Composer, arranger, bandleader, pianist
Carla Bley has been a vital force in the jazz world for more than 30 years. As a musician and composer, her flair for the outrageous and her engaging sense of humor, combined with a profound dedication to her art and audience, have continually placed her on music’s cutting edge. As an entrepreneur in the recording and publishing businesses, her creativity and financial savvy have nurtured the careers of many new artists who, because of their reluctance to conform to set standards of commerciality, found difficulty securing financial support from traditional channels. That she accomplished her success with no formal training—and in a male-dominated field—is proof of her talent and perseverance.
Bley was born Carla Borg in Oakland, California, in 1938. Her mother died when Carla was eight years old, and Bley was raised in a strict religious atmosphere by her father, a choir director and piano teacher. Bley’s earliest musical experiences revolved around the church; as she recalled Contemporary Keyboard, “I spent the first 15 years of my life playing music only for Jesus.” But even in this environment her witty and irreverent approach to music began to take shape. According to an interview in Jazz, she composed “twelve variations on ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ one a march, one a waltz, a polka version, ending up with a dirge and a ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’”
Bley quit school at age 15, worked briefly at a music store, and then moved to New York City, where she found a job as a cigarette girl at the famed Birdland jazz club. In those surroundings she first began seriously listening to jazz, and the influences of the musicians she heard at the time—pianist Thelonius Monk, trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist John Coltrane and many others—can be detected in her compositions and solo improvisations. It was also at Birdland that Bley met her first husband, Canadian pianist Paul Bley. They were married in 1959 and moved back to the West Coast, where they kept company with some of the most important avant-garde jazz musicians of the 1960s, notably saxophonist Ornette Coleman, bassist Charlie Haden, and trumpeter Don Cherry. During this period Bley began composing, mainly through her husband’s prodding. “He’d come in and say, ‘Well, I got a record date tomorrow and I need six hot ones,’” she divulged in Contemporary Keyboard. “I’d sit down and write six of them. I just functioned like that. Instead of cooking the dinner, that would be my job.”
Bley first came to the attention of the general public in the late 1960s. In 1967 vibraharpist Gary Burton recorded
For the Record…
Born May 11, 1938, in Oakland, CA; daughter of Emil Carl Borg (a piano teacher and choir director) and Arlene Anderson (a musician); married Paul Bley (a jazz pianist), 1959 (divorced, 1967); married Michael Mantler (a composer and trumpeter), 1967 (separated); children: Karen. Education: Attended public schools until age 15.
Began composing in the late 1950s, writing pieces for George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre and Paul Bley; cofounded the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra with Michael Mantler, 1964, the nonprofit Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association (JCOA), 1966, and New Music Distribution Service; founded own recording label, Watt, 1973; composed “3/4” for piano and orchestra, 1974, which subsequently premiered in New York City with Keith Jarrett as soloist; toured Europe with the Jack Bruce band, 1975; formed the Carla Bley Band, 1977, and again toured Europe; toured and recorded with the Carla Bley Band, as well as smaller ensembles, during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Awards: Grants from Cultural Council Foundation, 1971 and 1979, and National Endowment for the Arts, 1973; Guggenheim fellow, 1972; seven-time winner of Down Beat’s international jazz critics’ poll; named best composer of the year, Down Beat readers’ poll, 1984.
Addresses: c/o Ted Kurland Associates, 173 Brighton Ave., Boston, MA 02134.
her cycle of pieces, A Genuine Tong Funeral. Two years later Bley provided both arrangements and original compositions for Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, an album celebrating the spirit of the Spanish Civil War. Bley finished a five-year project, Escalator Over The Hill, a kind of surreal opera that she subtitled “a chronotransduction” in 1970. The piece, one of her most ambitious works, was subsequently issued by the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association (JCOA), which Bley cofounded to produce her own work as well as that of other jazz composers.
During the 1970s and 1980s Bley toured extensively with her ten-piece band, a group founded specifically to perform her own music, and she recorded several albums for her own label, Watt. In the early 1990s, while continuing her work as composer and bandleader, Bley also focused on her talents as an improvisor at the piano, both as soloist with her band and in a duet setting with bassist Steve Swallow, with whom she toured extensively in 1988.
Bley’s method of composing and arranging is considered among the most eclectic of all jazz artists. Her work has displayed an instantly recognizable style that combines musical elements of swing, bebop, marches, rock and roll, waltzes, and even German cabaret music. Yet in spite of her unconventional style, she has always remained something of a conservative in her melodies and harmonic structures; as Gary Burton told a Down Beat correspondent, “I know a Carla Bley tune the minute I hear it. It’s direct. It is not complicated. It is not layer upon layer of subtle interaction. It’s very strong melody, very strong harmony, simply constructed. Carla wants her music to hit you square between the eyes.”
Although Bley’s keyboard improvisations are strongly influenced by such jazz pianists as Thelonius Monk and Bill Evans, in many ways her solo work is as striking and individual as her compositional style. Because she received no formal training, she has developed an idiosyncratic method of fingering that produces a unique tone and manner of phrasing. Her improvisations are notable for their economy; she relishes a sense of space while improvising, and the listener has the sense that every single note is meaningful. In fact, Bley once asserted to Down Beat writer Don Palmer, “When I do a solo and when it’s good, there’s a word for every note I play. I speak the solos while I play.”
Although Bley has occasionally made concessions to commercial trends in music—her 1985 album Night Glo would easily fit on the playlists of most adult contemporary radio stations—she has for the most part remained true to her unique musical ideals. Her 1991 release The Very Big Carla Bley Band, for example, features a 15-minute work titled “United States,” in which big band jazz, blues, salsa, polka music, snatches of John Philip Sousa marches, and even “The Star Spangled Banner,” are combined to provide an amazingly cohesive portrait of the 50 states.
Carla Bley’s musical accomplishments alone warrant her acceptance as a crucial figure in modern jazz. Yet her success offstage, as a leader in the intensely competitive music industry, has been equally remarkable and has profoundly affected the careers of many innovative artists. In 1965, along with Austrian musician—and future second husband—Michael Mantler, Bley helped found the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, an ensemble dedicated to the performance of new works by aspiring jazz composers. “The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra was everybody’s band, the community’s band. All the composers who wanted to write for a large orchestra got to write for one,” Bley informed Linda Dahl, author of Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen.
Bley and Mantler subsequently founded the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association—a nonprofit organization that produces, records, and distributes jazz considered too experimental by the major recording companies for the mainstream market—and New Music Distribution Service, a branch of JCOA serving as an umbrella organization that supports more than two hundred independent record companies. The work of these organizations has been financed largely by copyright royalties from Bley’s compositions.
For Bley, these business ventures remain an enormous source of pride. She has been able to lend a hand to fellow struggling artists and also maintain her artistic integrity. As she told Jazz’s Sy Johnson, “I feel proud and sort of like a shining example, mainly because I’m independent. I don’t belong to a stable. I’m not a pet of the recording industry. I put out my own records. We book our own band. I have my own publishing company. I have my own recording studio. Everything I do is totally controlled by me.” It is this fierce self-reliance that has made Carla Bley an innovative and influential figure in American music.
“3/4” (for piano and orchestra), 1975.
Mortelle randonnee (film score), 1985.
A Genuine Tong Funeral, RCA, 1967.
The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, JCOA, 1968.
Charley Haden, Liberation Music Orchestra, Impulse, 1969.
Escalator Over the Hill, JCOA, 1971.
Tropic Appetites, Watt, 1973.
13-3/4, Watt, 1975.
Dinner Music, Watt, 1976.
The Carla Bley Band—European Tour 1977, Watt, 1977.
Music Mecanique, Watt, 1979.
Fictitious Sports, Columbia, 1980.
Social Studies, Watt, 1980.
Carla Bley Live!, Watt, 1981.
The Ballad of the Fallen, ECM, 1983.
Heavy Heart, Watt, 1984.
I Hate to Sing, Watt, 1985.
Night Glo, Watt, 1985.
Duets, Watt 1988.
Fleur Carnivore, Watt, 1989.
The Very Big Carla Bley Band, Watt, 1991.
Dahl, Linda, Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen, Pantheon, 1984.
Placksin, Sally, American Women in Jazz, 1900 to the Present: Their Words, Lives, and Music, Seaview Books, 1982.
Contemporary Keyboard, February 1979.
Down Beat, March 30, 1972; June 1, 1978; August 1984; April 1991.
Jazz, Spring 1978.
New York Times, February 10, 1985.
One of the true freethinkers in the jazz tradition, composer, bandleader, and pianist Carla Bley (born 1938) has gained a moderate-sized but stalwart body of fans on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean since the beginnings of her career in the mid-1960s.
"Great jazz musicians thrive by upsetting expectations, and Carla Bley is no exception," noted Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Chris Waddington. Bley has made her reputation primarily as a composer in a field dominated by instrumentalists. She has drawn on influences ranging from European classical music to tango, and in a jazz era marked by seriousness and modernist ambition, her music has offered elements of humor, satire, and whimsical collage. Largely self-taught and only indirectly a product of the type of long apprenticeship modern jazz musicians tend to serve, Bley had a distinctive style that remained strongly recognizable even to casual listeners over her long career. Though she claimed to dislike the process of improvising, she made a living by touring and issuing live recordings in which her improvisations figured prominently.
Grew Up with Little Supervision
Bley was born Carla Borg In Oakland, California on May 11, 1938. Her parents were fundamentalist Christians who had met at Chicago's Moody Bible Institute. Bley grew up playing the piano and singing in a church choir, but her mother died when she was young, and her father did not maintain her strict upbringing. "I was allowed to stay out all night when I was five years old and he just let me do whatever I wanted," Bley told Richard Wolfson of the Financial Times. "I often didn't go to school; I'd just leave in the morning and go to the zoo." She taped a performance of Erik Satie's extremely offbeat French dance score Parade off the radio, and her tape recorder broke after the music ended. So for a long time that was the only recording she owned.
When she was 12, the formerly religious Bley became an atheist. She had a part-time job as an accompanist to a dance class, but her real passion over the next few years became not music but roller skating, and she notched a seventh-place finish in a statewide competition. She quit school when she was 15 and got a job in a music store. After a few years of working there and playing occasional music gigs, Bley headed for New York City when she was 19. She got jobs as a cigarette girl in several of the city's top jazz clubs, including Birdland and Basin Street. It was at that point that her real musical education began.
Sometimes Bley ignored customers' requests when she was particularly entranced by a solo coming from the stage, but the experience was crucial. On any given night, top talents of the bebop era might be holding forth where Bley was working. Her later music was marked by innovative fusions and collages, but the freedom of bebop improvisation lay at the foundation of her style. "When I started being interested in jazz, the musicians I adored were the black heroes of bebop," she told Duncan Heining of London's Independent newspaper. "When I started out checking European roots, that was quite late in my career, in the Sixties or Seventies. In the beginning, I just loved the beboppers. They were the only ones I knew."
Another benefit from that stint working in New York clubs was her marriage to Canadian-born jazz pianist Paul Bley, who suggested that she write original material for his band. The two spent several years in Los Angeles but returned to New York in the early 1960s. Bley worked as a movie theater usher but then returned to the jazz world, taking a job as a coat check girl at the Jazz Gallery. By that time she had amassed a body of original compositions that interested musicians other than her husband. Trumpeter Art Farmer and clarinetist-saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre were among the top jazz performers who recorded Bley's pieces. She performed on piano at the Phase Two coffee house in the Greenwich Village neighborhood, and the cream of the city's jazz talent might stop by to join her.
Bley and trumpeter Michael Mantler joined several other musicians, including rising saxophonist Archie Shepp, to form the Jazz Composers' Guild Orchestra in 1964. The aim of the group was to provide a forum for new jazz compositions. The group went through several name changes and achieved only modest success on its own, but it proved to be a turning point for Bley in several ways. For one thing, Mantler became her second husband; they two had a daughter, Karen, who went on to become a jazz musician.
For another, the experience confirmed for Bley the importance of operating on her own, with creative control. In the mid-1960s, jazz had a moderate presence on major record labels, and many musicians aimed toward the national and international distribution and marketing that superstars such as John Coltrane enjoyed. But Bley—partly because her music often enjoyed more popularity in Europe than in the U.S.—has mostly issued her music through enterprises of her own. Well in advance of the spate of artists who marketed their own music in the 1990s, she and Mantler formed the Watt Works label in 1973.
Bley's Jazz Composers' Orchestra Association (JCOA), as the Guild Orchestra became known, succeeded in widening the circle of musicians who were familiar with her compositions, and she enjoyed some high-profile recordings in the late 1960s. Vibraphonist Gary Burton recorded Bley's composition cycle A Genuine Tong Funeral with his quartet in 1967, and the record's success made jazz listeners aware of Bley as a name. Bassist and composer Charlie Haden used both Bley's piano and arranging talents on his politically oriented Liberation Music Orchestra LP of 1969, a widely known release around the counterculture of the day.
After working on it for at least five years, Bley finished a large-scale vocal-theatrical work, the surrealistic Escalator Over the Hill, in 1972. Set to texts by poet Paul Haines and originally inspired by the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the work was issued by the JCOA on record but was not performed live until the late 1990s in Europe. Escalator Over the Hill featured contributions from 54 musicians, ranging from pop vocalist Linda Ronstadt to Indian-influenced guitarist John McLaughlin, and drew on an enormous variety of jazz, pop, rock, classical, and historical European styles. Many observers later regarded it as Bley's masterpiece.
Launched Own Ten-Piece Band
The ambitious Escalator Over the Hill got the attention of major arts grant making organizations, and Bley received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1970s. She used the proceeds to put in place the foundations of an independent career, founding and touring with a ten-piece band that performed her own music and beginning to issue recordings on Watt Works and on the ECM label. She composed a second vocal work to texts by Haines, Tropic Appetites.
The late 1970s and early 1980s saw Bley touring frequently in Europe and Japan, where she remained better known than in the United States. "I mean I'm not happy about it, but that's just the truth," Bley told Heining. "I don't work a lot in the States. I don't teach at a school. I don't live in the city, go to parties or anything." She reunited with Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra for The Ballad of the Fallen in 1982.
The highly eclectic nature of Bley's style concealed the fact that in one way it was quite traditional within the tradition of jazz composition: like Duke Ellington, whose music she paradoxically disliked, she was expert at handling the capabilities and individual instruments and instrumentalists. Bley wrote tight arrangements for the six horns in her ten-piece band—a rare talent, and rarer still among musicians with little formal training. Characteristically, Bley downplayed her talent, telling Wolfson that "It doesn't seem hard; I never went to school to learn it [arranging]. I just know what the horns sound like and I have a little book which says how high and how low they can play, and that's about it." She did allow that she paid close attention to her band, telling Waddington that "I like to write for people I know—I think I know what makes these guys sound good and what makes them grow."
Bley maintained her adventuresome spirit in the 1980s and 1990s, branching off constantly in new directions. In 1985 she edged closer to pop music with Night-Glo an album featuring former Gary Burton bassist Steve Swallow; she and Swallow became romantically involved, moved in together, and remained personal and creative partners into the new millennium. She wrote a set of original pieces for classical pianist Ursula Oppens called Romantic Notions in 1988. Despite an initial aversion to the big-band format, Bley broadened her arranging and composition into that arena and enjoyed one of her stronger-selling releases with The Very Big Carla Bley Band in 1990. Typically eclectic, the album ranged from polka and march music to salsa in a 15-minute piece called "United States."
Played in Duo with Swallow
At the same time, Bley began to focus the spotlight on her own piano (and sometimes organ) playing. Often performing with Swallow, she displayed a quirky, often minimal style that had some parallels with that of bebop-era innovator Thelonious Monk. Often minimizing her piano skills ("… it sounds like a two-year-old-child," she told Wolfson), she nevertheless agreed with observers who felt her lack of formal training actually worked to her advantage. "I'm sure it leads to a certain originality, because you don't know what the correct thing to do is," she told Wolfson. "They always say that if you can play it you will play it, so in a way it's good to have a handicap."
With her long blonde hair and matchstick-thin figure, Bley seemed to change little in appearance as she approached senior citizen status, but she never repeated herself musically. In the early 2000s she toured with a quartet called the Lost Chords. Her 2003 big-band album Looking for America seemed to comment on the surge of patriotism that engulfed the U.S. after its invasion of Iraq; Thom Jurek of the All Music Guide praised Bley for what he called "the most bluesed-out version of 'Old MacDonald Had a Farm' in the history of American popular music," noting that "Stan Kenton would have been proud of this arrangement with its funky rhythmic structure, interwoven solos, and bassline harmonic architecture that expands as the tune goes." As of 2005 Bley was at work on a large-scale piece dealing with the career of disabled actor Christopher Reeve.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 8, Gale, 1992.
Financial Times, November 16, 2004.
Independent (London, England), November 16, 1999.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis), June 28, 2003.
"Carla Bley," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 8, 2005).
"Carla Bley Biography," http://www.wattxtrawatt.com.biocarla.htm (December 8, 2005).