Paul Bley passed away a little over a year ago on 3 January, 2016. However, a postscript, at least for me, which is: Paul Bley wrote an autobiography entitled Paul Bley: Stopping Time And The Transformation of Jazz. It’s been out of print for a long time. It’s long since acquired collector’s status. Copies if and as they can be found tend to be expensive. Getting a hold of the book for all practical purposes has been impossible.
Somehow, I looked up Paul Bley on Amazon’s Kindle store. Lo and behold there it was, unexpurgated treasure: Paul Bley: Stopping Time and the Transformation of Jazz. The book sought by collectors, listed on internet sites for exorbitant prices, and now at Amazon as a Kindle download.
It’s a compelling book for anyone interested in jazz, the piano, music in general, or iconoclasts. Paul Bley talks about his formative years going, for example, back into the late 1940s when he was an understudy of sorts for Oscar Peterson. Understudy in the sense that when OP moved to New York City, he recommended Paul Bley as the pianist to take over his weekly gig in Toronto.
It’s fascinating when Paul Bley mentions Oscar Peterson, and also when he talks about his collaboration with Bill Evans on George Russell recording. When speaking about both of those pianists he lets the reader know the high esteem in which he held those two pianists.
Interesting as well, he even refers to Oscar Peterson’s art as three-handed pianism. Listen to some of Paul Bley’s recordings in the mid-1950s and perhaps he’s the one who, on the one hand, most captured the spirit of Oscar Peterson without, on the other hand, imitating or duplicating his style.
Maybe the most captivating part of the book are passages where Paul Bley explains exactly why he sought transformation in his music and jazz and how he went about it. He comes across in his explanations as a modernist with the idea that there were logical evolutions in jazz.
Thus the music he, Paul Bley, wanted to make was what he saw as the next logical step. That’s an interesting point: It’s also an idea another great musical modernist, Arnold Schoenberg, was obsessed with— the next logical step.
But it’s not like Paul Bley was the only jazz musician interested in that idea. Read about Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker, or John Coltrane. The idea of stylistic transformation was a common theme. It’s there to be heard in, literally, a million different contexts.
It’s in part why Bill Evans left Miles Davis’ group. He had an idea of the piano trio as being more than a piano accompanied by bass and drums. Rather, Bill Evans sought to have an equal dialogue between those three instruments.
Here are examples that document Paul Bley and his transformational style:
- Footloose from the early 1960s. Atonality is in the air.
- Newk Meets Hawk with Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins, from that same period. Bley’s solo on All the things you are—it’s unique.
- Open To Love, solo piano, on ECM from the 1970’s that includes the recording of Closer where pulse is absent.
- Ornette Coleman Quintet, Live at the Hillcrest from the late 1950’s
- Introducing Paul Bley with Charles Mingus and Art Blakey, from the early 1950’s. The title of the recording could be In which Paul Bley demonstrates the art of bebop.
- Paul Bley And Chet Baker, from the 1980’s
Paul Bley also offers fascinating conjectures as to why some jazz musicians behaved as outlandishly as they did. One such anecdote being that Charlie Parker,, to demonstrate the depth of this ability, purposely showed up hours late to his gigs.
Paul Bley explains that when he, Charlie Parker, went on stage, he believed and wanted to test the strength of his music. Could it and he overcome the unfulfilled time the audience experienced while waiting for him?
Is that true about Charlie Parker? Who knows?
The second half
Unfortunately, while much of the first part of the book is packed with fascinating ideas and how they arose, the second half of of the book falls into the category of I did this and then I did that.
It’s possible, a great editor helped him to clarify an overall theme in the first half of the book. Or perhaps Paul Bley was just more interested in writing about his formative years and lost interest in the book project as he went along. Or maybe, those are conjectures that really have nothing to do with anything other than my reading of the book!
Regardless, there’s a stunning discography after the book’s text. It’s stunning because it demonstrates the diverse contexts in which Paul Bley worked. Has there anyone else in jazz who played and recorded with Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, and Ornette Coleman, to name only a small sampling of some of the most influential musicians in jazz?
Why Paul Bley Matters
Paul Bley: Stopping Time and the Transformation of Jazz is essential reading if you’re interested in the history of jazz and also if you want to hear first-hand stories about many of the great musicians who were active in the mid-to-late 20th century. Here’s another blog post I wrote about him shortly after he passed away.