There’s a radio of some mysterious origin, buried deep in the brain of 80-year-old jazz maven Carla Bley, that’s always on.
It’s unclear from where it originates — her family of origin, perhaps, given that her father was a piano teacher and church choir leader; or the time she spent as a cigarette girl hawking wares to customers at New York’s iconic Birdland jazz club. But it’s always broadcasting, Bley told The Daily Times recently.
“Something is always, constantly playing in my head, and Steve Swallow (Bley’s longtime partner and a renowned jazz bassist) is the same way,” said Bley, who makes her first trip to East Tennessee for one of her extremely rare North American performances next week for Knoxville’s annual Big Ears Festival. “Sometimes, we’ll say to each other, ‘What are you hearing?’ But it goes away when you’re working on your own music.”
Composing is something Bley — considered an innovator of the free jazz movement 1960s, although she’s more often amused to read such musings than she is honored, since it was “only one year of (my) life, and I seem to not use that kind of music anymore,” — has done since she was 5 years old and asked her father to show her how to write a song. In her mind, she can still see the short notebook, wider than it was tall, and the blank pages filled with blue lines.
“He told me how each note is a little black dot, and if you put it on a line halfway down the stave, it’ll be a certain note, and on another line, you put another dot for another note, so I filled a page with dots,” she said. “I was trying to be a composer at 5 years old, and all he said to me was, ‘That’s too many notes; take most of them away.’ I didn’t keep it, but I can see it in my mind. I just put the pencil marks on the blue lines and just tried to fit them so they looked like a nice design.”
It was simply titled “My First Piece,” and it was a portent of things to come. At 17, she and a friend hitchhiked across the country to New York, where she slept in Grand Central Station and other places before earning enough money at Birdland to pay rent on a small apartment. It wasn’t a glamorous job, but it was the stuff of mobster movies, and a number of famous faces in the jazz and organized crime worlds came through Birdland while she worked there.
“I carried cigarettes around my neck on a tray, and people during the concert would come up to me and say, ‘I would like a pack of Luckys,’ please — and I would say, ‘Wait until John Lewis has finished his solo; you can have it on the out chorus,’” she said with a laugh. “I would be so rude, and I hardly sold any at all! But I learned everything there. That was my education, because I didn’t have much of an education otherwise. I dropped out of school at 14 or 15, and I went to trade school, hoping to maybe become a dishwasher, but it didn’t work out.”
The Count Basie Orchestra held a Monday night residency at Birdland in those days, and aside from Charlie “Bird” Parker himself, Bley saw and heard all of the jazz legends who performed there at one time or another. Their music went into her mental jukebox, and when she wasn’t working, she started composing. In 1957, she married jazz pianist Paul Bley; although the marriage didn’t last, Bley himself encouraged her to keep writing, and throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Bley became a mesmerizing creative force in the jazz scene, bent over the keys of a piano, her wild mane of hair shrouding her face, coaxing sounds from it that are perhaps best encapsulated on her 1971 magnum opus, “Escalator Over the Hill.” She continues to be more popular overseas than she is in her own country, however, which is why U.S. performances are a rare treat. But even in Europe, being a woman in a male-dominated musical field was, in those early days, a challenge.
“From the very beginning, when I used to play with my big band in Europe, they would throw bottles, they would throw fruit, they would tell me to go home to the kitchen,” she said. “On my very first tour, they rocked the bus and tried to turn it over when we were parked at a festival ground, but they couldn’t. Now, they’ve gotten a little more polite; I think what they do now to protect themselves is not come to my concerts.”
Like many artists, her self-deprecating sense of humor is both tongue-in-cheek and completely serious; at the age of 80, she’s still her own harshest critic, and even listening back to her old material — which she did in preparation for a Thursday, March 23, Big Ears Festival performance with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra (she’ll perform the following night with her trio, which includes Swallow and Andy Sheppard) — can be a frustrating experience, especially when she always finds something she would have done differently.
At the end of the day, all she can do, she said, is to write — which she does every day — and perform, and surround herself with the sources of pleasure that speak to her heart. And are, of course, set to a soundtrack that only Bley can hear.
“I love it when I take a good solo; that’s my biggest thrill, but it hardly ever happens,” she said. “I love it when the other guys play well, and that happens a lot. I’m so excited, though, to be coming to Knoxville and playing songs from the big band era that I wrote. America is a hard place for someone like me to play; usually you get stuck on either coast.”
“You can always play Chicago and Detroit, but you usually have to go to San Francisco or something, so this is incredible for me to be able to play somewhere that far from an ocean.”