Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz
Pianist Paul Bley has a reputation for complexity and contrariness, which this all-too-short book will bear out, and perhaps to some degree explain. The book begins with another child in his neighborhood telling Bley the startling news that he was adopted (the whole truth is much more convoluted), and one can only wonder if he didn’t somehow compensate by dealing out shocking surprises throughout his later life. Not that there are many opportunities for such armchair psychology in this terse narrative, which is as minimalistic, quirkily humorous and as strangely removed as Bley’s best playing. A lot of the time, he seems to be filling in just enough chronology to tie together a series of anecdotes. But what spectacular tales they are: being hired to play opposite Louis Armstrong by a club owner who wanted a band that would turn the house; listening to Sun Ra explain to a Wall Street grant writer that Ra’s philosophy might make it impossible for the Jazz Composers Guild to accept the financial help they were soliciting; or smuggling Annette Peacock and her newborn child out of an Italian hospital to avoid paying the bill. Particularly interesting is his account of the legendary gig at the Hillcrest Club in L.A. with what would become the Ornette Coleman Quartet. And the chapter about Sonny Rollins is absolutely hilarious. Bley’s musical opinions are strong and make provocative reading, whether he’s relating his fascinating ideas about improvisation, assessing figures like Coleman or Jimmy Giuffre, or airing views that are, in my estimation, hopelessly wrong-headed, as when he builds up Oscar Peterson at Bud Powell’s expense. One has to admire the chutzpah required to baldly assert that the Indian classical tradition has been stagnant for over 1000 years. And it’s hard to follow some of his thinking, like the repeated statements that everyone expected composers, not improvisers, to lead the way into the new jazz because that was what had happened in the past (Parker? Armstrong?). Bley also doesn’t mind talking one minute about using electric instruments as if they represent the inevitable wave of the future (a version of the rather mainstream misconception that new machines are synonymous with human progress) and the next about why he has played acoustic piano for most of his career. But it’s all a reflection of Bley, whose whole complex personality seems to come through in this extremely readable account. One does wish for more detail—about the day-to-day of the N.Y.C. scene of the ’50s, for instance—but then again, a good act should always leave you wanting more.