Satoko Fujii Remembers Paul Bley

One of Paul Bley's former students describes the late jazz pianist's unique teaching style.

Jazz pianist/composer Paul Bley taught at New England Conservatory from 1992 to 2004. Bley died on January 3 at the age of 83. One of his former students, pianist/ composer/ bandleader Satoko Fujii '96 G.D., offers these memories of her time studying with Bley at NEC.

I learned about Paul Bley’s passing through Facebook. These days I get this kind of news first of all through Facebook. I get kind of a strange feeling to see this kind of news listing with other postings, like what people eat for lunch and photos of their pets. The very first post was by a Canadian musician saying, “It might be a hoax. And I hope it is a hoax.” After that I didn't see any posts for one or two days, so I hoped it was a hoax. But unfortunately, I then saw the official message from his daughter reporting his passing through a Canadian journalist on Facebook.

I first met Paul Bley in January 1994. I had graduated from Berklee in 1988 and had a musical career in Japan, but I had lost my musical vision. I didn’t know Paul was teaching at New England Conservatory when I decided to go back to Boston to study there. I was fascinated by Gunther Schuller’s “third stream” concept and went to NEC. I entered the Third Stream department (Contemporary Improvisation) in September 1993. I then found out that Paul Bley was teaching in the jazz department, so I switched to the jazz department in January 1994 because I wanted to study with him.

Taking lessons with him was like a dream for me because I loved his music. I still remember the day of the first lesson. I was practicing Charlie Banacos’s motives in a practice room at NEC. Charlie was another one of my great teachers. Someone knocked on the door. I opened the door and Paul was standing there. He asked me what I was practicing. He was probably interested in the sound of the patterns. I showed him the music and I also introduced myself, “I will be your student. The first lesson is this afternoon.”

I was surprised to find him at the door, but I was more surprised with his lesson in the afternoon and with all his lessons for the next two years. His lessons were nothing like what people expect from music lessons. I think in the 2 years I studied with him we spent less than 2 hours in front of the piano. Most lessons were held in Espresso Royale Café, which is very close to the school. Many times I found that after the talk session I could play something I couldn’t play before even if I had spent 10 years practicing it. Talking to him was like “The scales fall from my eyes.”

I recorded our talking sessions because I didn’t want lose any of his words. After the lesson, I wrote everything down from the tape. I began to realize that I couldn’t do many things because I didn’t think it was possible. And I also began to accept myself.

Before graduation, he told me we could record together—music for two pianos. I was so happy. It was such a big thing that I was recognized by such a great musician and pianist. I made the CD Something about Water from that recording. This was a huge first step for me and gave me a lot of confidence. I also had two-piano duo concerts in Japan as well as one double bill solo concert in Japan and at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. His words always helped me to dig deep within myself as well as to explore the world beyond to find my own voice. Paul Bley helped me to realize that I was capable of far more than I knew.

This is a famous story between the students in NEC while he was there. He always knocked on the piano practice room doors and said, “Don’t practice!” These are not the words you expect to hear from a teacher at a music school. His idea is "Practice makes perfect. Imperfect is better." His musical uniqueness and originality were just like his concepts and his words and his brilliant mind.