№ 1

Paul Bley

An excerpt from the biography

—Point of Departure

Tak­en from my still-in-progress biog­ra­phy of Cana­di­an pianist Paul Bley. This piece, pub­lished in Point of Depar­ture, includes two mar­vel­lous Sy John­son pho­tographs – includ­ing a rarely seen trio, with bassist Gary Pea­cock and drum­mer Pete La Roca, at the Five Spot on a Sun­day after­noon in 1963.

Even now, after all these years, Gary Pea­cock still isn’t sure how Paul Bley got his number.

It was late 1958, or 1959. After a youth spent study­ing a vari­ety of instru­ments, and a stint over­seas in the Unit­ed States Army, Pea­cock was back in Los Ange­les try­ing to make his way as a musi­cian – this time, as a bassist. He’d been a late starter. He was twen­ty when he picked up the instru­ment for the first time; he’d been at it now for bare­ly four years.

You work­ing Fri­day night?” Bley asked.

His tele­phone call had come out of the blue. It was about a job: a duo, Fri­day night, at a cof­fee­house on Sepul­ve­da Boule­vard. It paid five dollars.

I thought, Wow, five bucks – that’s bet­ter than two!” Pea­cock remem­bered. “I would have worked with the car­ni­val. I would have done any­thing just to stay alive.”

He knew very lit­tle about the pianist, a Cana­di­an, three years his senior. In those days, Peacock’s turf was the Los Ange­les main­stream. He revered bassist Red Mitchell, and count­ed him as a friend. Pea­cock hadn’t yet come across the new music – being played most­ly in pri­vate rehearsals and infor­mal jam ses­sions around town – a world Bley him­self had only recent­ly dis­cov­ered, ful­ly formed, through band­mates at the Hill­crest Club, his long­time gig in a large­ly African-Amer­i­can sec­tion of Los Ange­les. Pea­cock hadn’t been to the Wash­ing­ton Boule­vard club that fall, when Bley had famous­ly invit­ed alto sax­o­phon­ist Ornette Cole­man and trum­peter Don Cher­ry into his band – a quin­tet that already includ­ed bassist Char­lie Haden and drum­mer Bil­ly Hig­gins (Coleman’s future rhythm sec­tion). This would be the saxophonist’s only pub­lic engage­ment of 1958.

Still, Pea­cock was keen to make an impres­sion Fri­day night. He remem­bered get­ting to the gig ear­ly, pulling the cov­er off his bass, set­ting it down next to the piano. It was an old, unfor­tu­nate upright – and com­plete­ly out of tune; it would be a strug­gle to tune his bass. He went to the bar and ordered some­thing to drink.

I’m sit­ting there and all of a sud­den I heard the piano: somebody’s check­ing out keys on the piano,” Pea­cock said.

And I looked over and there’s this guy there with a hat on and an over­coat. He keeps punch­ing the piano like this,” Pea­cock said, imi­tat­ing the stranger’s motions, strik­ing each key, one by one. “I bet­ter let him know that there’s going to be this music so he can find a place to sit. So, I went over and I said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but we’re going to be play­ing some music in a while. You might want to find a …’ He looked around and he said, ‘Gary?’ And I said, ‘Yeah?’ He said, ‘I’m Paul. Let’s play.’ ”

Six decades lat­er, sit­ting at the kitchen table in his Olive­bridge, New York home, Pea­cock breaks into ter­rif­ic, I‑still-can’t‑believe-this laugh­ter. “You know ‘These Fool­ish Things’?” Bley asked. “Yeah, yeah,” Pea­cock replied. The pianist quick­ly barked out the key: E.

Pea­cock paused. “And so I think … E? He must have meant E‑flat? Nobody plays it in E.

So we start­ed to play. And I remem­ber think­ing after the first bar, Yeah, he meant E‑flat. So I moved imme­di­ate­ly and played it in the key of E‑flat. Imme­di­ate­ly, he turned around and said, ‘E!’ So he’s play­ing the melody and the changes in one key and I’m a half-step away play­ing the roots of chords in anoth­er one and it’s like …”

Pea­cock stopped. He scrunched up his face: the music was excru­ci­at­ing. “And the piano’s out of tune! It was, like, holy shit. It just didn’t work. But then … it did start to work. Some­thing was shift­ing in the … ooh, that was inter­est­ing … oh, this is inter­est­ing!” Pea­cock again began to laugh. They kept going, right to the end of the song.

That was my first intro­duc­tion,” he said, knock­ing the table­top with each word, as if to add an excla­ma­tion mark to his mem­o­ry. “It was like: Who is this guy? I mean, yeah, I’d heard some­thing about him, but this was pret­ty out.”


Irre­sistible, I‑still-can’t‑believe-this sto­ries have fol­lowed Paul Bley around since he was a kid grow­ing up in Mon­tre­al. Usu­al­ly, he was the mas­ter teller of his own tales. At his death, in Jan­u­ary 2016 at the age of eighty-three, he was wide­ly hailed as one of the most influ­en­tial pianists in jazz his­to­ry – and, despite a stiff argu­ment from Glenn Gould’s and Oscar Peterson’s con­stituents, per­haps the great­est Cana­di­an to ever play the instru­ment. He was also – by his own admis­sion – a life­long hus­tler, an unabashed self-pro­mot­er. One lat­er-life friend, pianist Frank Kim­brough, called him “a racon­teur for the ages.” Stop­ping Time, Bley’s 1999 auto­bi­og­ra­phy, writ­ten with anoth­er Cana­di­an, author and musi­cian David Lee, was filled with per­fect­ly formed vignettes, many of which he’d told and retold for years – find­ing Char­lie Park­er in a Man­hat­tan base­ment in the win­ter of ‘53, invit­ing him up to the Jazz Work­shop in Mon­tre­al, then nev­er let­ting him out of his sight (until after the gig and the sax­o­phon­ist had safe­ly board­ed a flight back to New York); or per­haps dri­ving non­stop out of Los Ange­les in August 1959, arriv­ing in the Berk­shire hills, on the New Eng­land side of the New York-Mass­a­chu­setts state line, just in time to sit in on the last tune on the last night of the fabled Lenox School of Jazz. The sto­ries were inex­haustible; his alle­giance to the facts was often open for debate. Stop­ping Time dared you to sep­a­rate the artist from the art. Short­ly after the book was pub­lished, Bley sug­gest­ed that an auto­bi­og­ra­phy is sim­ply “a col­lec­tion of self-serv­ing anecdotes.”

In his telling, Paul Bley’s musi­cal life may have seemed over­large – but in many ways, it real­ly was. He grew up when giants walked the earth: his first record­ing, at 20, came out of that Jazz Work­shop per­for­mance with Char­lie Park­er; his first as a leader, nine months lat­er, fea­tured bassist Charles Min­gus and drum­mer Art Blakey – as side­men – on Min­gus’ label, Debut Records. In sub­se­quent years, he would gig with sax­o­phon­ists Ben Web­ster and Lester Young and in 1954 he would share an extend­ed New York engage­ment with Louis Armstrong’s band at Basin Street East.

But to meet the pianist in the late fifties or ear­ly six­ties – as Gary Pea­cock did – was some­thing alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent. In those ear­ly days, after he’d encoun­tered Ornette Cole­man and Don Cher­ry for the first time, as he’d begun to digest, in earnest, their rad­i­cal new music, he devot­ed him­self to its rev­e­la­tions. He’d had inti­ma­tions of the next step before: hear­ing Lennie Tristano’s band when he first land­ed in New York in 1950, then lat­er, at the pianist’s pri­vate Sat­ur­day night ses­sions, among the most exper­i­men­tal music of the time; or inter­mit­tent­ly, in his freely-impro­vised duets with Cana­di­an trum­peter Her­bie Spanier, most notably in Los Ange­les in 1957 when they per­formed at the Crescen­do, Gene Norman’s leg­endary Sun­set Boule­vard night­club. These were musi­cians look­ing past bebop, towards a new­er, freer form of mod­ern jazz. Cole­man and Cher­ry were going even fur­ther. Their exam­ple stuck: they point­ed the way forward.

How the piano dealt with this sit­u­a­tion was com­plete­ly up to me,” Bley wrote in Stop­ping Time. “This was one of the three times in my life that I pos­sessed infor­ma­tion that nobody on the plan­et had as a key­board play­er. I was unique in hav­ing to deal with trans­lat­ing that music.”

The sit­u­a­tion thrilled him; he admit­ted to being daunt­ed by it as well. “Hav­ing a piece of infor­ma­tion that no one else on the plan­et has is very excit­ing, but in ret­ro­spect it can be dan­ger­ous, and my mot­to now is I would pre­fer to be sec­ond or third rather than be first. First is the hard way.”

And so, how did he pro­ceed? After the Hill­crest Club, Bley wrote in Stop­ping Time, he “head­ed down the road look­ing for oppor­tu­ni­ties to sit in, to see how all this relat­ed to music in Cal­i­for­nia in 1958.” There was a short-lived band that includ­ed a local teenage vibra­phon­ist, Bob­by Hutch­er­son. Some­time dur­ing this stretch he met Gary Pea­cock. Any record­ings he made dur­ing this peri­od haven’t sur­vived; very lit­tle has been writ­ten either. After dri­ving to Lenox that sum­mer, Bley set­tled in Man­hat­tan for good, or at least until he moved upstate, to Cher­ry Val­ley, more than two decades later.

Being on the band­stand with Paul Bley in those days was a sin­gu­lar – some­times sear­ing – event. The spir­it of Peacock’s sto­ry is repeat­ed, over and over again: Bley was often inscrutable, ellip­ti­cal, won­drous­ly pro­fi­cient, and near­ly always out of reach. His entire approach was sui gener­is. With­out say­ing a word, he could unmoor an accom­plished musi­cian – forc­ing him to re-exam­ine the foun­da­tions of his craft. He might call a song, recon­fig­ure it straight away, or flip it upside down; the next time, he might not even call a tune at all.

I think when he came to New York [in 1959], he real­ly just was begin­ning to absorb all of what he’d gleaned from his expe­ri­ence with Ornette,” observed arranger, orches­tra­tor, and pianist Sy John­son, who met Bley in Los Ange­les in the sum­mer of 1957. John­son, an accom­plished jour­nal­ist and pho­tog­ra­ph­er as well, is respon­si­ble for many of the now icon­ic images of Bley, includ­ing the cov­er pho­tographs to both his ESP-Disk record­ings, Bar­rage (1964) and Clos­er (1965).

He was try­ing to find an inde­pen­dent approach to the music that equaled the free­dom that Ornette felt,” John­son said, then not­ed that, inter­est­ing­ly, Bley nev­er aban­doned stan­dard songs. “He was try­ing to find a way to get into that no man’s land that Ornette inhab­it­ed so effort­less­ly. Of course, Ornette had his own code, his own laws – he was pret­ty orga­nized. And the guys who played with him knew Ornette’s point of view about play­ing the music. But Paul nev­er gave any­body that lux­u­ry of doing that.”

Off the band­stand, he might be vol­u­ble. (“Paul Bley is the most opin­ion­at­ed per­son I have ever known,” wrote Car­la Borg – soon to be Car­la Bley – in the lin­er notes to Solemn Med­i­ta­tion, her partner’s 1957 album.) On the band­stand, he could be prac­ti­cal­ly mute. When bassist Steve Swal­low met Bley for the first time, in the hours before a trio con­cert at Bard Col­lege in Novem­ber 1959, he asked if there was any music he might look at before­hand. Bley said no. Swal­low, 19, then in his sec­ond year at Yale (a Latin major), had dri­ven up to Annan­dale-on-Hud­son, New York that after­noon for the gig.

So I asked him, ‘What would we be play­ing?’ hop­ing that he’d kind of give me a list of tunes,” Swal­low remem­bered. “And he said very terse­ly, ‘I don’t know’ and kind of left it at that. I thought that was extra­or­di­nary. I’d nev­er worked for a leader who wasn’t kind of overea­ger to pre­pare me as best he could for an utter­ly unre­hearsed per­for­mance. But here was Paul doing the exact oppo­site, rebuff­ing every attempt I made to have any idea what was going to happen.

By the time we actu­al­ly hit the band­stand, I was in a tizzy. I had nev­er before got­ten up in front of what seemed like a huge crowd to me; it was prob­a­bly a few hun­dred Bard stu­dents, but it seemed like an end­less sea of peo­ple. I was up on this band­stand with no idea what I was going to do. This had nev­er hap­pened before. I had nev­er faced a con­cert with­out an idea of what even the first song was to be. And as I recall, Paul did what he has often done over the years. We got to the band­stand and he sim­ply sat at the piano, very com­posed and still and silent. This did noth­ing but increase my anx­i­ety by leaps and bounds. Here we were, stand­ing in front of an audi­ence, doing noth­ing – and, again, this was some­thing I had nev­er expe­ri­enced before.”

It was, to both Swal­low and Pea­cock, an unfor­get­table first impres­sion. It altered their lives for­ev­er. In Swallow’s case, he fin­ished the per­for­mance – just three songs – and drove back to his Con­necti­cut dor­mi­to­ry lat­er that day. Ear­ly in the new year, he quit school, moved to Man­hat­tan, and, unan­nounced, made his way to Paul and Car­la Bley’s tiny East Ninth Street apart­ment. “I just kind of pre­sent­ed myself at Paul and Carla’s doorstep – just knocked on the door and said, ‘Your bass play­er is here,’ ” Swal­low remem­bered. “And to their cred­it they wel­comed me in and accept­ed me and I began work­ing with Paul imme­di­ate­ly, play­ing duo with him in the cof­fee­hous­es.” For Pea­cock, he soon dis­cov­ered Coleman’s music (inad­ver­tent­ly, through one of his bass stu­dents) and, by 1962, when Bley called again – this time, to join a record date with trum­peter Don Ellis – he, too, was ready for New York. That win­ter, he shipped his bass and drove east. Paul Bley was the first per­son he called when he got to town.


This new music often entered the world in wild­ly uneven con­di­tions. That late fifties ecosys­tem – of cof­fee­hous­es, bars, night­clubs, and lofts – in Los Ange­les and then in New York, was espe­cial­ly fer­tile. For a time, venues could be remark­ably open-mind­ed; at first, they weren’t cowed by “free music,” as it was soon called. But there were lim­its. Tiny, indif­fer­ent, even hos­tile audi­ences (espe­cial­ly in bars fur­ther afield) were not uncom­mon. The pay might be poor, for the door (with­out a guar­an­teed min­i­mum), or non-exis­tent. Pianists were often faced with tru­ly des­per­ate instru­ments: bro­ken-down uprights were a pro­fes­sion­al hazard.

This became Paul Bley’s nat­ur­al ter­rain. “I’m sure if you’ve talked to a bunch of peo­ple about Paul that it’s come up that he loved eccen­tric instru­ments,” Steve Swal­low said. “He loved instru­ments with foibles. You know in the cir­cles we were trav­el­ing in in those days we were play­ing an end­less suc­ces­sion of bare­ly main­tained, out-of-tune pianos. And Paul just took delight in the eccen­tric­i­ties of all the pianos we were encountering.”

Bassist Barre Phillips, who met Bley in Green­wich Vil­lage in the autumn of 1962, still remem­bers the only gig they played togeth­er in those days, a quar­tet with trum­peter Alan Short­er and drum­mer Robert Pat­ter­son (before he became Rashied Ali). “This piano was clapped-out, man. It had at least six notes that were bro­ken. The key was there but it didn’t do any­thing, the ham­mer was bro­ken off or what­ev­er it was. This old upright. He man­aged to play that gig with­out using those notes. He did not touch those bro­ken keys. We were impro­vis­ing (and some­times wild­ly!) and my jaw was falling down. I thought, How on earth could you do that? It’s, like, all of a sud­den I’ve only got three strings to play on and it sounds just like a four-string bass.”

Bley wasn’t always so accom­mo­dat­ing. Bill Smith, then art direc­tor of Coda mag­a­zine in Toron­to, on one of his ear­ly trips to New York, remem­bered meet­ing the pianist at the Five Spot. Bley was slat­ed to play with Charles Min­gus’ band. “He wouldn’t play – because the piano was so out of tune!” Smith said. “I thought that any­one who would dare to say no to Min­gus would prob­a­bly be killed right on the spot. But they just played with­out him. Paul just came back down [off the band­stand]. The piano was terrible.”

In his lat­er years, Bley seemed hap­py to for­get these hur­dles. He now expect­ed to see a Stein­way or a Bösendor­fer at a gig. He came to play, and admire, some of the finest instru­ments at many of the world’s great­est con­cert halls. When asked about the work­ing con­di­tions he once faced, Bley would tog­gle between humor and dis­dain. He admit­ted he could now be cru­el in his judgments.

W. Eugene Smith’s loft, the sub­ject of a recent book and doc­u­men­tary film, was a fre­quent des­ti­na­tion for Bley’s crowd. Smith, a long­time Life mag­a­zine pho­tog­ra­ph­er, and one of the pio­neer­ing Sec­ond World War pho­to­jour­nal­ists, kept his Sixth Avenue space open day and night – for musi­cians and artists and an entire cast of under­ground char­ac­ters. Sax­o­phon­ist Zoot Sims was said to be Smith’s favorite. Thelo­nious Monk and Hall Over­ton rehearsed the famous 1959 Town Hall con­cert there. In 1960, Steve Swal­low lived down the street (in a loft of his own). For a short time, the Bleys lived near­by as well.

In 2004, while writ­ing The Jazz Loft Project, author Sam Stephen­son inter­viewed Bley in Cher­ry Val­ley. Stephen­son showed him old, pre­vi­ous­ly unseen pho­tographs of the space; he played audio clips from Smith’s huge stock of home­made reel-to-reel tapes, includ­ing some mar­velous mate­r­i­al with Bley and Rah­saan Roland Kirk.

What do you remem­ber about the piano?” Stephen­son asked near the begin­ning of their conversation.

Bley put down his cup of cof­fee, and broke into sharp laugh­ter. “How much tape do you have?” he asked. “Let me tell you a Steve Swal­low bassist’s joke about my piano play­ing, which reflects upon this peri­od. He said, Paul Bley is the only pianist he knows that can make a grand piano sound like an upright. And I had plen­ty of train­ing in Eugene’s loft. It was so prim­i­tive! We won’t even talk about the upright. But when the drum­mer came in, he would play brush­es on top of the New York tele­phone book – the Yel­low Pages, as I recall. There was drums some­times; there was no drums oth­er times. It was a very hand­made session.

And the piano?” he con­tin­ued. “Well, let’s put it this way: you wouldn’t want to waste the match.”

Togeth­er, Bley and Stephen­son took delight in the quip. “We’ve been told that it was a Bald­win – is that what you remem­ber?” Stephen­son asked. “Well, what­ev­er it was, it was a wreck,” Bley replied.

Ask Steve Swal­low about Gene Smith’s place, and he, too, remem­bers it vivid­ly – from a per­spec­tive we might, ide­al­ly, add to Stephenson’s tran­script. Their cir­cle, Swal­low said, fre­quent­ed the space sim­ply because it was avail­able. But in his mind, they were also there because Bley loved the piano: he found it “par­tic­u­lar­ly delight­ful. In its imper­fec­tions, in its challenges.”

Nobody had any mon­ey,” Swal­low said. “So it was sel­dom tuned and not main­tained either. But it was basi­cal­ly a good instru­ment. And I accom­pa­nied that piano in the hands of all kinds of peo­ple, from Dave McKen­na to Son­ny Clark to Paul. And Paul was the only guy who played the piano for its imper­fec­tions. Who zoomed like a hawk in on the notes that were the most prob­lem­at­ic to all the oth­er piano players.”

Swal­low now paused, tak­ing great joy in the mem­o­ry. Bley, he said, some­how incor­po­rat­ed the instrument’s short­com­ings into what­ev­er he was doing “and then made a solo, exploit­ing the char­ac­ter of that par­tic­u­lar piano – and of all the oth­er ones, up and down Sixth Avenue, and across 23rd Street,” a part of town that had then become a hub for their community.

Gary Pea­cock, too, remem­bered with affec­tion, and with amaze­ment, how Bley han­dled these dif­fi­cult instru­ments – espe­cial­ly when it came to his sen­si­tiv­i­ty to dynamics.

Dynam­ics has to do with touch: how the fin­gers actu­al­ly touch the key­board,” Pea­cock explained. “I always expe­ri­enced a … I guess I would have to call it an invi­ta­tion when he’d start to play. And a lot of that had to do with the way that he’s push­ing a note down on the key­board. It’s almost like some­body walk­ing up to a house and some­body opens the door and is ask­ing you in. Some­thing about that sound. I’ve expe­ri­enced it with Kei­th [Jar­rett], yeah, but I didn’t expe­ri­ence it with Her­bie Han­cock. I think with Bill Evans, yeah, there was some of that. But with Bill it was more har­mon­ic voic­ings that he used, although I loved his touch, too. It was incred­i­ble. But it was his whole har­mon­ic ori­en­ta­tion. It was like going to a feast: you walk into the room, it’s a won­der­ful room, incred­i­ble food – wel­come. No, there was some­thing about Paul’s touch.

But where I real­ly noticed it the most, was when he played on an out-of-tune piano. And some­times in my mind it’s the best he ever sound­ed – when he’s play­ing a piano that’s out of tune.”

Pea­cock has long won­dered how this could be true. “I talked to Kei­th about that. And Kei­th said he thought Paul sounds bet­ter when he’s play­ing an out-of-tune piano than when he’s play­ing a piano that’s in tune. So we’re hear­ing some­thing that, with almost any oth­er play­er, we would nev­er be able to say that about. But some­how he was using it and accept­ing it, as is, with­out forc­ing it to be any oth­er way than it is.

Did you ever see Wozzeck, the opera? Alban Berg. There’s a scene in the sec­ond half. It’s a bar­room scene. There’s a guy on a piano, and they’ve inten­tion­al­ly mis­tuned the piano so it sounds like an out-of-tune piano. But I remem­ber lis­ten­ing to that – this is before I met Paul – when I first got back from Europe. I remem­ber lis­ten­ing to this piano and being enthralled. Because Alban Berg actu­al­ly wrote some­thing for a mis … tuned piano.”

Slow­ly, Pea­cock fin­ished, leaned in, and broke into great infec­tious laugh­ter. “It’s the fact that I played with pianists who played out-of-tune pianos: it was nev­er a very pleas­ant expe­ri­ence. But with Paul? I nev­er had an unpleas­ant expe­ri­ence – with an out-of-tune piano. Nah. He would use it. He’d use the out-of-tune piano: play a minor ninth and call it an octave. A mis­tuned octave!”

It wasn’t just in the clubs and cof­fee­hous­es and lofts that Bley ran into these obsta­cles. The record dates he led were com­pro­mised, too. A poor piano on one date; an inat­ten­tive pro­duc­er on the next. These weren’t big bud­get oper­a­tions, and they weren’t Blue Note dates either. It wasn’t until he met Ger­man pro­duc­er Man­fred Eich­er, and record­ed Open, to Love (1972), his first ECM album from start to fin­ish, that Bley found the ide­al son­ic situation.

Among Bley’s 1960s mas­ter­works, Foot­loose! might be the finest exam­ple of a trou­bled piano brought in from the cold. The album holds up as a mile­stone in many ways. It’s the only instance (on record) of Bley, Swal­low, and drum­mer Pete La Roca as a unit. It’s also the first album made up large­ly of Car­la Bley’s com­po­si­tions, those now clas­sic minia­tures that came to be Paul’s sig­na­ture, despite the dis­so­lu­tion of their mar­riage just a few years lat­er. By the sum­mer of 1962, when the ses­sions began, the trio was at the height of its pow­ers – the next step Bley had envi­sioned when he arrived back in New York.

Swal­low had, by then, become Bley’s bass play­er, as he’d hoped when he first moved to town. The two had been insep­a­ra­ble for more than two years – in duo, in a vari­ety of ad hoc con­fig­u­ra­tions, and above all, in their work in Jim­my Giuffre’s ground­break­ing trio. Swal­low and La Roca met on a Don Ellis date in 1961, and quick­ly became a pair, too, a true rhythm team – work­ing in sub­se­quent years with Mar­i­an McPart­land, Art Farmer, and Steve Kuhn.

For the first Foot­loose! ses­sion, Swal­low still remem­bers the three of them, togeth­er, dri­ving out to the old Savoy stu­dios in Newark, New Jer­sey. “There had been colos­sal rains the pre­ced­ing cou­ple of days and when we got there we found that the stu­dio was flood­ed out, to the extent that the piano was full of water, a mess and utter­ly unplayable. And of course [Her­man] Lubin­sky, the own­er of Savoy, hadn’t both­ered to call us. So we’d made the trip in vain. There was no earth­ly pos­si­bil­i­ty of record­ing that day. So we drove back to Man­hat­tan and Paul arranged on the phone for the ses­sion to be resched­uled a few days hence.

And we went back out there to the very same room. And the car­pets were still spongy with water. They had some­how dried the piano out, and kind of half-tuned it. I mean, when you lis­ten to that record you hear: it’s a mis­er­able instru­ment. But Paul of course loved mis­er­able instru­ments, so that wasn’t real­ly a problem.”

Ear­ly twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry hi-fi has, per­haps cru­el­ly, locked in the session’s scars – although that might just deep­en the mys­tery, and the mas­tery, in this music. Con­sid­er three unnamed bal­lads, released among a series of out­takes and extras by Savoy in the 1980s. The Medal­lion Stu­dios’ piano is there, unvar­nished and bru­tal. Bley’s per­for­mance is itself raw and feels, even now, weird­ly out of shape; it is also, by turns, ten­der and aching­ly beau­ti­ful. The per­for­mances are short (just four min­utes each) and, to most ears, unrec­og­niz­able at first: gor­geous, off-cen­ter abstrac­tions. Then lis­ten again. Even­tu­al­ly, there’s a famil­iar turn of phrase here, a famil­iar har­mon­ic sequence there – “I Can’t Get Start­ed,” played twice (“Bal­lad No. 2,” and “Bal­lad No. 4”), with­out a glimpse of the melody, rehar­mo­nized, and stretched beyond stan­dard AABA song form. For the first time on vinyl we’re hear­ing the per­fect­ly-bal­anced micro­cos­mos Bley and Swal­low had been hon­ing in Green­wich Vil­lage cof­fee­hous­es. On “Bal­lad No. 1” it’s only piano and bass, at an uncom­fort­ably slow tem­po, hid­ing “These Fool­ish Things” in plain sight – just as Bley and Gary Pea­cock might have done, in Los Ange­les, only a few years before.


All quo­ta­tions in this excerpt come from the author’s inter­views, unless oth­er­wise not­ed. The author wish­es to acknowl­edge Sam Stephen­son, who gen­er­ous­ly shared his 2004 inter­view with Paul Bley, con­duct­ed dur­ing the writ­ing of his book, The Jazz Loft Project: Pho­tographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957–1965; and Car­ol Goss, for gra­cious­ly shar­ing the video she shot of Stephenson’s inter­view, and for her per­mis­sion to include Bley’s pre­vi­ous­ly unpub­lished words here. Thank you as well to Wol­fram Knauer, Doris Schröder, and Arndt Wei­dler at the Jazz­in­sti­tut Darm­stadt; Frank Kim­brough; and Sy John­son and Lois Mirviss, who per­mit­ted Point of Depar­ture to pub­lish these exquis­ite photographs.