Carla Bley: On Her Own

Jazz and Non-Jazz Musicians

FRANK J. OTERI: You are unique. I don’t know what to call the music you do except to say that it’s great. Is it jazz? Is it fusion? Is it classical music? Is it progressive rock? Is it cabaret? Is it avant-garde music?

CARLA BLEY: It doesn’t matter what it is. I’m just a person who writes for what it is. It’s written for jazz musicians. I don’t consider myself a jazz musician at all. I’m not spontaneous. I take a lot of time thinking about everything and when I finally get an idea during a solo, the piece is over. So, I’m really slow. I’m not a jazz musician; I wish I were. I’m just writing for them, as opposed to writing for classical musicians, or as opposed to writing for cabaret or the other things you mentioned. Those are not the people I write for.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you have. You’ve written for Ursula Oppens, for Speculum Musicae, the Houston Symphony

CARLA BLEY: That was insignificant and a long time ago and unsuccessful.

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve also written for Jack Bruce and Linda Ronstadt.

CARLA BLEY: Again, long time ago. But it’s true. I suppose if you went back there… God! Scratch everything I thought. [laughs] I don’t think I’m anything.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you’ve written primarily for jazz musicians, so that word does have a meaning for you. What is a jazz musician?

CARLA BLEY: You don’t have to write everything down. You can leave a huge hole and they just fill it right up. It’s more economical, time-wise… When I started, I used to write this tiny snippet of an idea and then they would play free for a half an hour and then they’d play the snippet again at the end. And that was my piece; I got the credit for it and the royalties and everything.

FRANK J. OTERI: OK. So you use this word jazz, but the music you write defies labels. Do you think labels ultimately mean anything to listeners?

CARLA BLEY: I could talk about that but I wouldn’t have anything interesting to say. It would be something like: Well, people use music to identify themselves. Someone likes to think of himself as a bluegrass-type person and so that person listens to bluegrass. But that’s not a musical answer. That’s just sociological and not my forte.

FRANK J. OTERI: So what would you say is the ideal listener for your music?

CARLA BLEY: Someone who likes something that’s not entirely correct. I’m not the listener’s cup of coffee or Coca-Cola. I’m more like the listener’s cup of pinhead gunmetal tea. And not a lot of people like pinhead gunmetal. So I understand that the coffee lovers are going to go somewhere else and I’m going to get this very small amount of people who like really weird things.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I haven’t had pinhead gunmetal, but I love Chinese special gunpowder tea, are they related? [laughs]

CARLA BLEY: [laughs] That’s probably why you’re here!

FRANK J. OTERI: You don’t consider yourself a jazz musician but certainly as a musician you’ve recorded numerous solos on albums on the piano, and on the organ; you’ve also played saxophone and you’ve sung.

CARLA BLEY: Those things happened one hour out of 25 years. Just because they’re recorded, it doesn’t mean I do them. When I played saxophone on my daughter’s recordings, I picked it up a half-hour before the session and tried not to get a blister or something and then played it and put the saxophone away for five years. It’s just a joke. And the singing thing was just a joke. The one time I sang on a record seriously was because the trombone player couldn’t play the melody right. I had this great track and there was no melody on top so I just pitched in. I didn’t realize that would make me a singer.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you sing all over Escalator Over The Hill.

CARLA BLEY: That was 35 years ago! I wouldn’t think of doing it now. When you’re starting, you don’t even know who you are at that stage. You’re doing everything. And you don’t know what’s dangerous and what you don’t want to be known as doing. You try everything. You do everything. And you’re very un-fastidious about it and that is what I was. Rock and roll. My God, I was in a rock and roll band thirty years ago or something, I can’t believe it, but just one, c’mon. It was six months. I just did it ’cause it was fun. It wasn’t really a musical thing. And I like Jack Bruce a lot. I liked his records. So I did it. But I wouldn’t do that today.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s great to hear you say “fun,” because that’s a feeling I get from all of your music, from the earliest stuff through to what you’re doing these days. There are a lot of really serious ideas going on, and often a lot of experiments going on, but it’s always fun to listen to.

CARLA BLEY: Thank you. I like that. I do like to have fun, and when I’m writing and something happens that’s interesting or humorous, I have fun. At that moment, I laugh and it makes me feel good and I think I’ll keep that in and maybe other people will feel good too.

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