the melody in it and the countermelody in it, and it was just totally clunky, written like vertically. And a horn player doesn’t write that way. I really got a lesson from Roswell saying that to me.
He was in my band until it was a rehearsal for an American tour. He called day after day of the rehearsals and said, I can’t make it. I’m stuck in Maine. I gotta be here, there’s something happening in my real life, and I cannot make the rehearsal. I say, okay, but you better show up soon because we’re playing all these things with a gaping hole in the arrangement and the other musicians might think it’s okay to not show up. Everyone’s putting in their time. So finally, D. Sharpe said, I know a trombone player you’re going to love from Boston. I said, okay, hire him for the rehearsal. And that first day, I switched from Roswell to Gary Valente and never looked back.
On the last day, Roswell showed up for the tour. I said, you don’t know the music. He said, come on, I can pick up the music. I said, I’d like to think you couldn’t. I put ten 10 people through five days of rehearsal, and I feel like an idiot. I’m going to use the sub. This had happened in my life before, where the sub was hired instead of me. But Roswell had never had that happen to him. I had to calm him down by driving him through Central Park in my car. I remember he ranted and raved, you can’t do this to me, I’ve come all the way from Maine.I paid him a lot of money to get rid of him. I’ve done this a couple of times, too. I pay them to get rid of them. And I used Gary Valente every time after that and put up with a lot worse than what I’d ever put up with Roswell, I’ll tell you that. But Gary was my first trombone player, and I was his first composer, probably.
EI: Is there anything you want to say about Roswell’s playing?
CB: It opened up the trombone. It was not maudlin, but it was…I don’t know if there’s a word called blowsy…
EI: Yeah, sure…
CB: It was blowsy, you know? And I liked that.
I could not understand J.J. Johnson. I could not understand how anyone could play that diatonic and rhythmically exact, I just couldn’t understand that kind of playing. J.J. was not alone. I didn’t like any of the trombone players!
And then I heard Roswell Rudd, and he was my first trombone player. I had the usual respect I had for everyone I knew, but I didn’t know they were anything special. I just thought, well, that’s Roswell. Everyone is important and wonderful.
I didn’t know until later that those people, like I used on my own, would turn out to be a little bit better than ordinary, you know? I didn’t know that. I thought, these are just my people. I guess I’ll use them.
EI: What about Gato Barberi?
CB: Gato, oh my god, so much. I first met him in Europe. He was working with Karl Berger’s band, and Don Cherry was in that band, too. And then all of a sudden, Don Cherry came to the United States from Europe and did not take his band with him. He got Americans to play in the band, and his European band was destroyed. They couldn’t believe that he didn’t value them. So I said to Gato, well, you can be in my band. He said, okay! So he came and lived with us in New York. I loved the way he played tenor. Just loved it. I don’t know why. How can you tell what you’re attracted to?
EI: There’s a little bit of this Albert Ayler type of power…
CB: Yeah, power…
CB: Melody, and rough around the edges. I used him for Genuine Tong Funeral, and I got him the gig with Charlie Haden, and he was great.
Then all of a sudden, he got taken over by the movies, the movie world that he hung out at. He hung out with actors and directors. His wife, too. Fashion designers. Elsa Peretti. But mostly Europeans that had come over, but also Halston, they loved Halston. He became interested in style, I think. Then he started twirling his hat around at me.
Me and Charlie went and heard him after the first album because we wanted to hire him for the next album, and we were horrified at his band. It was at the Bottom Line, and Gato was up there, dressed like a gaucho with a bunch of guys playing very accomplished Latin music, straight Latin music. And Gato was twirling his hat around and wearing his hat and twirling his hat, and we looked at each other with total disdain, walked out and said, oh, he’s lost it. He can’t be on it anymore. Have to get Dewey Redman.
EI: Say something about Dewey Redman.
CB: Well, Dewey Redman, I could say a lot. Oh god, so many wonderful things. He was so funny. He was the funniest guy. And yet when he played, it wasn’t funny, so I didn’t really appreciate his playing as much as I did his company. His playing was over my head, like Coltrane’s playing was over my head, like Bud Powell, I could not hear fast enough. It was just too much. I remember Elvin Jones was another one of those guys. He’d be playing in a club, and I’d have to get up and stand outside. The drums were just overwhelming me.
EI: You mostly worked with Dewey with Charlie, I guess.
Dewey was incredibly funny. He would say things like, “I went to see my girlfriend, and when she opened the door, she had nothing on but the TV.” Then he’d say, “And you know what street she lived on? Dickhardtstraße.” We would be roaring.
Bob Stewart and Charlie had a big fight when Bob was playing with the band because Bob Stewart was talking about Charlie’s fiancé and saying stuff like, oh, you know she’d rather be with me, something like that. And so he was fired instantly. Later, when Dewey saw Bob Stewart, he said, “Missed you at the wedding!”
Stuff like that. He would just have the edge on everything. So funny.
One more Dewey thing that I remember. He said,”Why don’t you ever write me backgrounds? Why do you give the backgrounds to the other people in Liberation Music Orchestra. You never write backgrounds for me.”
I said, “I don’t want to touch you. I’m afraid. I wouldn’t think of interfering with whatever you’re thinking by having something stupid that I wrote in the background.”
He said, “Nonsense! Write me backgrounds!”
So that’s something nice.
EI: The drummer on Escalator and Tropic Appetites is Paul Motian.
CB: My personal favorite, definitely.
EI: Did you see him play with Bill Evans?
CB: I did. I liked Bill Evans very much. Also Paul Motian. He had an absolutely great sense of humor. Paul Motian was so wonderful.
He refused to work as a sideman, even though he had no money whatsoever, because he wanted to be a leader. He said, “If I work as a sideman, people will get me without having to come and hear my band. I gotta make sure to deprive everybody of listening to me for a couple of years before I have my own band, then I’ll have my own band, and I’ll be a bandleader.”
And he did that. Nobody could believe it. That was an admirable thing about him.
He was funny. He lived in this building with rent control. He lived there a long time and knew everybody in the building.I used to go to his house when I was friends with his girlfriend Susan Martin. He played on Escalator Over the Hill, and I just sort of let him do whatever he felt like doing. He said he wanted to play a doumbek, so I said, okay, get a doumbek. He played it on the track with Don Cherry.
EI: He and Charlie are a special rhythm section, a special feel.
CB: Absolutely. When Charlie had the gig going to Cuba, Paul refused to go. I said, “What are we going to do? Who are we going to get? How can you do that to us? You’re part of our sound. We can’t get another drummer to play like that. Why don’t you want to go?”
He said, “Because I was in the Navy, and I went to Cuba in the Navy, and I hated it.”
So that was that. He didn’t go. Then I ended up not going, either. I think might have influenced me in a bad way!
EI: Dewey told me something about that. He didn’t want to go to Cuba, either. I guess the whole band rebelled against Charlie that time.
Julie Tippetts is on your next record, Tropic Appetites.
CB: The first time I heard her, I wanted her, and couldn’t believe I got her. But I got her! She had just played on a famous record. I thought the texture of her voice, the timbre, was unique and incredibly beautiful. And I got her, and she sight-read the stuff and everything.
EI: This is the second record with Karen Mantler as well.
CB: She started being on my records when she was four. On Tropic Appetites, she must have been six.
EI: She’s been on a lot of records and eventually played beautiful harmonica solos.
CB: Yes, that’s true. She turned out to be a good musician. At the time I think I would have used any kid. I don’t think I used her because she was my daughter, I used her because she was available.
And her harmonica playing has always been something I’ve really enjoyed. Thought she was a chip off the old block.
EI: How much is she involved in organizing your music? I heard she might have been a copyist at some point or something.
CB: She was my copyist in three formats. 10-horn, 6-horn and big band. And she married the trombone player that was in all those bands, Gary Valente. She thought he was part of the deal musically.
EI: I guess that’s a chip off the old block as well.
CB: It’s really true!
EI: I wanted to ask you about 3/4 for Piano and Orchestra. I read somewhere that you didn’t like the record of it. You like the piece, but you thought it was not a great record…?
CB: Oh, yes, very badly made. I didn’t pay any attention to the tempos. I would use a splice at a certain place, take one or take four of something. And it would be a different tempo.
EI: It didn’t bother me when I listened to it. I think it’s a really good feature for your piano playing, actually.
CB: I haven’t heard any of those old piano records.
EI: I guess both Keith Jarrett and Frederic Rzewski played it live.
CB: That’s right. Keith played it great. But Frederic…
One thing I learned from Charlie Haden, and I think it’s an important lesson: If someone does something really awful, it’s not to be criticized, it’s to be enjoyed. I would be thinking, oh god, what a horrible thing to have happened, and Charlie would just be laughing. Somebody would be so drunk that they were just laying there in the gutter and the cop was coming over, and Charlie would be laughing. So I did learn to laugh at the worst possible stuff. That was such a Charlie Haden lesson.
EI: But did Frederic Rzewski do something bad?
CB: It was hilarious. I’m already laughing. He just sat down at the piano…the piece starts with one instrument, then it goes two instruments, then three instruments. He went like [makes sounds] and just crashing over the bass. He was playing exactly like he felt, and it just was totally marvelously, hilariously wrong.
EI: Just to throw one little thing back at you: One time I was there with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden. Paul said to Charlie, “Charlie, you were so much cooler when you were high all the time.” And Charlie replied, “Oh man, that’s great, can you tell this documentary crew that you said that about me?”
CB: Well, that is so Charlie. Oh my god.
EI: We’ll move on. The next album is sort of a shock, Dinner Music, where you have the members of Stuff doing bunch of funk beats.
CB: That was an infatuation. I went to hear them at Joyous Lake club in Woodstock and fell in love, I guess mostly with Richard Tee. Mike Mantler had a great imagination. He never had a list of things to not do. He said, let’s do it. Why don’t we hire them for your next album? I said, sure, let’s do that. So we did. And they didn’t even know what was going on. They thought we were doing tracks for a girl singer. At some point, Richard Tee refused to solo. He would describe what they were doing as, “For hire, so we don’t take solos….or that’s extra.”
EI: You’re kidding me.
CB: No. Isn’t that strange?
EI: Wow. But that’s why they’re just playing parts….
CB: Yeah, they thought it was for a singer. So after Richard heard it, he came to Seventh Avenue South, and he told be he listened to the album and heard Roswell Rudd. He said, “You realize I had no idea what I was accompanying? I was playing tracks for a girl singer, and when I heard Roswell Rudd playing over that, I could not believe it.”
EI: So Roswell wasn’t there in the studio?
CB: No, we just brought the band over and they did the rhythm tracks before we put the other things on.
EI: Is that why you called it Dinner Music? Is that part of it?
CB: No, that was influenced probably by Brian Eno, who just made light of things. Elevator Music. Wow, that sounds so great. That’s what I want to do. And you couldn’t criticize anyone for that. “Winning the art world” was not a problem anymore.
EI: Also on that record is Carlos Ward.
CB: Yeah, Carlos Ward. The Phantom. He would show up at the last minute and play great. I used him all the time.
EI: He had that avant-garde sensibility that was so important.
CB: That’s really where he was coming from.
EI: And Bob Stewart is on that record.
CB: I learned from Bob Stewart. I expressed my fear of playing solos. He said, you’re not supposed to think like that. You’re just supposed to not think at all. Don’t think ever. When it comes time for your solo, play without thinking.
That was really a smart thing to say to me at that point. I ended up thinking a little bit less.
EI: For the European Tour ’77 album, there’s Andrew Cyrille on drums. I think you’re about the only person in the world who hired Steve Gadd for a record then Andrew Cyrille for a record.
CB: Yeah, that’s really true. I love Steve Gadd, what a great drummer. I knew Andrew from before, like the Liberation Orchestra.
EI: European Tour ’77 is a rare example of Andrew Cyrille playing parts and dance rhythms with a band.
CB: I think the whole deal was that none of us really played jazz. Most of these guys had decided what they wanted to play like, and they wanted to play free. I ended up writing music for them. That thing I said before. I heard them playing, I thought they played great. What they needed was some organization. They needed a nice melody, a beginning and end. So I wrote it for them. Maybe I was doing it because I thought the music needed it, that kind of combination. I don’t know.
EI: Of course, some of these people are legends that are on this record, but some of them are not so famous. I think they are all English, like this person Elton Dean.
CB: They were bad boys of questionable character. Elton Dean wasn’t very nice. I always made jokes about him. After he played one of his long, squeaky solos, I made the band go, “Ta da!” Like, gimme a break.
EI: Gary Windo?
CB: He was the head of the bad boys.
EI: Why did you have these English bad boys in there? Where did you find them?
CB: Gary Windo was Nick Mason’s car mechanic. He sounded a little bit like the kind of rhythm and blues tenor player that I like. It wasn’t original.
EI: For whatever it’s worth, I think they both sound good on this record.
CB: Ah. Gary Windo could really play, but I think he had an influence that he copied too closely. somebody in a rhythm and blues world.
We liked things that were different, outrageous, shocking. We wanted to be original, we wanted to be scary, we wanted to be not politically correct or something. Or maybe that’s a bad expression. Wanted to break rules. That’s it. We wanted to be rule breakers.
EI: Terry Adams is playing piano, and this is now going to be a sort of a tradition of having these great pianists in your band.
CB: Terry came to a Jazz Composers Orchestra rehearsal and sat in the front row with all of his bandmates.
EI: You mean NRBQ?
CB: NRBQ. They didn’t like me as much they liked The Shaggs. I think I was sort of a Shagg-like person to them.
EI: But you are not like The Shaggs at all!
CB: I’m not? I liked The Shaggs.
EI: Well, everyone loves The Shaggs, but you’re…
CB: I guess I’m more advanced…
EI: I would think so!
CB: Maybe a little bit more advanced.
EI: We can talk about your retrograde version of ”Ida Lupino” a little longer if you want.
CB: Anyway, Terry Adams said to me, “I recorded ‘Ida Lupino,’ here’s a lead sheet with my own words.”
I didn’t think they were very good words. But I just loved the way he played so much. He was very influenced by Jerry Lee Lewis and Thelonious Monk.
He was perfect for doing Music Mechanique because he could pretend to be a broken machine and still have a beautiful time feel. He had a great groove in all the music. I thought he was a great piano player. I still do.
EI: Did you like NRBQ?
CB: Oh, very much. I went to see them every time I could. They lived in Saugerties. They played at this place called the Joyous Lake frequently.
EI: Let’s say something about John Clark.
CB: John Clark was the best friend to Bob Stewart. They stayed in a tent on our lawn, well not really on our lawn, but deep in the forest. They brought a tent and went and slept there. That was really fun. John Clark, what can I say about him? Well, he didn’t think I wrote for French horn very well because I wrote French horn underneath the trombone. I didn’t know what horn was supposed to go where, which was part of the refreshing thing, I think. If you don’t know what to do, you come up with some refreshing things. But John Clark was really angry when we were in Japan. After the set, he took me backstage and said, you know, this writing for horns really sucks. I can’t go on with this. You’re writing it below the trombone. That’s ridiculous. I said, oh, I thought it was sort of like a euphonium. He said, no, it’s not like a euphonium! It’s one of the most glorious instruments in the world. You’re not giving me a chance. John Clark knew that I couldn’t write for the French horn, but he kept showing up for the gig, so I guess we were friends. Maybe.
EI: He’s on a lot of your records….
CB: Yeah, he is. There weren’t a lot of French horn players around, and I didn’t know Vincent Chancey yet. This other guy that plays French horn really good asked me, why don’t you use me? He was a New England Conservatory guy. I don’t know. You’re just too good or something. And Vincent Chancey was able to sing songs. He sang “I Want You to Love Me, but You Hate Me.” A song that I wrote for him, and he was such a good spirit. I guess I liked the good spirits.
EI: That’s a perfect transition to someone I really want to speak to you about. Because he died so young and he’s only really heard on your records: D. Sharpe.
CB: Oh, Gary Valente got me D. Sharpe. He said, this might be a weird choice, but you’re the type of person that really can appreciate him. And I said, okay, hire him. So he came to the next rehearsal, and I just loved him at first sight and first sound. He was from the rock and roll world. D. Sharpe dressed really great. He had a cool demeanor about him. He looked so different. I liked him the way he was physically. Then he would use two loaves of Italian bread or something to take a solo. He had a good sense of humor. I thought he had a nice groove, too.
EI: You also gave him a big vocal feature that’s famous, “I Hate to Sing.”
CB: Oh, yes. I discovered him as a singer.
EI: I think it’s telling that Roswell Rudd and D. Sharpe get these big vocal features with you. That says something about who they are.
CB: It certainly does. They were the only guys willing to do it. A lot of guys were very embarrassed by the singing thing. They would sing the backgrounds, but they would feel silly going to a jazz festival and singing backgrounds. I was just sort of in the category with Sun Ra, where the guys had to wear bright clothes or something. It’s part of the gig. You gotta do it. I don’t know. I deserve to be criticized, and I stopped doing it eventually. But I’m still interested in the voice as an instrument.
EI: It seems to me that you got very attuned to putting on a hot live show.
CB: Maybe so. Maybe so. You know, I had this girl who gargled while she sang. It was sort of like a sideshow. I liked to do outrageous things. I wanted desperately to be different, even in grade school, everything I did. I had to wear things that were different, say things that were different, do things that were different. I wanted to be original at an early age, for it’s own sake.
EI: And when you’re playing those big European festivals, you have to do something that projects to the audience, don’t you think?
CB: I did it in small places, too. And at great cost. When Andrew Cyrille was in the band we played a festival in the south of France. The audience began throwing fruit at us, and Andrew got up and got a tomato smack in his face. He went backstage and swore he wasn’t going to come back out on the stage. I finally talked him into coming out. Please come out, please, please, please come out. And he did eventually because I said, if you come out, I’ll pour a bottle of Coca Cola over the promoter’s head. And I did. I got the promoter to come up on stage — he thought I could thank him — and I poured a bottle of Coke on his head. Andrew admired me for that.
EI: It’s a wonder you ever worked in the south of France again!
CB: You know what I’m saying?
EI: We already spoke about Gary Valente a little bit. He became very important to your groups.
CB: I didn’t ever want another trombone player. I had totally forgotten about Roswell Rudd and just wanted Gary Valente.
EI: What did he bring to your music?
CB: Again, this time feel. You could go through Lincoln Tunnel playing a tune, and he would know exactly what beat you were on when you go to the other side, to the New York side. His time feel. So perfect.
EI: He has a very big sound.
CB: Yeah, that, too. He played too loud for Charlie’s taste. He was on one of Charlie’s records. Charlie really made sure he never got on another one.
EI: Oh no, really? But he plays great on The Ballad of the Fallen. I love that trombone solo on side A.
CB: Yeah, Charlie didn’t like big sound toward the end. He was always putting loud people in plastic. And also he didn’t want people to think that the Liberation Music Orchestra was just Carla Bley’s band and she would use all her people on it. So it got to the point where I didn’t use any of my own guys in his band. I could understand that.
The trombone world secretly adored Gary Valente even though the way he played was totally crazy. Like he would like to play just one note through the whole solo. I loved his solos when he did that. He wouldn’t give up for anything. He would just play one note, and he would play it with so much commitment that that one note became very important, very strong. I was just delighted by everything Gary plated. I thought maybe he was better even than I thought he was. On that last album, Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid, the trombone solo is a work of art. I’ve never heard anything as perfect as that. And he can hardly play the horn. But that doesn’t matter. You could hear the musicality coming. He hadn’t been practicing for a long time. He was having a lot of problems with street drugs and stuff. He could hardly play. And that solo is a masterpiece
EI: Tony Dagradi?
CB: That was another Gary Valente choice. Many times, I would let the guys that I really liked choose who the other guys in the band could be or should be. I went through whatever Gary said. And Tony Dagradi was wonderful. He was in the band for a couple of years. Lives in New Orleans now. Teaches.
EI: I’m not sure if you would agree, but I feel like there is a little bit of a shift towards a horn player who plays almost more professionally well. People who can nail the changes.
CB: That wouldn’t have been me. That would have been Gary Valente. Because he’s totally responsible for Tony Dagradi. I personally would have gotten someone who could hardly read. I would do the wrong thing.
EI: But in his way, someone like Andy Sheppard is very professional, too.
CB: That’s true. He’s a smooth operator. He really is, on trio, he just pulls so much weight. He’s really great. I write for him. This is this guy I write for, for 20 years. Every time I hear a tenor, I write for him. Except for Chet Doxas, which is now competing in my imagination.
EI: I’m probably making too much of this, but the way Andy plays or Steve Slagle plays or Wolfgang Pushnig plays seems like a different way of playing than Gato Barbieri or Carlos Ward, at least in terms of basic harmonic accuracy.
CB: I don’t really have a high standard when it comes to players. Not that I don’t end up with great players. If I like ‘em or if they’re somebody’s friend, I just let them come be in the band. I can’t claim that I discovered them or anything.
EI: What about Joe Daley?
CB: Joe Daley. Boy, that’s a story. He was one person that was horrified by me in general. Embarrassed, probably, to be in my band. But stuck around anyway. One time we had a food fight. We were in a restaurant in Zurich, and the whole band had a food fight. I guess it was the big band, so it was about 20 people throwing food at each other. And Joe Daley was mortified. We’re good friends now. But at the time he let me know I was a very badly behaved person.
We found out later that he was from an island mentality. He’s from one of those islands with very traditional families, strict religious people. Very family-oriented guy. Very stiff collar, do things right. And I was the exact opposite of anyone he had every known and just stepped all over everything he believed. Now we’re great friends, I must say. But he had to put up with a lot. He had to put up with so much. And now he’s like the star of the band. He’s really turned into a great player.
EI: Earl McIntyre?
CB: Again, that was mostly friendship. I always knew Earl. He would sing songs I had written.
EI: Steve Slagle is in there.
CB: Yeah, he was my boyfriend for three years. We had a personal relationship, so that’s why he got the gig. [laughs]
EI: [laughs] He plays good with you, I have to say.
CB: Yeah. But being my boyfriend was the sole reason he was in the band.
EI: About Arturo O’Farrill, he’s gone on to be such an bandleader.
CB: Oh, that’s true, I love him.
EI: You got him to sing as well, on that one note thing.
CB: He loved it. He would sing it at the drop of a hat. Would do anything. Was an art school student. One of those guys who would paint himself in chocolate and stand on the edge of a building threatening to jump off. He was just wild. Totally wild.
EI: The next sort of period with Victor Lewis has a pretty big shift in your sound.
CB: Yeah, it was.
I guess I just liked that music better at that time in my life. Me and Steve Swallow would make jokes about it. We wanted to be on a quiet storm channel instead of the student who only likes straight-ahead bebop or something and who had a radio station only for students. We wanted to be on a national quiet storm channel. That was the stuff that was Motown inspired, definitely.
Steve and I just liked music that made you feel good. Victor Lewis used to say, “I got through my whole divorce by listening to Chaka Khan,” and we thought, wow, that’s so cool, to help somebody get through a divorce. Couldn’t we do something like that? It seems to me the world could use more music that really lifted a person up.
EI: On Sextet, there’s a famous track, “Lawns,” and Larry Willis takes a great piano solo.
CB: That style of playing was just velvet.
EI: I like hearing Larry Willis and Kenny Kirkland on your records. In a way, it’s more like having Gato or Roswell Rudd, when you get these big personalities and frame them in a different kind of way.
CB: I see, yeah. Wow. Or frame yourself in a different way, too. Like dare to this or dare to do that.
EI: Now to Fleur Carnivore and some new people that would go on to be very important. Lew Soloff is in there now.
CB: Lew Soloff is a musical creature of the top tribe. He was a real musician. I got a lot of flak for that, using a guy that had played with Blood, Sweat & Tears. That was my favorite trumpet player, and I stood up for him, for record after record.
EI: Well, he plays great with you. I actually think he sounds better with you than on his own records.
CB: Oh definitely. Oh, he had no idea what to do on his own.
He said, “People say I don’t have a style, well, that’s not true. My style is I can play everything and anything.”
I said, “That’s not a style.”
And he’d say, “Yes, it is. That’s my style. I can play anything and everything.”
So I said, “Well, you’re not going to get very far in the musical world without some kind of a defect.”
He said, “What do you mean?”
Anyway, I still will stand up for him. A true musician. Lou was all chops, but I could hear through the chops to the real music. It’s not something that disqualifies you from my book of favorite people. If you have great chops and you’re a real musician, it’s wonderful.
It’s even better than having poor chops and being a wonderful musician. Like Charlie Haden would be an example. He called himself “Whole Note Haden.” He just wants to play a whole bunch of country songs. He just wants to play one note at a time, really slowly. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but still.
Charlie and Scott LaFaro were living together when I was in LA. They were roommates, and it would be night and day. And they were both great.
Nothing means anything. Nothing proves anything. You can be totally overeducated or totally undereducated and still be useful in the world of music.
Like punk. I found punk very exciting. I myself was in a punk band. We didn’t make a commercial recording, unfortunately, but it was called Penny Cillin and the Burning Sensation. I was Penny Cillin, and the Burning Sensation was Steve Bernstein and Peter Apfelbaum and a bunch of those weird guys. We did things we didn’t know how to do and qualified for punk. That means no matter how little talent you have, you can still be a good musician.
It’s wonderful when you hear a person and know that they heard every tenor saxophone player. That must be a hard thing to be because that’s such a royal line going way back. It’s a heavy load. If you sound like you heard it all or are a continuation of it, there’s no greater honor.
But then I also like the guys that can’t play very well.
EI: The next group had Buddy Williams on drums.
CB: Oh man, he was wonderful. You know his real name is Buddy? On his passport? His parents named him Buddy. We thought that was fascinating, so we hired him. [laughs]
No, he was the Saturday Night Live drummer and I met him through Hal Wilner, who is the guy who does the ambient music on Saturday Night Live.
(Oh wow, we watched Saturday Night Live last night, and there was some wonderful stuff on it. Very funny.)
Buddy Williams was from a different world, maybe the show-biz world? But he had qualifications. He was a great drummer.
EI: He’s someone I don’t think of playing straight-ahead jazz, but he can do it, too.
CB: Another drummer, Billy Drummond, often said, you know, all I want to do is work at a lounge somewhere and just play slow. And I said, are you kidding? You’re my big band drummer. He’d say, but really, what I want to do is just go work in a club.
EI: I like that album Lost Chords.
CB: Lost Chords. Billy played himself. He could do about anything if he wanted to do it. And he wanted to do that. He was going through a divorce at the time. It was rough traveling with him. He was really sad. But he played great.
EI: What about Paolo Fresu?
CB: Andy and Steve wanted Paolo Fresu. They independently liked Paolo Fresu. When we found out that they both liked him, I thought, there’s got to be something there, so I’ll hire him. Again, my style. I would do that a lot. He was beautiful. He had a great sound, a little like Julie Tippets. That kind of a sound. A rasp. Beautiful. Beautiful sound. I heard him do a remake of a Miles Davis, I think Porgy and Bess, where he imitated Miles Davis all the way through, and I loved that album. That’s like breaking every rule there is.
EI: To close, Carla, I’d like to ask about a few non-jazz names and see if something comes to your mind. I got about seven names. Ready? Here we go. Schoenberg.
CB: Not as much as Berg or Webern. Nope. I admire what he did. But I never got that mood, like I get from Berg or Webern.
CB: My man. My man. I’d give up everything for him. Symphony of Psalms. Best piece every written. I can hear it again and again and love every note. He’s all there is. Forget about everybody else.
CB: The Fifth String Quartet is incredible. I’m not so sure about all of them, but I loved the Fifth. And there’s also the Shostakovich piece that I love, the Eighth String Quartet. Check that out. That’s pure everything. It’s wonderful.
CB: I do Brahms every day. He’s my exercise man. I do the 51 Brahms exercises every day.
EI: Do you use a metronome?
CB: No. Steve tells me I should. He says, you never get any faster. You know these exercises. You know them by memory. You don’t read them. So all you have to do is start a metronome, and every day get a little bit faster. And I just can’t do it.
EI: You got a piece…
CB: …“More Brahms.” Steve named that. He said to me, “It’s all Brahms. Just more Brahms.” But no, I’m not much of a Brahms listener, otherwise.
EI: I read that you liked Charles Wuorinen.
CB: I still do. Maybe he’s Stravinsky but updated a little.
EI: I couldn’t believe when you spoke about “Blue Bamboula” because I thought I was the only person that loved this piece.
CB: Oh my god, I know one more person. Dave Douglas. We are the three. We have to start a club. Nobody else has ever heard it.
EI: That piece is very special, “Blue Bamboula.” Do you play it yourself on the piano?
CB: No, I wouldn’t even try. But I also just love Garrick Ohlsson so much. Whatever he plays.
EI: Here’s the last name: Carl Ruggles: You did his hymn “Exaltation.”
CB: Well, I loved the hymn.
EI: To me, that really sounds like a Carla Bley piece.
CB: Does it really? That’s why I like it, maybe. Wow. I think it’s perfect. I used that. We played the hymn live with my band, and that piece sounded so great.
EI: Well, I think that was it, Carla. Thank you for your time, and of course thank you for your music.
CB: That was very interesting, thinking of all those people in the past.
Carla Bley Extravaganza:
1.) A Lifetime of Carla Bley (at the New Yorker Culture Desk)
3.) Carla, Carla, Carla, Carla, Carla (guide to the discography)
4.) Accomplishing Escalator over the Hill (by Carla Bley)