Carla Bley: On Her Own

Composing vs. Performing

FRANK J. OTERI: To go back in time again, back to the founding of the Jazz Composers Guild and subsequently the Jazz Composers Orchestra… From very early on in your involvement with the music, you identified yourself as a composer first. What led to that decision in your head? When did you know that you were a composer?

CARLA BLEY: Well, I never was a player. I’m still not a player. I’ve never had to decide between am I this or that? I’ve never been player. I’m working on it. I practice every day. I was always just a composer so there was no battle there to figure that one out.

FRANK J. OTERI: At the time having a collective for jazz “composers” was somewhat unusual. In jazz, the music was identified by who the performers are. It was a very brave entrepreneurial act as a composer.

CARLA BLEY: That wasn’t me yet. That was mostly Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon. Those were the guys who were the policy makers for the Jazz Composers Guild. I was just lucky to be sittin’ there. They had to let me in ’cause I was a composer and I had a band at that time called the Jazz Composers Orchestra, so that’s how I got in. But I just sat there and tried not to make a wave. Tried not to make Sun Ra get mad at me. It was after that that I started taking things in to my own hands, deciding I want to do this and that, but at the time I was just sitting there learning from Cecil and Bill how to do this. And I liked the idea of anarchy at that time.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, certainly, one of your earliest exposures on record was not as a leader of your own group, but as a sideman and the arranger for Charlie Haden‘s Liberation Music Orchestra. You were writing music that other people played on their recordings. As a composer for the last 30 years, you’ve been working mostly with ensembles that you have led yourself. How is that different from someone else playing your music?

CARLA BLEY: If I’m present, there’s no difference. If I’m not present, it can be horrible. I know it’s an honor when someone takes a piece of yours and puts their own take on it; I’m seldom happy with it ’cause I’m a control freak. But if I’m there on some sessions, and their playing my music but it’s not my band, it’ll turn out the way I want it to turn out. It’s when I’m not there that I get worried.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s an interesting corollary to what you were saying before about your decision to work primarily with jazz musicians who pretty much will have their own identity no matter what they’re playing. Whereas the goal of a classical musician’s training is to reproduce the composer’s intentions as faithfully as possible to bring out the composer’s identity rather than their own. Ironically, so often if you write a piece for a classical ensemble, they’ll rehearse it twice and maybe you’ll hear it and think, “Is that what I wrote?”

CARLA BLEY: Exactly. That’s happened to me too. Oh yeah! So it’s more than what’s on the page. It would be nice to study the page to be able to really figure out how to notate things so that people’s triplets would all sound the way you wanted them to… Or people’s eighth notes. In the jazz world, the difference between one and another person’s eighth notes is tremendous, and there’s a lot of snobbery about it. If you don’t have the right kind of eighth notes, you don’t belong at all. I’ve only dipped into the classical world, I wrote that Fancy Chamber Music album, and I’ve worked with maybe five or six different chamber groups around the world. And if I’m there, it turns out perfect. They play great. But if I’m not there… Why don’t they look at the metronome markings, give me a break! And even the jazz groups. I remember the Carnegie Hall Jazz Group whatever it’s called, it’s probably called orchestra…

FRANK J. OTERI: Jon Faddis‘s group?

CARLA BLEY: Yeah. They played a piece of mine. Two pieces. And I was too cool to be there, you know. I wasn’t gonna go. It was called “Women in Jazz.” I wouldn’t think of going. (I forgot to answer your question!) I wouldn’t think of sitting in the audience there as a woman and hearing a “Women in Jazz” concert. So I didn’t go. I was only at one of the rehearsals for a half-hour; I couldn’t be bothered. And I heard a recording of it after. The tempo was like forty markings off and the guys all got lost in the middle of one of the pieces and it was the just awful, the most horrible, horrible thing. ‘Cause, obviously, I left and he never rehearsed it again… He rehearsed the music of the smart people who stayed and said, “Wait a minute, that’s not right.” or “My piece, my piece, c’mon!” I didn’t do that. I just left. I always do that. You can’t do that no matter what kind of music you write. You have to be there, ’cause notation isn’t a sure thing yet.

FRANK J. OTERI: So…

CARLA BLEY: …I’ve got one more thing to say! I’ve just heard a collection of player piano music where the player did not have to be there. And exactly where the player played those notes, the holes got punched in, and it sound like the person’s there. So that’s the answer. You would never believe what this is. It’s the Zelinsky Collection from the Cliff House in San Francisco. It’s not just player piano…

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, the Musee Mecanique. I love that place. And you’ve titled one of my favorite records of yours Musique Mecanique.

CARLA BLEY: That’s where I got the idea. I thought from my memory was that all those machines were broken. You’d put in your nickel and the bow wouldn’t go across the strings. It would go across the wood at the end instead. And the cymbals: the two hands would miss. And that was what I loved about it. That it was totally wrong and broken. But I just got this CD from my cousin who remembered that I used to go there all the time, and I played it all the way through and the music is excellent. It’s like some human being played that music. Do you know the mechanical process?

FRANK J. OTERI: I saw a whole demonstration of how mechanical instruments work when I was at the Nationaal Museum in Utrecht, which is one of the world’s largest collections of musical automata. So this is interesting that you say that you’d like to get your music across this way. You’ve never worked with electronic instruments that much. You’ve used a synthesizer on some of the early records, though not in a long time. You’ve never done an album by yourself alone in the studio. It seems that for you it’s always about people.

CARLA BLEY: Oh, I don’t like people. That’s not why I do it. I use people ’cause I have to. They add so much to the expression. I wouldn’t want to be that expressive on stage. I prefer to keep a low profile. My trombone player could play five notes I wrote on a page and give it 5000% more importance than I could if I played it.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s so funny to hear you say this. I’ve never heard you live and I really want to. But from all the albums I’ve heard and your record covers and promo photos and all the photos you usually include of the recording sessions in the booklets that come with your recordings, I’ve always gotten the sense that you exude so much personality when you’re playing or at least you seem to be always having such a good time.

CARLA BLEY: No, isn’t that strange. Maybe if there are a lot of people on the stage. I’m listening to them and they’re knocking me out. I’ve got a great seat right on stage. But I don’t feel that I’ve creating that excitement, it’s the guys I choose. It is me in a far-fetched way since I chose these guys and their playing their hearts out. But that’s not what I look to do. I like to be quiet and be by myself and sit at the desk or the piano alone.