Monday, January 18, 2016

Ten Pianists reflect on the enduring influence of Paul Bley


With the recent passing of the pianist Paul Bley, I was intrigued by the many tributes posted on line and in newspapers for this very iconoclastic player who I thought had limited appeal. I had been aware of Bley and have a sampling of his music -both as a sideman and a leader- in my music collection. But to be honest, I never quite got what all the fuss was about? Maybe it is sad or maybe it is fortuitous, but obituraries have a way of leading me to search more closely into a person's life and work.

I dug up a Ben Ratliff interview with the guitarist Pat Metheny from the New York Times in  2005. Metheny recalled how a solo that Mr Bley did in 1963 with Sonny Rollins influenced him greatly. He called the solo  "the shot heard 'round the world,"  That was a pretty strong sentiment from a very gifted guitarist who I respect. I would have never guessed Metheny had such a  musical linkage to the pianist Bley. ( You can check out this interview here)

"...the shot heard 'round the world."
                                                                                                Pat Metheny

Brief Bio:

I had to study up on this man's life. (Hyman) Paul Bley was a Canadian born in Montreal, Quebec on November 12, 1932. His surname was taken from his adopted father, a Jewish textile merchant who owned an embroidery factory. In the mid to late forties Bley attended McGill Conservatory often playing around Montreal with his trio. For a short time, at the age of seventeen, he replaced Oscar Peterson at the Alberta Lounge. He enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York in 1950 remaining active in the Montreal music scene. In 1952 Bley and other local musicians established the Jazz Workshop, a jazz series held Saturday afternoons at Chez Paree, a leading Montreal nightclub.

According to Chuck Haddix's biography of Charlie Parker- Bird the Life and Music of Charlie Parker -one day,unannounced, Bley decided to show up on Parker's doorstep in NYC. He brazenly invited the saxophone legend to play at the Canadian Jazz Workshop. Surprisingly Parker readily accepted! The young entrepreneurial producer was relieved when the notoriously unreliable Parker actually showed up to play, both at a live Canadian Broadcasting television show and later with Bley's trio at the Jazz Workshop. Jazz in Canada was at its peak at this time.Parker later that year made his famous Massey Hall recording in Toronto with his "Quintet of the Year" that included Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and Max Roach on drums. A crackdown on local clubs in Montreal, forced many local musicians to leave for greener pastures. Itching to play with the innovators of this new music, Bley found himself accompanying jazz giants like  Lester Young, Ben Webster, Chet Baker and Sonny Rollins. The restless twenty-one year old eventually went to California and met bassist Charles Mingus. Mingus asked the pianist to conduct his Nonet on a recording for Mingus's new record label Debut in 1953. That same year  Bley released his own first recording on the Debut label- Introducing Paul Bley with Mingus on bass and Art Blakey on drums.

Bley moved to California taking a residency at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles. He booked Ornette Coleman's group to the Club in 1958. The iconic "live" performance captured on the recording The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet  finds a young Coleman on alto with Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, Billy Higgins on drums and Bley on piano, playing music that would usher in an era of the Shape of Jazz to Come  and launch the avant-garde school of jazz.

Bley married his first wife, the pianist and composer Carla Bley in 1957 encouraging her to write music. Her compositions would influence him throughout his career. In 1960 Bley took another turn into free jazz joining the  adventurous reed player Jimmy Giuffre, who had just broken up his trio with guitarist Jim Hall. The new Jimmy Giuffre 3 recorded  their first of four albums Fusion ,with Giuffre on clarinet and Steve Swallow on bass and Bley on piano. This iteration would last for three years.

In 1963 Bley was a featured sideman in the aforementioned  RCA recording of Sonny Rollins with Coleman Hawkins  Sonny Meets Hawk. This was a launching point for Bley's career as a leader. In the late sixties Bley was a pioneer performer in the use of  electronics. He and his then wife composer /vocalist Annette Peacock  performed experimental music using early Moog synthesizers. Bley formed the electric jazz fusion group Scorpio in 1974. It was during this period that he recorded the album unofficially titled Jaco featuring then relative unknowns Pat Metheny on guitar, Jaco Pastorius on bass with Bruce Ditmas on drums. By the end of 1974 Bley's love affair with electronic instrumentation began to fade.

In the nineteen seventies through the nineteen eighties Bley was involved with Carol Goss (whom he married in 1980) creating  IAI ( Improvising Artist Inc)- a company that developed a catalog of progressive music and promoted live performances of avant-garde artists. During this period, Bley performed works on solo piano and also recorded and performed with trio mates bassists Steve Swallow and Gary Peacock and drummer Barry Altschul. In the 1990's the pianist became part of the faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music. Bley was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2008. Mr. Bley passed of natural cause on January 3, 2016 at his home in Stuart, Florida.

Now that I had a better understanding of the man and his career I decided to listen to Bley's music with a more deliberate intent. I found a feature on where the contemporary pianist Aaron Parks was asked to name his twelve favorite Paul Bley recordings (you can check out this article here). Parks cited multiple songs with several memorable solos. I listened intently to every one I could get my hands on. Not surprisingly-Bley's solo on "All the Things You Are" from the 1963 RCA album Sonny Meets Hawk with Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Paul Bley, Bob Cranshaw and Roy McCurdy- was again praised as a benchmark performance.

The Search:

Convinced there must be something there, I listened to this solo over and over and over again trying to grasp the nuances of its apparent evolutionary impact. Frankly, while I thought it was well done, I was still a bit perplexed as to its hallowed significance. The solo was a bit jagged, a little discordant and strayed  a bit too far off the changes to my ears. I was at a loss. I must be missing something. How could I better understand the depth of this solo that influenced so many people?

At the risk of showing my ignorance, I decided to ask the professionals- other pianists that I respect who would be better able to explain the significance. I would pose a question and include a YouTube video of the performance for their convenience. I was excited by the prospect of seeing who would respond and what they would say.

Here is the question I posted to over a dozen pianists :

"With the recent death of pianist Paul Bley I was wondering whether you could shed some light on his playing for me. The NY Times did an interview with guitarist Pat Metheny who lauded Bley's solo on  "All the Things You Are" on the Sonny Meets Hawk  album from 1963.

I have included a YouTube video of the song with Bley's solo starting at approximately 3:15.I would be interested in what your take is on this solo, what makes it so special (if you agree with Pat) and Bley's work in general."

The musicians are from a cross section of respected pianists and educators, many who I have written about. Some understandably declined, feeling they were not familiar enough with Mr. Bley's music to comment.

Surprisingly one fine player, who begged anonymity, claimed he couldn't stand to listen to Bley's music, characterizing the solo with these words:  "Everything is poorly handled, out of proportion with all jazz pianistic elements... ." I was starting to think maybe I wasn't so far off, but soon it became evident his comments were clearly in the minority.

Most responses were thoughtful and laudatory. I am grateful for their studied responses, for their willingness to participate and for their generosity in trying to help me, and perhaps some of you, better understand the impact of this solo and the important and lasting influence of Mr. Bley and his music.

Several pianists suggested the answer lie in a quote from Paul himself  found on the liner notes to his album from 1963, the same year as the aforementioned Sonny Meets Hawk ( RCA)- Paul Bley with Gary Peacock (ECM).

Paul Bley:

"Chord changes had never interfered with my own way of hearing melody.  Whether playing standards with steady time and a given set of chord sequences or free rhythm and free harmony pieces where the only guide to the improviser is the vivid character of the given written composition, one's own personality should be apparent to the listener"

Markus Burger

"What I love about the "All The Things You Are" solo of Paul Bley is that Paul always focuses on developing a motive. He finds or introduces and follows and varies this motive until he introduces the next motive vs just trying to play lines that express the relationship of the chord progression.
He focuses on these motives but follows the principle of tension and release with his focus on melodic motives rather than just playing lines. Paul has an intuitive way to follow melodies and develop them in a similar way as for example J.S Bach develops motives in his violin sonatas of his cello solo suites.

His approach deeply influenced pianists like Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau, that focus their playing as well on following motivic and melodic ideas even if that means that for longer periods in a solo it means that they are playing outside the changes.

Just as an anecdote: I hired Paul Bley in 1993 to play in my hometown ( Wittlich, Germany)
with Jimmy Giuffre and it was great to observe this very unconventional and free way to improvise melodic lines over well known standards.

Marc Copeland:

"A big change in harmonic usage in jazz occurred in the early 1960's when a handful of musicians, some of them on piano, started bringing the use of polytonality into the music---not as an occasional garnish or an arranging tool, but as an integral, structural part of the music's improvisational sound. Paul Bley, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and Keith Jarrett were some of the best-known pianists involved in this movement; Bley may well have been the first.

Not as well known was Bley's effort to help younger musicians. He would sometimes take a younger pianist whose work he liked---and this includes me---to breakfast at 3 a.m., and explain how he dealt with the business side of the music. In my case, at least, I can vouch for the fact that Bley's coaching session could be kind of life-changing.

Frank Kimbrough:

Paul Bley's solo on Sonny Rollins' "All The Things You Are", with Coleman Hawkins (Sonny Meets Hawk, RCA) was basically a career - maker for Paul.  ...the gig with Sonny Rollins was one of the last he would do as a sideman before devoting himself primarily to his own trios in the mid-sixties.

In this solo, he stretches harmony to the breaking point, something that he began doing even before his work with Ornette Coleman five years before.  By the time this solo was recorded, Paul had reached a point of maturity with these ideas, that is, finding "landing spots" harmonically, so that he could play where the harmony was GOING, rather than the chord changes at hand, disregarding, ignoring, or playing THROUGH the changes (to fool the listener) to a point of resolution, where the listener would realize that he actually WAS in the right place in the song. It's all about tension and release, where spontaneous melody takes precedence over the original harmony of the tune.  Often, Paul would play against the harmony of a phrase until the last bar or two, at which point he would briefly "land" before "taking off" as the next phrase began.

As iconoclastic as Paul seemed on the surface, many of his improvised compositions were actually based on templates of standards - that is, the basic form of the tune (which could be changed - Paul thought the AABA form contains too many A's, so he often played AABABABA), constantly reharmonized, without any direct reference to the original melody.  Bley loved the Great American Songbook, and his most frequent references were "I Can't Get Started", "Isn't It Romantic?", "Lover Man", "All The Things You Are", and "Don't Explain" - there are many examples in his discography, and he gives hints with his titles - "Started", "It Isn't", "Lovers", are the most obvious examples of titles listed above, and there are many other examples with less obvious hints.  That's part of the joy of listening to Paul Bley - you never know where his improvisations are coming from, but sometimes things sound awfully familiar, and figuring that out is part of Paul's sound of surprise

Pete Malinverni:

"Paul Bley has long been a hero of mine for reasons that are beautifully illustrated on this particular side. The first thing to be noted, though, is the Space Age solo Hawk takes, showing that nothing but original thought will work here, that poseurs need not apply.

Paul's solo is startling, in that, if heard on a simplistic level, it may seem"out". But, what I hear is someone who respects and 'plays with' the harmonic framework of the tune while making phrasing and dynamics choices that set him apart. It's that combination of fearless exploration rooted in tradition that first attracted me to Paul's playing - and that of Sonny and Hawk, too, for that matter."

Roberto Magris:

"Bley's solo is amazing to me because I can immediately recognize that it's Paul Bley. and there are not so many pianists that you can immediately recognize while playing "All The Things You Are.". I like him and especially this solo because he always take risks, he tries to find troubles and unconventional phrasings, even (or especially) when the chord progression is obvious, as in that standard. He seems not to play "All The Things You Are" but "on" "All The Things You Are" and he improvises on that song as a whole .instead of improvising on a fragment or on a specific chord progression. He seems to keep in mind the whole song.

In this solo I can hear several of his favorite patterns and it's quite paradigmatic for his style. I'd like to point out that he has no influences from Tyner/Hancock/Evans in his playing, but he comes from bebop straight to the avant-garde. His approach is much more advanced than Hawk (of course) and Sonny since he plays freely and (does) not follow exactly the chord progression. He's at the most within the tonality (as Ornette?). It's a great solo by a great musician who stands out together with Tyner, Hancock & Taylor as a master of modern/contemporary jazz piano."

Jack Reilly:

Paul Bley, in his early playing (pre; New York), was a clone of Oscar Peterson's ... Lots of fast right hand "cooking" improvised melodies and coordinated left hand chord comping which enforced and supported the right hand.

When I first listened to him in his post NYC phase, I found him more probing harmonically and melodically. He was beginning to create an original style. He recorded profusely and he told me he believed that his legacy lie there, in the recordings. He also felt that recording with different players enhanced his pianistic abilities to fit inside any playing/accompanying situation. Carla Bley also greatly influenced him musically through her compositions. He encouraged her to compose more and more.

Paul always looked forward never backward in his improvising. One can definitely hear where Keith Jarrett was very,very  influenced by Bley's improvising and pianistic abilities, in terms of his counterpoint lines.

Paul was truly an original. I am saddened by his passing.

Gary Versace:

" "All the Things You Are" is a masterful example of Bley weaving melodic constructs that imply shifting tonalities. These tonalities create  varying degrees of tension with the original set of chord changes. This ability to pivot between tonal centers and hear them in relation to the fixed harmonies of a standard tune create an amazingly  and unique melodic vision that realizes his goal of communicating one's personality to the listener. Since many of his ideas are major scale based, this also fits with his thoughts about using the 'vivid character of the written composition.' "All the Things You Are"', in spite it's many chord changes, spends much of it's time outlining only a few major keys."

Kenny Werner: 

"It's funny how famous that solo is. That was exactly the song I was going to talk about and exactly the solo. Harmonically it was just flat out some new stuff, an obtuse approach that had never been tried before. You can hear traces of it in Keith Jarrett and many great pianists that followed. I myself am extremely influenced by a few of his solos, "All the Things You Are" in particular. I think it informed my harmony and it still does today."

Denny Zeitlin: 

"I didn't read Pat's specific comments on Paul's solo, but I agree with him that it is special.  There is a relaxed intensity throughout, and excellent groove.  He is telling a story--commenting on what went before and soon pushing into very new harmonic territory, farther and farther out, but occasionally referencing the basic structure, to make what he is doing pull more deliciously against it.  The unusual shapes of his phrases and displacements add greatly to the total experience.  And his solo galvanizess Sonny into some of his most unusual and far-out playing.

Paul was pushing the envelope from the start, and always had his own thing, throughout the many decades of his career.  I'll always remember how gracious he and Carla were in inviting me to sit in when I was a musically unknown medical student visiting New York in 1963."


After reading their responses it becomes obvious that Mr. Bley's music was a game changer for many. I am sure countless others were radically affected by this solo and by Bley's music in general. He was a trailblazer whose restless spirit led him on an uncompromising path throughout his over fifty years of performing. After he acquired a thorough understanding and mastery of where the music came from, it was his solo on " All the Things You Are" from 1963 that was his way of leading us all into a new direction. As Metheny said so succinctly it truly was "the shot heard 'round the world."

Monday, January 11, 2016

Interview of Pianist and Educator Gary Motley : Director of Jazz Studies at Emory University Part 2 of 2

Gary Motley
Gary Motley is the Director of Jazz Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He has been teaching music and particularly jazz improvisation since 1995, all the while maintaining his position as a world class pianist and regularly performing and recording with his trio. Just last month Mr. Motley was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame as one that state's native sons. He is participating on a trip to the island nation of Cuba in early January with the saxophonist Victor Goines's group as part a cultural exchange program called "Horns for Havana,"  a program originally started by the trumpet player Wynton Marsalis as a way of  bridging the cultural divide between our two nations.

We talked to Mr. Motley at length on December 8, 2015 in Emory Village. Our discussions touched on of the value of the Arts in education, the development of jazz from its roots, the potential of music as an international form of communication, the state of the industry for young jazz musicians, his own personal musical goals and his latest album Departure. Here is Part Two of that interview.
Part One can be accessed by clicking here.

NOJ:  You are now an educator. When did you start teaching music?

GM: Nineteen ninety-five.

NOJ: What brought you to teaching?

GM: I came home and was kind of a little disenchanted with being on the road. I wanted to take a break from it. When I came home, one of the guys at a local University said he needed somebody to teach a class on improvisation, and asked if I would do it? That is how I started teaching a class at Georgia State and that grew to a couple more classes. Eventually I got a call from Emory to teach an improv class here and that  just started to build. In 2002, I had re-married, and my wife and I were thinking about going back to graduate school.  I called my contacts at Georgia State and they offered me a chance to go there tuition free if I would teach for them. It was an offer I couldn't refuse, so I did that and completed my Masters in program administration at Georgia State. When I graduated, I had acquired the skills to build a new program here at Emory where I started the current full blown jazz studies program since 2004.

NOJ: How many students are currently enrolled in your Jazz Studies Program at Emory?

GM: About forty students.

NOJ: Are they all music majors?

GM: No.  Usually double majors and non-majors because we are liberal arts college, so they are usually doing music and business or music and pre-med or music and some other major.

NOJ:   How many of those students are serious musicians, who want to make music their career?

GM: Not many. I have maybe five majors in my current group, but because it’s liberal arts the curriculum, is basically a two year curriculum as prescribed by the National  Association of  Schools and Music. That is the maximum that I can offer a student in the Liberal Arts setting. If they want to pursue music  as a profession, I have to steer them somewhere else, like NYU, Berklee, NEC ,a school of music or a conservatory. So the big thing that  I do here is make sure they have a healthy appreciation for music, because you never know if these students are the ones that may wind up lobbying on Capitol Hill or something like that. I give my students a chance to see what this music world is all abou. I bring in artists so that they can get a chance to talk with them and get some insight into the world of the jazz musician.

NOJ: With my admittedly limited time down here in Atlanta, my perception is that the area is not as embracing an environment for jazz music, which I consider tantamount to African American classical music, as I would have expected. There seems to be a greater interest in neo soul and Hip hop. Why do you think that is?

GM: I think it’s awareness. It also may come from people wanting to distance themselves from this music.

NOJ: Why is that?

GM: I don’t know, but maybe there is a stigma there. Like the people who resented Louie Armstrong and that kind of thing ( Armstrong was famously ostracized for being  viewed as too pandering at one time).  There was the Harlem Renaissance thing that was a game changer. People started to redefine their whole idea of affluence and success. So certain people wanted to distance themselves from it (jazz) and what they thought it represented.

NOJ: But then many people wanted to preserve the tradition.

GM:  Those who know what time it is, yes. The amazing thing about this music is what it was born out of. It is not a pretty history,let’s face it, but we are talking about people who under less than ideal situations had to figure out how to co-exist.  A beautiful thing emerged out of that coming together, because that is what it is. Somebody asked me the question: “Who does jazz belong to? Who owns jazz?”  Well nobody and everybody.

NOJ: That’s interesting because if you go back and see how jazz developed in New Orleans, the place that many people view as the birthplace of jazz, the music came out of a melting pot of Spanish, Caribbean, Creole, African and traditional European influences through classical musical education.  

GM: This is art. It is really valuable art. If you look at all of the things that came out of that; you look at music, dance the whole thing is ingenious to me. Everything that was associated with community was stripped away for these people. They had to learn a different language, learn different customs learn a different way of thinking, a different way of worshipping. They had to assimilate a new culture and these outside influences were being forced on them. People trying to survive had to find creative ways to fit in and communicate.

In the African culture, drums were used as a means of communication, but drums were taken away (from the slaves.) You’re from a different culture and you are used to instruments that you play to communicate your music and all of a sudden somebody shows you a piano. What are you supposed to do with that? There is this twelve fixed pitches from this tuning system developed by some cat named Pythagoras. Well they can’t find the notes they were used to playing because their music was microtonal (between the twelve tone scale) .

NOJ: Yeah microtonal playing is quite the rage in some circles.

GM: When you hear the slurs and bends that you hear being used in the blues on piano, that’s being done because those notes don’t exist on the keyboard. You have to combine them to get to the sounds. So I’m looking for this note and it is not an F and it is not an F# it is somewhere in between. So you have to slur to bend this thing to get to that sound. Now if I am singing I can get to that because my voice is capable of many pitches. So I get into this technique to get to those sounds. Then you get into the pedantic argument is that sloppy technique? Well obviously no it's not.

NOJ: Not if it is purposeful. If you are playing these things because you don’t know how to play that is a whole different thing.

GM:  Exactly, but that was one of the arguments used when they try to evaluate Monk and his technique. He is using a technique that is unique for the message he is trying to communicate. You can’t assess him using a criteria because it doesn’t apply.

NOJ: I believe he heard things differently …

GM: That is precisely why he played differently and it took people a long time to figure out exactly what was happening.

NOJ: Now, you hear his music and you know it is Monk and it doesn’t sound wrong. It sounds natural to me.

GM:  Yeah. Again we have these cultures being intertwined. Each culture is having to learn how the other one thinks and also give validation to (each other's) thought processes and admitting that while they are different these are valid, artistic  musical statements. We have to be able to objectively deal with all that.

If we go back and look at the whole history of (Western) music and how the church was involved,in that rules were being laid out for composing sacred music. The Church said this is how you write sacred music... which was to be nice and pleasing with no room for dissonance. Bach came along and took notes that were not allowed to be played at the same time and played them with counterpoint.  He figured a clever way to use a tri-tone which was previously not permitted.

When jazz comes along, it is born out of the human experience. It is born from African culture which has a lot to do with rhythms that occur in nature and rhythms that naturally occur in how we move and how we flow and interact with each other. If you look at the Tango for instance, based on the art of the dance, the syncopation, the music has people moving and gyrating. A writer once wrote when syncopation got into the music and started making its way from South America through New Orlean’s into the United States, they called it the "Spanish tinge." They said it was going to destroy civilization as we knew it.

NOJ:  Of course, anything different or out of the norm is going to destroy life as we know it for some people!

GM:  Let’s go back and look at the history of how all these things came about and came together and jazz kind of fuses all of that. It becomes a palette from which we can paint.

NOJ: My perception of jazz is that it is the most universally accepted common language. An unparalleled medium  with which people can communicate no matter what language they speak or what culture they are from.

GM: Check this out.  If you look at in this country, jazz is always introduced in port cities. What happens in port cities? That is where the cultures combine. The other thing to check out  is what does jazz represent? It represents freedom of expression, it represents democracy. If you look anywhere in the world where democracy is introduced, jazz shows up every single time. When the Iron Curtain fell in Russia it was the first thing you saw blossom. 

NOJ: Let’s talk about your music program at Emory. I hear that colleges are cutting all kinds of liberal arts programs everywhere that they can. How secure do you think non conservatory music programs are in today’s environment?

GM:  As a global statement I would say there is cause for concern just because our general state of the economy, but I think it is important to recognize that everything in our society cannot  be boiled down to being a function of economics.  We have to look at those things that are going to give us other ways to be a stable society.

NOJ: How do we as advocates, whether  we are  a student, a teacher, a musician or a writer;  how do we convince the bean counters that music has more value to society beyond it potential  as a career path for those who want to make a living as a musician?

GM:  At this point I treat it almost like being an insurance salesman. Imagine what this world be like if we didn’t have it? I have literally said that to some people in my administration, I have told them we are ambassadors; we give a face to the University. Other advocates can go in and be the frontrunners for those things that need to happen. I would  say look at the state of the world right now, then  take away music. If you think it is bad now, this planet would blow up in a week without music.

NOJ: It’s so true. Jazz and music in general is one of the few international links that people can agree on.

GM: And that’s the thing , I teach it from the standpoint that it is a language. It allows us to  communicates in a way that words don’t. If I go into a culture where I don’t speak their language and they don’t speak mine, we still have this language that moves us both. We don’t have to understand it beyond the fact that we both like it and it speaks to us. Sometimes we as a society becomes too intellectual, or we don’t think at all. It’s important for us all to disseminate the important role that the Arts plays. I talk about the idea that for my students it teaches team building skills, leadership; it stimulates the whole creative process in terms how they view things, how they process things and how they deal with challenges. Having that part of the creative experience as part of your intellect is absolutely necessary. We need people to think outside of the box. With all the challenges that we are facing in the world people respond out of fear, and fear is born out of a lack of understanding.  Music and Art in general help us to try to address things in the world around us because it is born from the world around us and helps us understand it better.

NOJ: With all the many music schools and conservatories that are turning out more and more very accomplished players, where are these musicians going to play? The economics seem to be working against having a successful career in music for all but a few elite. Venues are limited and the compensation is sometimes non-existent.

GM: At a point it becomes a matter of survival and it’s going to be survival of the fittest.  There are musicians out there who are not necessarily as good (as others), but who have marketing skills and know how to navigate the system. That is sometimes a business choice. It is not always just purely about the music. There are a lot of guys who make those choices.

NOJ: How do the economics of making it as a professional jazz musician speak to the long term viability of the survival of the art form?

GM: It is a tough one. I have a hard time, as much as I am passionate about the music, it is not easy for me to recommend this path to students. You would have to be incredibly honest with yourself as to why you are doing it. If you don’t have a sense of mission or a calling for it, then you might want to tell yourself this is fun but it is not necessarily a profession I should follow.

NOJ: Where do you think the music is going? So many kids are purely conservatory trained. There are not enough venues for them to get out and play with peers and basically woodshed.  Do you think the music has become too technical and has lost its heart?

GM: I think we are in flux right now and I don’t know where it will land. Technology plays a big role in that, because we don’t  have as much face to face interaction like we used. That is a challenge because kids need to go listen to live music and see other players, but where can they go? You are not going to be able to speak the language if you haven’t heard the language being spoken, which means you have got to get out and converse with other musicians. Training is fine, but is it going to say anything, is it going to move anybody by itself? Quite honestly I don’t think so,

NOJ: How does a musician be true to the history but still free himself to be creative in a way that is not solely derivative?

GM: I think that it is a matter of perspective. In the jazz community we are always told, studying the works of the masters, pay your dues, so to speak, which I think is a bit overstated. The point is in order to know where you are going you have to know where you came from. To me what made them Masters is that they took the information that came before them and they used it as tools to be able to express what it was what they wanted to say. I think that is the final step in the growth process of a jazz musician. Some people elect to go out because they think they have some things on their mind and they want to get out there and show the world. Others simply want to be able to just sound like someone that they respect and then go out and assimilate hoping that they will find their own voice that way.

NOJ: Is that enough of a worthy goal to sound like Stan Getz or John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins?

GM: Only the individual can decide that. I don’t have the right to tell someone to that they should go beyond. If I see a student with a certain ability that maybe be edging toward breaking free, then certainly I am going to encourage them. That becomes  a personal choice.

NOJ:  What about for you as a musician. What is your aim as a pianist?

GM: My goal is to go beyond. My aim is to take those things and get to a place where I can express what I want to express. Ironically, this is why I named my most recent cd Departure, for that particular reason. It contains all my original compositions and a couple of things that my wife wrote. I made a decision that I am not going to record or  publish any more arrangements or performances of jazz standards until further notice. Every trio under the sun have played these things, they are war horses.  I'm not going to bring anything new to the table.

NOJ: It is hard and yet every once in awhile, I hear somebody do something that is a unique and different take.

GM: Well you know what, this is my point of Departure, at this point I am going take those things that I have learned and just go in a new direction and just see what I can accomplish.

NOJ: When you say that you are going in a new direction, how are you accomplishing that? What is the change that you are making?

GM:  The change that I am making is I am writing, composing my own songs based on a concept that I have in my mind.   I mentioned  the inspiration of Bill Evans and a symphony orchestra, so when I am writing I am writing for the trio and  the orchestra  that’s one of the different things that I am working on.

NOJ: The difference being the trio and the orchestra? Could the trio without the orchestra still be making music with a different approach?

GM:  It could, but in this case I am trying to integrate the two so they are kind of co-dependent. So the orchestra becomes this housing and the trio becomes the processor. It sends out the signals to communicate to this other massive thing. Exploring colors and textures to see what I can come up with. I always had a vivid imagination about things. I know the  story went like this, but it could also have gone differently.  It can sometimes be a problem for my class because I improvise cadenzas at the end of pieces and they tell me we know that is not the way it was written, and I have to tell them, yeah but you don’t know he (the composer) might have had something like this in mind. Growing up in the South, there are things that I have seen that I want to create in music, just trying to come up with some different ideas about stuff. 

There are a couple things on Departure, for example there  is a tricky little thing called “Times Up.” The title comes from playing “Hide and Go Seek” as a kid.  In the game when the time is up you go searching for the person who is hiding. So what I did was rather than playing the melody with the right hand I put it in the left hand, it is a bass part, so that is the hidden part. So you have to search for the melody.  The chord progression that I used is from Wayne Shorter’s ESP and then changed it up with a combination of a Brazilian rhythm and a reggae groove. It just kind of came out that way.  So it is taking all these things that I have experienced  and saying ok this is the direction I want to go in and seeing what happens.

So it’s all part of where do we go next; it’s like the bassist John Clayton said “You have to learn to walk in the Master's footsteps.” You imitate and learn the path they have taken and then you after that you get a chance to forge your own path.

NOJ:  Who are your favorite contemporary pianists?

GM: I like Tamir Hendleman who plays with drummer Jeff Hamilton. I like Brad Mehldau as a modern player. I like Kenny Barron a lot. There is an Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi he is still in Italy, but he is one of those guys that I like that a lot of people don’t know about him.

NOJ: You have had some big name jazz players play at  Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.
How are you involved in getting these jazz concerts at Emory?

 GM:  I am. I’m kind of a consultant. Bob McKay who is the Director of the Center here at Emory, is the one who actually puts these concerts together but we collaborate. Bob has his ear to the ground and pretty well knows what is happening around the country. He is part of Association of Performing Arts Presenters so he goes to the APAP conference. Between the two of us working together it gets done.

NOJ: How do you think Atlanta shapes up as a jazz destination? I see the concert tours and the artists seem to go to New York, Washington, down to Florida and onto Texas but they seem to bypass Atlanta.  Why do you think that is?

GM: We definitely need more venues. I think the market is here now. I think the radio, the way we are communicating with the public about jazz in Atlanta is suffering right now. Starting with the radio station (WCLK)  from the loss of having independent jazz programming which is now automated, If you want to get your jazz fix you have to go to the Internet and stream from somewhere, but it’s more of a national thing, it syndicated and nice but it is not local. What I would like to see for Atlanta is a citywide adoption of jazz as the art form it deserves to be seen as. That’s why I settled here.

NOJ: Atlanta has some venues for jazz. I have seen some pretty good national acts come to the Velvet Note in Alpharetta and if the act is big enough occasionally at Variety Playhouse in little five points, and then there are local spots like Café 290 and Churchill Grounds.

GM: Yes there are these local venues.Then there is Emory, Spivey Hall at Clayton State University in Jonesboro ,GA and Georgia Tech has a theater .

NOJ: You’re going to be going to Cuba to play in January. Tell us about that.

GM : It is a program called “Horns to Havana.” It was started when Wynton Marsalis went to Cuba and they discovered that the students there didn’t have the instruments they needed to play. The ones that they did have needed repair. So they started to raise money to purchase instruments and send them to the students. They would also send technicians down to Cuba to repair instruments. They organized  concerts and performances and outreach sort of things.

NOJ: Who will you be playing with on this trip?

GM: The leader will be with saxophonist Victor Goines.  He just sent me the lineup for the rest of the band. Justin  Copeland is playing trumpet, Adam Thornberg trombone, Emma Dayhoff bassist and Marion Felder is on drums. 

NOJ: It should be interesting to see the old Cuba before it changes as it will inevitably will.

GM: When I went to Colombia I had the chance to fly in a plane when there was no separation between the pilot and the passenger cabin. It is like living in a time warp. That age of innocence which we no longer have here in the US. I expect Cuba will be the same.

NOJ: What is your take on the Atlanta Jazz Festival? How do you think it can become one of the top jazz festivals in the world?

GM:  I think one of the biggest things it is going to take is for people to recognize what we have here (in Atlanta.) We do have a large audience of enthusiasts that can be nurtured and cultivated. You have to start with acknowledging them, acknowledging the local musician community and then figuring out how to communicate to them. When we have quality shows at Emory people do show up so there is audience to tap into to here. 

NOJ: Any more concerts coming up at Emory?

GM: Anat Cohn ( the jazz clarinetist)  will be coming in February with my trio.

NOJ: I hear you will be getting an award soon?

GM: Yes I am being inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame on December 12, 2015. I am very honored. I will join the ranks of Dinah Washington and  WC Handy and Ella Fitzgerald, even though she wasn’t from Alabama.

NOJ: Well congratulations Gary and thank you for sharing some of your thoughts with us.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Interview with Pianist and Educator Gary Motley Director of Jazz Studies Program at Emory University Part 1 of 2

Gary Motley
Gary Motley is an Atlanta based jazz pianist, composer and educator. Since 2004 he has been the director of jazz studies at Emory University while still maintaining a foot in the community of working jazz musicians. Before becoming an educator Mr. Motley plied his skills as an accomplished pianist with the likes of Clark Terry, Benny Golson,Terrence Blanchard, Russell Malone and a myriad of other master musicians. In 2008 Mr. Motley was a featured artist of an interview by the late Marion McPartland on her nationally syndicated NPR show piano jazz. 

Receiving his masters from Georgia State and making Atlanta his home for many years, Mr,. Motley is uniquely positioned to speak to the local Atlanta jazz scene, his musical program at Emory. his thoughts on jazz and its direction, his career as both an educator and a working jazz musician and other music related topics. Mr. Motley was recently inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame on December 12, 2015.

Notes on Jazz  spoke to Mr. Motley on December 9, 2015 in Emory Village, Atlanta, GA. We discussed his Alabama upbringing, his musical influences, his life as a musician and an educator and a composer. This is PART ONE OF A TWO PART INTERVIEW:

NOJ:   Thanks for taking the time Gary . I read somewhere that you were brought up in Alabama, what part?

GM: A little city called Anniston, near  Birmingham about one hundred miles from here.

NOJ: How was the music scene in Alabama when you were growing up?

GM: It used to be fairly decent depending on where you  were. The Blues was big thing over there in the south country and R&B . The northern part of the state was definitely (into) R&B, a lot in the nineteen sixties, Stax Records,  Muscle Shoals, the Muscle Shoals sound, a horn section called the Muscle Shoals Horns.  A lot of R &B stuff was cut up in that area, so you have a lot of that type of Soul music. But yeah, being in the conservative South, you were in the Bible belt, a lot of Gospel and sacred music and that sort of thing, which is what I grew up with. My mom was a church pianist and that sort of thing so that was what she did and my dad loved his Blues records so you got this interesting mix.

NOJ: So who were your Blues favorites?

GM: I just never really gravitated heavily toward the Blues.

NOJ: Does it influence your playing at all?

GM: A little bit, but I think just being a product of the environment, you know I learned about people like Muddy Waters and folks like that, I think just by being in the region.

NOJ: So what did you like to listen to when you were younger?

GM: I discovered jazz as a teen, listening to my local public radio station, checking stuff out and thought this is cool. Television of all places from Charlie Brown by Vince Guaraldi and the rest was also an influence.

NOJ: Did you like Johnny Costa?( Musical director for Mister Rodgers Neighborhood)

GM: Yeah , John Costa.

NOJ: What a player too, underrated!

GM:  I had no idea he was that bad!

NOJ: I believe they called him the white Art Tatum!

GM: I heard that stuff and then I had to find out who it was. I started talking to guys and then met guys who knew him and that sort of thing. From there I started to investigate a little bit more.

NOJ: It’s interesting , my sister, who is not a jazz fan, was telling me that Guaraldi’s score to a Peanuts Christmas and Costa’s work on Mister Rodgers probably influenced more children to at least listen to jazz then would probably have happened otherwise. It’s sort like coming in from the back door.

GM:  Yeah but we got there! We had a local station in Birmingham, a public radio station that would play jazz one hour a night from twelve midnight to one am.  We were getting it on mom’s little AM radio and I was checking out what these cats were doing and it sounded like jazz.
Growing up in the South, let alone growing up in Alabama, was an interesting thing. My mom was set on exposing us to cultural things so it was through those channels that I started to hear the music and really became fascinated. It set me on the course and I never looked back.

NOJ:  Where did you go to school?

GM: I started out at the University of Alabama. Then there is a fine arts college in Alabama called the University of  Montevallo , I transferred there and decided I was going to major in music and did my undergraduate work there.  After that  I went out on the road ( as a working musician)  for sixteen years  and went back to Georgia State University and did my master’s degree there.

NOJ: Wow sixteen years on the road? Who did you wind up playing with and who did you wind up learning from?

GM: I played with all different people. I did some stuff with Terence Blanchard, some with Russell Malone and then just a lot of pick up gigs playing with pretty much all the cats, Clark Terry, Benny Golson. I hung out with Barry Harris while I was in New York. Back in the eighties…I used to hang out there a lot.

NOJ: Did you reside in New York for any length of time?

GM: I never lived there, but I would be in and out there.

NOJ:  Are you a proponent of the idea that as a jazz musician you have to embed yourself in New York which seems to be the Mecca for jazz and where all the musicians seem to congregate?

GM: I think you have to do it. It can be a love-hate relationship. My thing was that I wanted to digest the information, but I never felt comfortable enough to completely take the plunge and live there.

NOJ: It is a pretty big plunge.

GM:  Yeah, that is a helluva leap of faith. I thought long and hard about it and said I will get in there as much as I can, so that was the way I chose to do it. But, I think at some point (a working musician) has to go there just to understand what the level is and what the expectations are, especially if you are someone who wants to do this for a living, and then you got to do it.

 NOJ: What do you think about the feasibility in today’s market of being a professional jazz musician and being able to make a living at this as a profession?

GM:  You have to be dedicated to it and be willing to go where it takes you.  That’s what I’ve done, that is all I have always done for thirty-six years. It has been jazz in some form or another, but it has been jazz.

NOJ: But you also write orchestral compositions?

GM: Yes, I am writing and arranging. I am actually doing something with the Le Grange Symphony Orchestra in middle of January when I get back from my trip to Cuba. It will be strings with a jazz trio. You have to remember Bill Evans did that trio with symphony orchestra. That is one of my favorite projects. So I get to write for that. We have a string quartet in residence here (at Emory University) and so I get to write for them. So writing and arranging doing my own compositions.

NOJ: As a composer/arranger what do you think of the resurgence of big band music writing and arranging?

GM:  There are different approaches to writing and arranging for big bands. Ellington had his own unique approach and Stan Kenton was the polar opposite. You look at somebody current, like Maria Schneider, she sees it like this tonal canvas and you can hear it, the textures that she writes.  One of my favorite writers and musicians period is Bob Mintzer, who writes big band charts. I actually had him here a few years back.

NOJ: What about Southern Rock? Did that hit Alabama when you were growing up?

GM:  Oh yeah,I had some brief encounters with that, but I wasn’t really into it.

NOJ: Who were your biggest influences on piano?

GM:  Oscar (Robertson), Monk, Bill Evans and I guy a lot of people don’t know about named Dwight Mitchell. Remember  Willie Ruff, he played French horn and bass? The Mitchell-Ruff duo? Dwight was a bit of a recluse outside of his performing he was really a low key kind of guy. He was from; I want to say St. Augustine, Florida.  He died a few years back.  He was on NPR’s Marion 
Mc Partland’s show,  "Piano Jazz," you should look up that link to his interview with her.  

These days, I'm really feeling the Bill Evans thing, but I really don’t want to be put in that pigeonhole. Of the guys that are out there now Kenny Baron is one of my favorites.  George Cables  I like.

NOJ: What about Chick (Corea) , Herbie ( Hancock) and Keith (Jarrett) the triumvirate of the past fifty years?

GM: Yeah, if you are a piano player  you have to check those guys out. We had Chick at Emory here recently.

NOJ: I was there, Chick and Bela Fleck. Great concert.

GM: Chick does Chick very well, flawless. I can respect that, he makes you come to him.

NOJ: I remember seeing Chick back in the seventies when he was into fusion and Return to Forever.

GM: I’d say in terms of my influences, initially it was like the classic jazz trios, like Nat Cole, Tommy Flanagan and Wynton Kelly. The modern thing for me came later, in recent years I’m studying those guys more and trying to get in touch with that style. I have been really checking that out now and trying to understand that whole concept. I think …for me being here teaching,  I didn’t have access to some of the guys who were doing ( the modern thing).  You know I was not able to talk to some of the guys in person and finding out what they were doing, asking them “Hey man what’s the deal?” So I had to get a lot of it from books and records or wherever I could find it.

NOJ:  What besides the obvious quirkiness of his music drew you to Thelonious Monk?

GM: I once had a conversation with Ellis Marsalis.  At the time everyone was on this Monk trip and I told him I didn’t get it. So I told him “what’s the deal with this Monk cat,” I was maybe twenty-one at the time. I said I have listened to him and I don’t get it? He said, the problem is that you are listening to Monk for what you want to hear rather than listening to what he is trying to say. He said you have got to change how you are hearing him and then you will get what is going on. Then I started hearing his effective use of dissonance and that sort of thing, but it was deliberate it was by design. I got the artistry and that was pretty radical for the time.

NOJ: Who plays like Monk? His style is so different and yet he has influenced a lot of people. It’s pretty interesting where the young players are coming from. In my opinion a lot of them have taken to dissonance and in particularly many seem to have been influenced by McCoy Tyner’s percussive and modal style.  Why do you think his style has been so influential to the young players where the styles of his contemporaries like Brubeck or Peterson seem to have been forgotten? Do you feel this is true?

GM:  I do. That’s the thing that hit me with that,…  I am analyzing like the McCoy thing and that sound, using the pentatonic scale  and stuff like that. When I first heard it I didn’t get it. Now it is starting to hit me a little bit more. There is a whole interesting underlying philosophy under that music. I don’t know if it actually started  in New York because I’m not there, so being on the outside I have to formulate my own  conclusions about how it came to be.  When you play inside versus playing outside…

NOJ:  Explain what playing inside versus playing outside means to you?

GM: Consonance versus dissonance.  Outside is that tense thing that is unrelated. What is that about and where does that come from? If you are a classically trained musician you are taught about the concept of right and wrong notes. If you purely stick to that you will never get it, because you have been so ingrained with the Western way of thinking about the twelve tone system.  This is going beyond that and saying we are going to define tonality in a different way. There is a whole bunch of reasons why it’s done, but if you are talking about the music itself that’s kind of the number one principal of this thing.  In order to be able to execute it,  I teach my students to put name to these things, then all of a sudden the concept  becomes tangible. The next thing you want to do is give permission to do this.  You know this is not related to the key but that’s not the point. If you want to sound and do something that is not related to the key that actually gives you dimensional freedom  (then at some point )you need the permission to do this.

NOJ: But you should only employ this dissonance for a specific reason, right?

GM: As a conscientious musician you should do it for a reason.  Then that gets it into a whole different thing. Like when Trane made that choice, was that a conscious deliberate choice? Did he have a reason for doing it? The fact of the matter is that here is this new resource that you have that gives another dimension to the music. I agree I think there should be a reason behind using it. Sometimes it becomes affected, a little like smoke and mirrors. I think the musicians who come in the door and say they want to start, with Herbie( Hancock) and McCoy( Tyner) and Trane. I have to say, you don’t understand, they didn’t start there. If you listen to early McCoy he didn’t sound anything like that. He sounded like cats that were around at the time. He got into his eventual style as an evolutionary thing. When you get right down to it, McCoy is still playing stride piano.

NOJ: I never thought of it that way but your'e right.

GM: He just changes the rhythm. It came out of folks like James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. It just was the next step in the evolutionary process. So you have got to go back and deal with that otherwise you’ll never know where that came from.

NOJ: The history is important for any student of the music.

GM: Oh Yeah. That was the thing for me to figure out, because that component  I didn’t get to that right away. I had my own process to see what those thing, where they came from  and then I could see how to put new ideas into practice. 

In Part Two of this interview we will discuss Mr. Motley's assessment of the state of jazz education, the viability of becoming a jazz musician,  the Atlanta jazz scene and Mr. Motley's latest album titled Departure. You can access Part Two by clicking here.